Oh boy. This one is gonna be rough. The next entry in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies is D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. Aside from being one of the pioneers of the feature film format, Griffith is probably best known for The Birth of a Nation, a movie heavily derided for its racist depiction of African Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith learned his lesson after that one, making films like Intolerance and Broken Blossoms, which attempt to show a more accepting view of other ethnicities.
Here’s the thing about Broken Blossoms – while the movie is admirable in desire to show the Chinese culture in a positive light, its abundant use of yellow face kind of cancels out all of that good will. The plot of the film (unfortunately subtitled “The Yellow Man and the Girl“) in brief: a young Chinese spiritualist, Cheng Huan (a decidedly white Richard Barthelmess), travels to London, hoping to bring with him the peaceful tenants of Buddhism. Instead he is met with brutality and indifference. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Lucy (Lillian Gish) searches for her own place in this gritty society in between beatings from her boxer father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). Cheng sees potential for gentility in Lucy – it’s just a matter of whether or not it is too late to help her cultivate it in her current situation.
I know it is not entirely fair of me to fault the film for production aspects that are only so deplorable in hindsight. I did try to view the movie in its original context, and a found a feature that was exceedingly well-made. Griffith’s innovative directing is always present, as is his creative touch with the editing, used to great effect in conveying the emotional states of both Cheng and Lucy. And the performances by Barthelmess and Gish are similarly strong. Despite stereotypically stopped posture and heavy eyelids, Barthelmess manages to play Cheng with a certain amount of dignity. And Gish shows the audience so much with only her wide eyes and body language.
That physicality is one of the greatest strengths of the silent film era. Look, I’m not one of those guys who is going up claim that the artform peaked with silent film – the advent of talkies greatly advanced what could be done on screen, particularly when it comes to characterization – but there was a level of commitment to a character’s entire body that we don’t often see in present day movies stars. Outside of your Joaquins Phoenix and your Christians Bale, you really don’t see most actors go all the way for a role.
But while viewing Broken Blossoms, whenever I was willing to get on board with Griffith, something would happen to shake me loose. Just when I’m getting used to Barthelmess as Cheng, we meet another white guy in Chinese makeup, and this one is named Evil Eye (Edward Peil Sr.). And once the movie gets me to a point where I can almost forgive that, Lucy goes ahead and calls Chen “chinky.”
I’m not sure what the cultural atmosphere was like in the late 1910’s regarding Chinese immigrants (and I really can’t be bothered to do any research), but I have no doubt Broken Blossoms was considered rather progressive in its time. Griffith’s seemingly good intentions are commendable – and it’s really nothing compared to something like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – but it is still a little troubling to take in almost 100 years later. Broken Blossoms is impressive on a lot of levels, but “proving-that-D.W.-Griffith-was-racially-sensitive” is not one of them.