Archive for the ‘1910s’ Category

Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919)

What “Broken Blossoms” basically amounts to is a silent mega-melodrama that is just hideously outdated, with the Asian stereotypes, the obvious sets, the melodramatic/expressionistic acting (especially from the goofy ogre that is Battling Burrows), the intertitles (“I’ll learn yer!”).  Even attempts to preach peace between the races and acceptance of minorities (no doubt Griffith’s attempt to appease his critics after “The Birth of a Nation”) end up being insulting.  The Asian Buddhists are represented as the utmost advocates of peace, to the point of either being comical wet noodles or helpless opium addicts.  Our hero, “The Yellow Man” (no comment), is both.  He’s a man of good intentions, in love with the helpless Lucy, and yet whose opium vice, goal of teaching peace to the savage Anglo-Saxons, and pure / non-sexual infatuation with Lucy are both admirable and, probably unintentionally, an insultingly simple piece of stereotyping.  Add to that the fact that the Yellow Man is played by a white man, and there’s your hypocrisy staring you in the face.

Like I said, it’s such a simple and outdated film, and yet I don’t regret watching it for a second.  One factor stayed with me so much and was so affecting, so resonant, so not out-dated, that it almost ascends this incredibly outdated silent melodrama to masterpiece level.  That factor is Lillian Gish.  Has there ever been an actress, silent or not, who’s been able to so effectively tug at the heart-strings with facial expression alone?  A few nights ago I rewatched “The Night of the Hunter”, released 36 years after “Broken Blossoms”, and I marveled at the ability of Lillian Gish to so brilliantly portray the tough and no-nonsense yet incredibly loving grandmother-like figure to the orphan children, who with one skeptical facial expression told you that she wasn’t taking any of the sinister “Reverend” Powell’s crap.  Rewind back to “Broken Blossoms,” where that hard-nosed grandmother is now a scared, voiceless, and pathetically innocent young girl: the polar opposite of Gish’s role in “The Night of the Hunter,” yet a performance just as appropriate to convince us that she is who she’s playing.  Here, Gish’s performance is just as melodramatic as any other in the film, so that you could say it’s “unrealistic”, but with how emotionally resonant it is, who gives a fuck?  The first time you see those pathetically forlorn eyes as she gazes up in fear at her abusive “gorilla” of a father Battling Burrows and uses her fingers to force a smile onto her face, you can’t help but feel for this poor creature.  Realism this is not; it’s sadness in its purest form – a sadness that no soliloquy or dialogue could ever convince us of.  Aside from that, what Lillian Gish excelled at in this film alone was being the victim, especially when being tended to by the Yellow Man (I’ll even forgive her and whoever wrote those damn intertitles for the rather unfortunate line that goes something along the lines, “Why are you so kind to me, Chinky?”) as she lay exhausted from constant physical abuse.  That victim persona of course probably doomed the portrayal of women on film as weak for years to come, but when it’s done so convincingly, how can I criticize?  Never is that victim thing more obvious than the famous closet scene.  Shades of “The Shining” abound as a ferocious Battling Burrows axes his way through the door, but could a movie possibly show terror in its purest form better than Gish shows in that closet?  The bulging eyes, the screams and pleading for her father to stop, the running in circles – it’s what you’d find under the dictionary’s definition of expressionistic acting.  Again, hardly realistic in any way, but damned if the girl didn’t have her acting chops, and I really felt like I was trapped in that closet too.  For such an old movie with such an outdated worldview, leave it to a tiny, waif-like girl to carry that movie’s entire emotional resonance on her back (with apologies to the awful supporting characters around her, namely the very awkward-looking Yellow Man, silly ol’ Battling Burrows, and the aptly named Evil Eye 😛 ).  Forget all the cheesy “they’ll hang yer!”‘s or “tain’t nothing wrong!”‘s, because Gish’s face alone was able to speak thousands upon thousands of words that those awful intertitles couldn’t.