Broken Blossoms (1919)

casey OUR FIRST MOVIE: Broken Blossoms, by D.W. Griffiths. The same guy who did Birth of a Nation. Which I haven’t seen, but I’m assured it’s quite racist.

brooke Not unlike this movie!

casey This one was pretty racist too, but I think more in the “it was 1919 and we’ll give them points for trying” kind of way.

brooke Honestly, I expected it to be a lot more racist when the opening title card informed the audience that we were about to witness the goings on of a Chinese marketplace. Then I was impressed when the entire marketplace was made up of Asian actors… except for the main character…

casey Apparently based on a short story called “The Chink and the Child.” So, umm… how about you give a quick rundown of what we just saw?

brooke So, it starts off with a Buddhist only named “The Yellow Man” who feels inspired to share the teachings of Buddha with Western people (who is a white guy in yellowface). He moves to London, but soon learns that the world isn’t as beautiful as he once believed it to be. Then we meet Battling Burrows, a local boxer and alcoholic, and his daughter Lucy, who is often on the receiving end of Battling’s rage. The Yellow Man admires Lucy from afar because she is the only beautiful thing in all of London (very poetic, no?). She stumbles one day in the doorway of The Yellow Man’s shop because of her bruises from Battling and The Yellow Man takes her in and helps her get better. When Battling finds out that his daughter has been receiving care and staying with a Chinese man, he heads there in a rage. He takes his daughter home and beats her to the point that she dies, and The Yellow Man follows Battling and kills him after finding Lucy dead. He takes Lucy’s body back to his shop and kills himself.

casey And there’s some very chaste romance going on in the scenes with Lucy in the Yellow Man’s shop. Which, if I understand, would’ve been pretty damned bold for the time, when interracial marriage was illegal in a lot of the US.
And by chaste romance, I mean, literally, he almost kissed her, and then he held her hand.
and that’s it
that and the wistful glances

brooke So many wistful glances
I can’t leave out my favorite line from Lucy: “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?”

broken-blossoms

casey IT WAS 1919 OKAY

brooke Still, pretty progressive for the day?
I loved the title cards
They were all so poetic, unless Lucy or Battling was speaking
In which cases you end up with sentences like, “I’ll learn yer!”

casey Yeah, you could tell Griffith wanted those cards to carry a lot of emotion. I think to modern jaded people like us it comes off pretty heavy-handed, but it makes me wonder how it would’ve been received when it was released
also
can we talk about Battling Burrows

brooke Yes please
What’s your overall reaction to Battling?

casey He was great
like a guy doing a De Niro impression 50 years before De Niro was a thing

brooke It was definitely distracting for his first few scenes
He even looked quite a bit like De Niro

casey Like, if you haven’t watched the movie and you’re just reading this, it’s worth it just to see his facial expressions.

Pasted image at 2016_01_03 09_01 PM

brooke That dramatic close up was probably the best moment of the film
Especially paired with the dramatic close up of Lucy played by Lillian Gish

1-screen-shot-2013-02-02-at-4-41-49-pm

casey Yes! Most of the film felt very stage-y, but those scenes were the most interesting in terms of cinematography. The Yellow Man himself doesn’t work nearly as well nowadays. It’s one of those things where the film shows its age. I imagine it’s hard to emote when you’re a white dude in yellowface half-squinting throughout the film.

brooke The makeup they put on him to make his eyes look more Asian was very distracting

1-Pasted image at 2016_01_03 09_07 PM

Athough, I must admit all the costumes were beautiful and very convincing
Probably one of my favorite moments of the whole film comes from a short exchange between two Christian preachers and The Yellow Man. One preacher points to the other and proudly tells The Yellow Man that his brother is traveling to China the following day to “teach the heathens”
Which was exactly The Yellow Man’s purpose in moving to London
They each brush each other’s beliefs off when they could probably have helped each other out by sharing right then and there…
Of course, by this point The Yellow Man is extremely jaded with life in London and wasn’t exactly trying to convert anyone anymore…

casey Opium addiction and all.

brooke So what are your big takeaways from this film, and would you recommend it?

casey The biggest takeaway, I think, is more of a meta-level thing: as a modern viewer, you’ve got to try and watch the movie how it might have been seen on its release. Otherwise, it’s easy to sit back and laugh at the racism and sexism that might have been invisible at the time. Sort of makes you wonder what movie watchers will think in 100 years watching, like, The Avengers or something. OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY USED A GIANT GREEN MAN THAT’S SO [whatever thing we’re doing that we don’t know is offensive yet].
Overall, I liked it in a “this movie is old and you’ve got to reset your expectations” kind of way. Not likely to make my best ever list, but worth a watch for anyone interested in silent films and melodrama. How about you?

brooke IMHO, I think the big idea of the film is that beauty is out there, but it is fragile. Throughout the movie, Lucy admires flowers that she can’t afford to buy, and even though The Yellow Man buys her some in the end, she has been taken by her father before he gets the chance to present them to her. Both Lucy and The Yellow Man find beauty–she in flowers and he in Buddhism–but neither gets the chance to do what they want most. Lucy never gets her flowers, and as far as we know, The Yellow Man never finds a single convert. They are each broken by the hard world in which they live and even their innocent relationship is broken when rage enters the picture. It’s a sad story, but it’s not unrealistic.
I would recommend it to anyone who has the patience for silent film, but I know it’s not for everyone.

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4 comments

  1. Allan Davis · January 9, 2016

    I wonder how much the thwarted romance resonated with either the Uncle Tom/Little Eva salvation narrative or the asexual Chinaman stereotype. They don’t kiss, but is it because the close, physical intimacy is not erotic or romantic but instead spiritually altering in which the purity of the young white woman fundamentally changes the Yellow Man (or other such non-white character) … or is it because ultimately the Chinaman is himself nonsexual–initially perceived as threat but reframed as neutered. They won’t kiss because she changes him or they can’t kiss because he’s inherently incapable of taking things further? This is to say my guess is that the film would not likely had progressive impulses to stage possible miscegenation, but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t have the impulse to approach the subject matter of potential sexuality.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: City Lights (1931) | Brooke and Casey At The Movies
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