Sunday, October 13, 2013

Broken Blossoms

Monday, October 14, marks the birth anniversary of Lillian Gish. It's only natural that TCM should spend some time with Gish, starting with several of her silents since Gish was at her most famous during the silent era. The first silent Gish film TCM is showing tomorrow is Broken Blossoms, at 6:00 AM. A search of the blog suggests that I have never done a full-length post about it before, so now is a good time to do so.

Richard Barthelmess plays Chen Huan, the "Yellow Man". He's a Chinese man who's come to London to preach the non-violent Buddhist way of life, only to find that Londoners apparently don't care about such things -- Chen has wound up in the Limehouse, one of London's slum districts, where he makes a living, such as it is, by selling Chinese-themed knickknacks.

The other male lead is "Battling" Burrows, a boxer played by Donald Crisp, long before he became the kindly older man in movies like How Green Was My Valley -- these are his young, virile days. Well, not that young, since he's old enough to have fathered a teenaged daughter Lucy (Lillian Gish), who lives with him. Burrows is a brute of a man, and not only inside the boxing ring, as he treats Lucy like dirt, making her wait on him hand and foot and beating her if she doesn't do what he says.

It's unsurprising, then, that Lucy would eventually run away from her father. You can probably guess what happens next, which is that Lucy winds up in the Asian section of Limehouse, which is how she meets Chen. He takes her in, nd she falls hard for him because she's never known a man to show her any kindness -- kindnesses that Chen sees as part of his Buddhist duty. Burrows realizes what a jerk he's been, and Chen and Lucy live together happily ever after.

Yeah, right, you know there's no chance in hell of that last sentence coming to pass in a movie like this. Burrows would never just give up his daughter if she ran away. And he especially wouldn't do it if she wound up with -- horror of horrors -- a Chinaman! One of Burrows' friends finds out what's happened to Lucy, sending Burrows to Limehouse to get her from Chen and take her home, which ultimately leads to the movie's tragic denouement.

Broken Blossoms has naturally aged somewhat in the 90-plus years since it was released, and that's unfotunately to the detriment of the movie at times when watching it in 2013. Modern critics will immediately point out that you've got lily-white Richard Barthelmess playing somebody from China. That, and the Chinese people being portrayed as having all the old stereotypes. (To be fair, the whites aren't exactly morally upstanding here either.) As for the idea of interracial love being forbidden, I think in the case of Broken Blossoms that's beside the point. Burrows is a controlling, possessive man much like Patrick Bergen's character in Sleeping With the Enemy 70 years later, a man who would go halfway across the country to find the woman he obsesses over, even if she's seeing another white guy now. The three leads all give excellent performances for a silent melodrama, and the story, while predictable, still fascinates.

Broken Blossoms has received a DVD release, although the one TCM sells is a bit expensive.

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