Select Page

Possibly the cinema’s first interracial love story, depicting a humble Chinese immigrant shopkeeper as the lover (albeit platonic), savior, and avenger of a girl who is fleeing an abusive father.  A beautiful film with indelible images, mostly due to Lillian Gish’s portrayal of the fragile young woman abused by her brutal guardian.  Gish might arguably be the first “method” actress for the way she immersed herself in her roles.  Her performance here is achingly genuine, her supreme sadness, her tears, the way she pushes the edges of her mouth up with her fingers because it is the only way she can make herself smile.  Watching her, it is easy to forget that this film is a century-old melodrama. It is also surprisingly easy to overlook the undercurrent of racism implicit in this film, although there are moments when it bubbles to the surface.  In some small way, “Broken Blossoms” is D.W. Griffith’s attempt to atone for the blatant racism of his “The Birth of a Nation,” which was already considered racist by a lot of people back in those pre-diversity-training days of 1915.  But by modern standards, it is atonement by baby steps—this is still a film imbued with racism, but with some substantial stabs at a greater awareness.  The entire title is “Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl.”  That title is already an improvement, considering that the original short story by Thomas Burke was “The Chink and the Child.”  I don’t blame Griffith for not being able to step out of his era, because it took a lot of years for Hollywood to start allowing non-white people to play themselves in starring roles in movies. Witness Katharine Hepburn playing a Chinese villager in “Dragon Seed” in 1944, or Natalie Wood playing a Puerto Rican in “West Side Story” as late as 1961.  But if you can get past the stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese in “Broken Blossoms”, Richard Barthelmess (a white actor trying to look squinty-eyed as the Yellow Man) does a creditable job bringing a sensitivity to the role.  In the film, the Yellow Man was once an idealistic young man in China who dreamed of taking the peace of Buddhism to the West, but when he arrived in England, reality swamped his dreams and he ended up scraping for a living running a little shop, smoking a lot of opium, and not converting any Westerners.  Barthelmess’s slanty-eyed squint and odd oriental mannerisms are hard to bear these days, but the essence of the character and his message do peek out of his caricature, and it is powerful (spoiler here) when the story builds to this peaceful Buddhist pulling out a gun and pumping lead into the bad guy.  D. W. Griffith, oft-reviled for the racism of “The Birth of a Nation,” but always respected as the most important director of the early cinema, really did have a grasp of the big picture when it came to redeeming himself with “Broken Blossoms.” He not only made a Chinese man and his ethos the hero of this story, but the entire film debunks the notion that the anglo-centric view is the superior point of view.  There is a great scene that is a foil to the scene early in the film where the Yellow Man is planning to leave for the West with the message of Buddha–only, in this later scene, a young Christian missionary is embarking for China to “convert the heathen.”  Thus, Griffith makes a wry comment on the boorish arrogance of white people and, in so doing, takes at least a baby step toward erasing our recollection that he was the director who made a major hit movie a few years earlier glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.