Broken Blossoms (1919)

brokenblossomsBroken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl. How do you deal with such a film coming from modern sensibilities of race and romance? It actually turned out to be easier than you would think, but not altogether straightforward. D.W. Griffith is no stranger to racial controversy in his films. because his archetypal Birth of Nation (1915) is known as much for its influence as it is for its depictions of African-Americans and the KKK.

For Broken Blossoms, he places the microscope on Asians and in this case a “Yellow Man” or “Chink” named Cheng. It’s not necessarily a good start, but it’s important to realize the lens and the times this film comes out of. Those terms are offensive and seemingly insensitive to us, but back in the teens, those terms were commonplace. Thus, if we put that aside for a second, it becomes important to look at actual depictions and objectives.

Cheng (Richard Barthelmess), who was indeed portrayed by a white actor, is characterized as a peaceful and kind individual looking to live in harmony with his fellow man. Bruising boxer and abusive father, Battling Burrows, is our obvious antagonist and the complete opposite of Cheng. It’s not simply a clash of race, but of temperaments, and kindness versus hate. The First Lady of Cinema Lillian Gish plays Burrow’s long-suffering daughter Lucy to perfection. I cannot remember the last time I had so much pity for a single character because with every close-up or piece of body language, Gish seems to suggest her horrible plight. She is so sweetly demure and yet so much tragedy is placed in her path.  As an audience, we cannot help but have compassion for her like Cheng. Her father constantly expects her to perform housekeeping duties and beats her whenever he pleases. In a sense, Cheng is her savior, but Burrows isn’t too happy about that.  The idea that there could be any type of love between his daughter and this “Chink” is out of the question.

brokenblossoms1I suppose in a sense this is a love story and we want both these characters to be happy. One inter-title says of Cheng: “The beauty that all Limehouse missed smote him in the heart.” It’s a beautiful line and suggests the wonderful connection that these two seem to have. Although the dream loses a little of its charm when Gish’s character calls her suitor “Chinky.” It was in this moment where I stopped feeling sorry for simply Gish, but also her character. She seems like a girl like Mayella from To Kill a Mockingbird, who is bred with racism and yet she becomes so lonely in the process. All the abuse leaves her empty and searching for something. In that case, her only outlet was wrongly-accused mockingbird, Tom Robinson. In this case, it’s Cheng, the only person who seems to see Lucy Burrows differently.

I cannot speak for others but I can forgive Broken Blossoms for some of it’s more unfortunate moments and I’m sure Birth of a Nation would require a lot more dialogue. There are certainly numerous outdated, rudimentary views here from Southern-bred director D.W. Griffith. But I think if we look at the bigger picture, this is a film that attempts to point out evil and bring to light a little beauty even if it comes from an Asian and a defenseless young girl. I not sure what to make of it. Can we call it a clear-cut interracial love story? Maybe, but perhaps that’s not the biggest issue. This is a film that tries to move its audiences by evoking emotion and deriving pity for its protagonists. It’s a far more intimate portrait than Griffith had done before. On that level, Broken Blossom succeeds.

4/5 Stars

Intolerance (1916)

800px-Intolerance_(film)His ambitious follow-up to The Birth of the Nation a year before, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance boasts four narrative threads meant to intertwine in a story of grand design. Transcending time, eras, and cultures, this monumental undertaking grabs hold of some of the cataclysmic markers of world history. They include the fall of Babylon, the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Christ, along with the persecution of the Huguenots in France circa the 16th century.

The stories are stitched together and become only a few touchstones in a contemporary tale of a young man and woman battling against the bleak world around them. The Dear One must try and recover her child from the clutches of a society crippled by corruption, while her husband must battle against a criminal past that looks to ruin his life forever. Each setting has its lulls and crescendos that fluctuate between the mundane and the overtly bleak.

Although some of the religious undertones are somewhat simplistic they still have some resounding power in their successive notes. A Christ subjected to the crucifixion sent there by hypocritical Pharisees. A mother crying to God that she might recover her child because the corrupt and evil seem to be having their way with her. These are the low points of despair. But just as Babylon fell at the hand of Cyrus the Great, our hero The Boy escapes the business end of the hangman’s noose literally by a matter of seconds. It’s perhaps the most intense and ultimately gratifying moment in a film that runs the gamut emotionally.

The film’s four arcs are certainly not in equal parts or equal in impact, but nevertheless, they suggest the complex plotting that Griffith was attempting to experiment with and it’s still quite impressive even by today’s standards. He takes such a broad, universal theme like intolerance and gives it legs in the form of a story that crosses time and space, cultures and languages to really meet all people where they are at. I will stop short of calling it overlong, because Intolerance is one of the truly epic films out there, and while it’s possible to lose a bit of the film’s cohesion, it nevertheless is an impressive endeavor.

So perhaps it’s true that he made the film due to people’s criticism of The Birth of the Nation — though it seems rightly justified. Still, even to this day, the film stands as an emblem of something more and perhaps the best “sequel” to a film of such a dubious nature. It cannot cover up for the sins of the former film, but it can certainly overshadow them. History has looked kindly on Intolerance and if it is not more widely known than its predecessor than it certainly deserves to be.

You could argue that D.W. Griffith was the first person to really explore the language that is film, as a mode of artistic expression. Because, although it may have cleaned Griffith out and ended up an unfulfilled commercial flop, there is no doubt that this colossal silent left an indelible mark on the industry. Perhaps Hollywood took note and began to turn away from the single-minded vision of auteurs in favor of a regimented machine that churned out a commercial product. That ‘s the Classic Hollywood period for you. However, Griffith perhaps unwittingly created many of the rules and dimensions that Hollywood would take to heart and systematically put to work in its future works. Furthermore, a case can be made that Griffith also set the groundwork for European cinema that often gave birth to loftier, more artistically inspired works altogether. Thus, the influence of Griffith cannot be understated. He was vastly important to the medium of film as we now know it.

4.5/5 Stars