D.W. Griffith silent melodrama, Broken Blossoms, is an early demonstration of the beauty to be found in the silent era. There’s a tendency to think that beauty in films comes from the images and that the really grand and artistic stuff is to be found in the color era. Not only does this disregard many of the breathtaking black and white pictures, but it also assumes that all film has going for it is the images. D.W Griffith is perhaps the key founder of narrative filmmaking and he uses the power of narrative in film to shape a truly beautiful film in Broken Blossoms.
Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) is a Buddhist priest that believes in peace and harmony among men and plans to spread this message of Buddha to those in London. Yet he can’t even instill peace in those European soldiers in his own native country. In spite of this failure he goes, only to break upon the hard shores of reality in London. Left as one of societies lowest classes he runs a small store of orient artifacts. The only glimmer in his harsh life is in seeing Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) walk by his story every day.
Lucy is the daughter of Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), a prize fighter with a taste for whisky and women. His manager disapproves and is often railing on him about his drinking and his fast and loose girlfriend. Battling takes it out on Lucy, using her as his punching bag whenever he gets angry. This leaves her dirty, broken and hopeless, a creature on the fringe of society. Yet beneath the muck and bruises are glimmers of beauty, the glimmers that catch Cheng eye.
The film is very much a melodrama in the classical Hollywood sense. Today melodrama is a dirty word, associated with over the top scenarios and crass emotional manipulations. While Broken Blossoms is a heightened drama and it has its emotional moments it’s of a different flavor of melodrama. Silent era melodramas have a kind of poetry to them and the events that take place have much of an artistic beauty as an emotional impact.
For instance, the father asks for his daughter to give him a smile, but she discovers she can’t because she has nothing to smile about, she tries to force one, pulling up the corners of her mouth. It sounds corny–it kind of is–but there is something poetic about her inability to smile. And the film repeats this event as a kind of emotional timing for the picture as she attempts to smile.
And what Broken Blossoms is about is very much rooted in the poetical. It’s about the frailty of beauty. Lucy is the broken blossom, something beautiful, yet very frail. As she wobbles through the streets of London there’s the sense that at any moment she might fall and break, like a china doll. Her only sense of identity is hidden, tucked beneath a brick. It’s a small package with only three things: a ribbon, a piece of silk and a letter from her mother. When her father is out she takes out the package and runs the silk across her face, savoring the feeling. And daringly she one day ties the ribbon in her hair before going out. It makes poetical sense that such a frail creature would cherish such frail and light items.
Broken Blossoms for all its poetical craft contains many of the pitfalls of the silent era. For one, many of the scenes smack of studio setting. The orient scenes that open the film in particular are not always as cleverly crafted as they could be. Another point of contention for the modern audience will be the acting. Silent acting has a tendency to look a bit flamboyant and overdramatic to the modern audience and Broken Blossoms is no exception. Still, the performances can’t help but be powerful, especially Lillian Gish. The last flaw is one common to a majority of silent films, the reliance on intertitles. At least half of the intertitles are told in the images.
Yet it seems almost petty to call out these things. They are almost like the marks of an era. It’s like the convections of the genre; they shape the films and are part of their identity. Regardless of whether or not they should be seen as flaws, they in no way hamper from the film’s end result. Broken Blossoms is beautiful, not in its cinematography or aesthetic look but in the simplicity of its narrative and poetry of its images.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing