starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp
August, 1919

It is trite, of course, to repeat that David Wark Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" marks an epoch in the march of the photoplay. Nearly every one has pronounced this verdict, but the fact must be stated again.

"Broken Blossoms" reveals something of what will be the photoplay of the future. For the screen drama of tomorrow is to be a blending of the art of the dramatist, the painter - and the poet. "Broken Blossoms" is just this.

Since the first animated picture we have had the methods of the stage applied to the screen. Bald stories they have been, in the main, with here and there a flash of splendid dramatic suspense, of fine spectacular effects and of superb beauty of photography. But the thing that was to differentiate the stage and the screen has been slow in coming. Distant flashes had appeared, it is true, but the poetry of the camera has never been really plumbed.

"Broken Blossoms" reveals a lyric quality we have long dreamed for the photoplay, but never discovered. There are other splendid qualities to "Broken Blossoms," but it is because of this alone that we place the production as a milestone of the screen. Indeed, at moments Mr. Griffith makes the camera fairly sing.

So it is not because of its technical advances, its fine handling of a relentless tragedy, its philosophy, indeed, its moving spiritual vein, that we rate "Broken Blossoms" so highly. It is because Mr. Griffith has at last revealed what the film camera will do - tomorrow and in the days to come.

We have frequently lamented what we consider Mr. Griffith's weakness - a lack of literary discrimination, which , it seemed to us, left his work without a real foundation. "Broken Blossoms," however, has an excellent literary distinction. It is adapted from Thomas Burke's story, "The Chink and the Child," of his book, "Limehouse Nights." Mr.Burke is an able writer who has set out to paint the London of today as did Dickens of yesterday.

Limehouse is the slum of London, where "East meets West" and the Hindus, the Siamese, the Chinamen and the negro mingle with the Caucasian in the leveling gambling and drinking riverfront dives where the swirling fogs of the Thames rise up to hide the hell of it all. To Limehouse has drifted the Yellow Man, a young Chinaman who, fired with zeal, some years before left his native land to bring the message of the Orient to the struggling, blood-mad white man. But the yellow idealist has reckoned without things as they are, and his collision with sordid realities of Limehouse has left him dulled and sickened, but still hearing the old call of his temple bells of far-off China.

The Yellow Man keeps a little shop in Limehouse. One day the daughter of a brutal cockney prize-fighter falls in a faint across his threshold, fresh from a beating administered by her parent. Now the dreaming Yellow Man has long watched this waif of Limehouse from afar and, in his still idealistic eyes, she is something of a flower growing in the mire. So, all unmindful of consequences, he lifts the unconscious girl and carries her to a sanctuary above this shop. There he gently dresses her bruises, gives her gay Oriental robes, decks his room in honor of the visiting goddess and worships. Thru the little drudge's undeveloped mind runs derisive laughter, then a bit of fear and ultimately an acceptance of this sudden invasion of quaint Eastern heaven. Finally she even comes to smile.

But her happiness is not for long, for the bully father, fresh from a triumph in the prize ring, hears that his daughter "has taken up with a Chink." He sets out to avenge his family and racial honor and rushes to the shop when, by chance, the Yellow Man is absent. He wrecks the rooms and drags away the girl. Once at home, he kills her in his wrath. Then returns the Oriental. He follows the brute to his lair, desperately resorts to the terrifying means of vengeance by which the beauty of his life had been destroyed, shoots the murderer and then carries the dead girl back to his shattered room. He rearranges the torn silken robes, sets up his smashed altar to Buddha - and kills himself. So "Broken Blossoms" ends with the police, the personification of misunderstanding materialism, just forcing their way into the Yellow Man's shop. But, in vague outline, we see a mystic ship drifting eastward down the river of souls.

Critics have said that "Broken Blossoms" is brutal and even depressing. The note of brutality did not touch us, we must admit. To us the idealism and the spirituality of the theme far overtopped the mere physical side. It is, as some one has said, as a flower unfolding, as delicate as incense smoke. Only the beautiful and the spiritual seem real; the slums and the brutality are as of an unreal land of materialism. Mr. Griffith has told Mr. Burke's story with the lyric quality of the poet. There are subtitles that are golden gems of direct, finely conceived expression. There are scenes that are living paintings, in their light and shade and balance.

"Broken Blossoms" is the best acted photoplay we ever saw. (A broad statement, but nevertheless true!) Lillian Gish is the waif of Limehouse. At once vivid and gentle, pathetic and wistful, Miss Gish gives a performance of the little girl, "with age-old eyes" that is unforgettable. And - when she hides herself in the closet to escape her father's final wrath - she presents a picture of passionate fear realized so realistically that it tears at the heart like a hungry wolf. Richard Barthelmess is admirable as the Yellow Man - indeed, superb in moments. Here is the dreamer of the East almost broken before the realities of life, painted with strokes of splendid subtlety and restraint. And Donald Crisp as the brute, Battling Burrows! Smug, brutally degenerate, vainglorious, Crisp makes Battling a hated figure, relentless in its power.

For the moment we have neglected to speak of the technical advances of "Broken Blossoms." Mr. Griffith is making more extended use of the idealistic close-up of vague out-of-focus photography. Here, it seems, is just what the close-up needed to rob it of its material beaded eyelash and painted lip revelations. Mr. Griffith resorts to it with tremendous effect in handling Miss Gish's scenes where Battling breaks down the closet door to reach her.

Mr. Griffith is using living colors - palpitating blues, pale bronzes, hot golds and a vivid rose - to aid the dramatic moods of his photoplay. And how singularly effective it is! Who knows but what mood colors may ultimately fill the void left by the human voice?

We might go on endlessly talking of "Broken Blossoms." It is, for instance, the initial production of the screen's first repertoire season in New York and other cities. It is the screen's first tragedy. We have had stories with "unhappy endings," but "Broken Blossoms," with its inevitable tale of passions, clashing prejudices and brutal forces, marches with the steady, inexorable tread of a Greek tragedy.

Return to reviews page