Broken Blossoms

D.W. Griffith's 1919 film Broken Blossoms was the first silent movie that I ever saw. I had seen bits and pieces of silent films before, but I never sat down to watch one all the way though. I think I rented it and watched it for a film history class, the first one that I ever took. My boyfriend was over today and he sat down to watch this with me, admitting that he had never seen a whole silent movie before until now.

The story of the movie was quite liberal for it's time. Lucy lives at home with her abusive father, Battling Burrows. He beats her and screams at her constantly for no reason, and she straggles about the streets of foggy London on her own. She meets Cheng Huan, a Chinese man who came to London to spread the message of peace and Buddhism. Cheng falls in love with Lucy, seeing her as beautiful and kind. It's a sad story as well, with only a little happiness when Lucy is with Cheng. For the viewer these are the only happy moments, as they are for Lucy.

D.W. Griffith is best known for his film Birth of a Nation, which many people hate for it's racism, but is an important film which gave rise to modern editing. The style of this movie is much different - it is smaller and more intimate, with lots of closeups and delicate shots. The version I watched was tinted, like the DVD box pictured above says. Scenes at night were blue tinted, and scenes with Cheng have a soothing, sweet pink glow. The actors conveyed their emotions really well and very clearly, but the color tinting adds a nice touch, making the emotional arcs more obvious.

It's hard to watch this movie today without noting the racism in it, still. Cheng is played by a Caucasian actor, and the title cards use racial slurs to describe him. In his essay on this movie, Ebert writes, "Marriage between the races was a crime in 1919, and so we see Cheng's face in closeup, looming closer to Lucy as if he wishes to kiss her, and then pulling away as the subtitles assure us of his pure intentions. Battling, of course, thinks the Yellow Man has had his way, but the girl cries out, "T'ain't nothing wrong!" Griffith intrigues his audience with the possibility of exotic sex, and then cuts to moralizing titles" (The Great Movies, 96). Griffith was trying to make a less racist film after complaints against Birth of  Nation. It's really hard to see the plot as being liberal or "less racist" at all, but the fact is that this was probably one of the first films to ever show an interracial love story, although highly idealized.

The biggest issue with watching this movie is how dated it feels. It's hard to watch. Ebert writes about this problem, explaining that "Although the best silent comedy remains timeless and many silent films remain undated, melodrama such as "Broken Blossoms" seems old-fashioned to many viewers. Watching it involves an act of cooperation with the film--even active sympathy. You have to imagine how exotic such stories once seemed, how the foggy streets of Limehouse and the broadly drawn characters once held audiences enthralled" (The Great Movies, 97). It's easy for modern viewers to sit back and laugh along with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. It's harder to watch the slow, quiet, subtle movies like this. It's harder to understand the shock of an interracial love story.

But if you can stick with it, it's worth it. The plot is outdated, yes, but it shows how movies can help cause social change, helping people to become less afraid of other races and lifestyles. It's important to see our history and understand it, even if we are uncomfortable with it at times. We have come so far from the days of Broken Blossoms, and historical movies like this can help us see how much we have changed, and how possible change is. It's for sure not a "break out the popcorn" kind of movie, but if you are ever feeling pensive, it's worth a watch. It's beautiful to look at, and if you can consider the historical context, a good story.

Have any of you seen this movie? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Broken Blossoms
Clip from the movie


Bride of Frankenstein