A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919)

The raw pathos of Broken Blossoms has probably never been equaled on film, thanks to three extraordinary performers. Lillian Gish is a known quantity, of course, but it's startling to see Donald Crisp as one of the most odious villains in film history. Crisp, whose film-acting career spanned more than fifty years, from the earliest silent shorts through his final performance in Spencer's Mountain (Delmer Daves, 1963), is best known today for fatherly and grandfatherly roles in How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941), Lassie Come Home (Fred M. Wilcox, 1943), and National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944), but his performance as Battling Burrows is simply terrifying. As the cockney fighter, he displays a macho strut that might have influenced James Cagney. Richard Barthelmess is no less impressive as Cheng Huan, known in the film mostly as The Yellow Man. We have to make allowances for the stereotyping and the "yellowface" performance today, but Barthelmess (and Griffith) deserve some credit for ennobling the character, running counter to the widespread anti-Asian sentiments and fear of miscegenation in the era. Barthelmess, who became a matinee idol, makes The Yellow Man simultaneously creepy and sympathetic. And then there's Gish, who as usual throws herself (almost literally) into the role of the waif, Lucy. It's an astonishing performance that virtually defined film acting for at least the next decade, until sound came in and actors could rely on something other than their faces and bodies to communicate. True, some of her gestures lent themselves to parody, as when Buster Keaton steals Lucy's trick of pushing up the corners of her mouth to force a smile in Go West (1925), but parody is often the sincerest form of flattery.