“Broken Blossoms” (1919) is the latest in a bunch of silent films I’ve recently watched (for free) at the openculture.com website. This one is a true classic from director D.W. Griffith and ace cinematographer Billy Bitzer–a tragic drama of selfless love in the face of crude savagery.
Lillian Gish is just fine as a 15-year-old constantly beaten by her brutish prizefighter father (well-played by future Oscar-winner Donald Crisp with impressively massive eyebrows). Richard Barthelmess became a star (and in later years an Oscar nominee himself twice over) in this movie–playing the well-meaning, idealistic Chinese man who himself has been ill-treated by bigots and a jealous fellow Asian immigrant alike, yet risks all to bring some joy into the abused girl’s life.
Sadly, the same respectful and chaste love that leads him to help the girl out also triggers the racist violence that dooms them both. But this is only an accurate (and for the time bravely honest) reflection of the era in which the film was made. Merely showing an Asian man as a hero (even if played by a white guy with a lot of squinting) was likewise a bold step back then–and Barthelmess gave the role much dignity.
This movie, together with his silent epic “Intolerance” and his early talkie bio pic of “Abraham Lincoln” stand as Griffith’s triple-barreled response to the (well-deserved) criticism of his “Birth of a Nation” and its pro-racist themes. Clearly, this greatly talented film pioneer was a man of complexity–at once a product of his times and one capable, at least sometimes, of rising above the intellectual and emotional limits that this entailed.
By all means, check this film–and the many other silent features and shorts available through this site–out, if you’re at all interested in early film (or just want something different to watch).