Broken Blossoms: Some Casual Racism and a Little Light Murder

Come join me as I watch Broken Blossoms, one of DW Griffith's desperate attempts to prove to the world that he wasn't racist after 1915's Birth of a Nation (also on this list).

You just...keep working on that, buddy.  You'll get there someday.

The Yellow Man (as he is referred to with such frequency that I don't actually know the character's name) was a young, idealistic Chinese man, who journeyed to London, planning on converting the Western World to Buddhism.  Wow, good luck with that one, man.  Years later, he's a shopkeeper with all the depression and utterly crushed hopes of a man who has 100% failed at what he set out to accomplish in life.  He frequents an opium den to try and numb the pain (because he's a Chinese and apparently smoking opium is like their number 1 pastime).

Meanwhile, there's a downtrodden little girl (is she actually a little girl?  Or mid-teens?  It's hard to tell with Lillian Gish, her on-camera age range is like 9-28) wandering around the East End, trying to avoid her drunken, abusive father.  Mr Chinese Man has admired her from afar, but never actually interacted with her.  Until one day her father beats her so badly that she stumbles away from the house and winds up passed out in the doorway of the gentle Chinese man's shop.  He carries her up to his apartment and takes care of her.  Dawwww...

Unfortunately, one of her dad's friends happens to stop by the shop and find her there.  Daddy's not too happy that his little girl is having (assumed) illicit relations with a "Yellow Man".  While the doting nursemaid is out buying flowers for Lucy, Daddy shows up and drags his daughter back home.  Terrified, she hides in the closet, but he breaks the door down with an axe and beats her savagely.  Our friend from China finds her dead body, shoots her father, and then goes home and stabs himself to death.

I know.

Random Musings:

  • Three seconds into the film, I discover that the full title is Broken Blossoms, Or The Yellow Man and the Girl.  Oh boy, this is going to be appallingly racist, isn't it?

  • OK, so I've accepted the fact that we have a white man playing Asian, whatever, it was a different time, there weren't that many Asian actors, etc, etc.  But does he need to be referred to as the Yellow Man in every single title card?  Doesn't he have a name or something?  I have to hand it to them makes perfect sense to me that if you were looking for someone who could pass for Asian, you'd definitely go with Richard Barthelmess.  Every day of the week and twice on Sundays. 

    The very first recorded emo bang?

  • So apparently in this neighborhood you can use tinfoil as money?

  • As much as I give DW Griffith shit for being racist, mostly it's just because he's an easy target.  Overall I think he stays away from most offensive Asian--

... ... ...

  • Trust Lillian Gish to play the abused, broken little girl.  She's got this way of walking and holding herself that makes her seem so tiny and like she's just hoping that no one will notice her.

  • OMG she has to use her fingers to push her lips up into a smile that is the saddest thing I've ever heard.

  • I don't mean to be the person who has to make everything awkward and dirty, but the whole movie I was really questioning how old Lillian Gish is supposed to be playing.  It's a legitimate question, because a lot of times in silent movies they have fully grown women who are playing little girls. this guy a bad bad man for having a crush on her, or is she supposed to be an immature 17, 18, 19 year old?

  • And finally, just because I find it amusing:

Barthelmess and Gish, Broken Blossoms, 1919
Barthelmess and Gish, Way Down East, 1920

This is probably one of the earliest films to depict or even hint at an interracial relationship.  That's sort of the paradox of DW Griffith - he was so far ahead of his time in some ways, but in other aspects he's very rigidly stuck in the early years of the twentieth century.  Yes, this movie is racist, yes, it has some pretty unfortunate stereotypes and cringeworthy racial language.  

Despite this, there's something about the storytelling that makes this (along with many other Griffith films) a reasonably watchable movie from the silent era.  Lillian Gish is, as usual, miles ahead of most silent film actors in terms of technique, and the scenes where she's being beaten are actually pretty difficult to watch.  Richard Barthelmess turns in a good performance for what it is.  And I do give the film some brownie points for going somewhere most movies wouldn't have had the guts to even try.

That's it for me, come back on Monday for The Piano.  Thanks for reading!

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