Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919): USA
Reviewed by Byron Potau. Viewed on DVD.
In 1919, D.W. Griffith decided to take a break from the epics he was making to film Broken Blossoms, a warm and charming tale on a much smaller canvas than he had worked previously.
The film centers around the triangle created by the young Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), the sadistic boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), and his abused daughter Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish). Cheng comes to London’s Limehouse District as an idealist hoping to spread the word of Buddha, only to become disillusioned and sink into opium addiction. Battling Burrows is a boxer with a tendency to take his anger out on his fragile daughter Lucy, who does her best not to upset him. Usually, this is impossible as he is often looking to find an excuse to beat her and release his pent up rage. She is hardly a daughter to him and is treated more like an animal or slave. After a particularly brutal beating she wanders into Cheng’s shop and collapses. He nurses her back to health and falls in love with her. But when word gets back to Battling Burrows that she has been staying at Cheng’s shop, the results are disastrous.
In spite of some overly sentimental lines, and the cringe inducing moments when Lucy calls Cheng “Chinky,” the film is a touching, well told story and solid example of the silent film era.
It has been well noted, and deservedly so, that Gish gives a most brilliant performance as the frightened, fragile Lucy. From putting a smile on her face with her fingers to her famed closet scene filled with fear and panic, she is thoroughly magnificent. However, I don’t believe enough credit has been given to Donald Crisp over the years for his terrifying performance as Battling Burrows. Where another actor might have played Burrows as just another heavy, Crisp and director Griffith make him more real by avoiding the heavy role clichés and focusing attention on the things that stir his anger as well as the pleasures he takes in life. The beatings he dishes out are senseless, but we know how he got to that point. Richard Barthelmess does a convincing job as Cheng despite playing to all the stereotypes of a Chinaman.
Lastly, cinematographer Billy Bitzer’s use of natural lighting in the Limehouse District outdoor scenes is very effective. Broken Blossoms remains an endearing classic of the silent era.