Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl
How do I talk about D.W. Griffith? How do I talk about the guy whose innovative directorial techniques revolutionized film, yet left an indelible stain on that medium with a movie so toxic in its racism? (I don't need to invoke its name, do I? We know which film I'm talking about.) It so happens that 2015 marks the centennial of That Movie, and Time wrote a piece earlier this year to commemorate the occasion.
I have written here before, when talking about other controversial filmmakers like Woody Allen and Mel Gibson, that the work is all that should matter in the end - and indeed, history shows that Griffith was the one who made motion pictures into more than just filmed plays. That cannot and should not be discounted. Still, it's difficult, to say the very least, to draw that line in the sand when it comes to Griffith. Maybe I should just stick to his other movies.
I'm reading a biography of writer/director Ernst Lubitsch (which I'll talk about soon), who had a blossoming career as an actor turned filmmaker in Europe before he came to America. There's a passage where he cited the Griffith film Broken Blossoms as not only one of his favorites, but the film that encouraged him to come to America to continue his career. A cursory look at some of the articles written about it shows that it has stood the test of time and is considered a major masterpiece of the silent era.
Curious, I decided to give it a look. Chinese pacifist dude immigrates to London and befriends poor local girl, who has been abused by her adoptive racist dad. She comes to our hero for shelter when Dad gets too hard to handle, but when Dad finds out who she's been shacking up with, that's when shit gets real.
Okay, first of all: how old, exactly, is Lillian Gish supposed to be? I was under the impression that her character, Lucy, was a teenager, even though Gish would've been 26 when she made this movie (something about silent film actresses - they were all really short!), but Richard Barthelmess' character, Cheng, sure looked like an adult to me (I've already made my feelings about whites playing non-white characters in old movies known; let's not go into that again). My point is that I feel a bit uncomfortable calling this film a romance, not that alleged romance is consummated or anything - they don't even kiss - but it sure comes across as one, cradle-robbing or not.
I know that this movie is a relic from an entirely different time in American history. I know that 1919 audiences saw it completely differently, and that looking at it with 21st-century eyes does it a disservice... but what is the big freakin' deal about this movie? First of all, Griffith making an interracial love story does not let him off the hook for That Movie by any means, especially not when he casts a white guy as an Asian and refers to him in the title cards as "the yellow man." I mean, damn, even Lucy calls him "Chinky" at one point (yes, yes, she's a product of her environment and she can't be expected to change her prejudices overnight and blah blah blah).
Cheng has this weird, languid stare that he makes all throughout the movie that I suppose is meant to make him look like he's deep in thought, but most of the time he just looks like he's stoned - which he actually is in a couple of scenes, after hitting the opium pipe, and I couldn't tell the difference one way or the other! Granted, Lucy is probably the first white woman he's ever seen this close, but does that mean he has to look at her like she just sprouted a second head? It makes the jailbait-y aspect of the story even creepier!
I also understand that Lucy's not gonna have an easy time standing up to her father, a professional boxer, but she is so slight and so passive that having sympathy for her is too easy. She's a Woobie, basically, and from Griffith's point of view, there can't be much of a challenge in writing a story around one.
Give Griffith credit - spoilers for a hundred-year-old movie - for having the guts to actually have Dad kill Lucy and to have Cheng sell out his pacifist principles by killing her dad in revenge (though the irony of that decision isn't dwelt on). But to have Cheng kill himself too? I mean, he doesn't even try to escape from the cops; it's just BAM, my life is no longer worth living without Lucy, goodbye cruel world. He makes such a point in the beginning about wanting to spread his Buddhist teachings to the western world, and yeah, he sees a fair amount of man's inhumanity to man and all that, but Lucy's death doesn't seem like it should be the last straw for him. I would've thought he was stronger than that.
In the end, what's the point that I'm supposed to be left with? That mean people suck and you can't win against them? I have nothing against downer endings, but I need a little more than this to chew on. And do Griffith's title cards have to tell us everything happening on the screen?