63 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2001
I've loved this film since I was a teenager. I've even read the bizarre short story that inspired it. Lillian Gish's character, Lucy, is supposed to be twelve in the story, but D.W. Griffith thought the horror of the abuse Lucy endures would traumatize a child actress, so Griffith changed Lucy's age to sixteen, and cast twenty-two year old Gish, who at five-foot-two, about ninety lbs., and in pancake make-up, manages to pull it off.
Child abuse was a new concept when this film was made. The first child abuse case in the US had been prosecuted during Griffith's lifetime (under animal cruelty laws). In order to play to audiences of 1918, when whipping children was acceptable punishment for minor violations, the abuse of Lucy, has to be severe.
Griffith doesn't need to look far. According to the original story, Lucy's boxer father isn't permitted to "strike" his "manager or to throw chairs at him," "but to use a dog-whip on a small child is permissible and quite as satisfying." So Lucy's bruised body "crept about Poplar and Limehouse. Always the white face was scarred." (I have seen Griffith's copy of the book, with his marginal notes, as well as a monograph by the author of the particular story, with signed thanks from Griffith and Gish.)
There are many ironies in this film. This is the first film treatment of child abuse, and it shows horror, because only vicious horror will convince an audience of 1918 that a child is better off away from her father.
The film also shows scenes in an opium den, at a time when this drug is perfectly legal. Our hero is a user, with no intent of quitting. The hero, played beautifully by Richard Barthelmess, is a white man in Asian make-up, because he kisses his under-age girlfriend. That he is an adult in love, and building a shrine to his sixteen year old love, makes no one blink. But to kiss the girl, he can't be a real Chinaman; people have to know that under the make-up, there's not actually any miscegenation.
This film couldn't be made today. For this alone, it is fascinating.
But beyond its historical fascination, this is a beautiful film. It is a romance unlike any other. It's emotionally wrenching, all told, yet there are some moments that are so touching, and so satisfying, they are worth everything it takes to get ahold of this film.
Many people call the film melodramatic, but often silent films are shown at the wrong speed; they're too fast, and this has to do with the way they were filmed opposed to the way sound films are made. If you have a choice among different copies, look at the run time, and pick the longest one. At the right speed, this film is well-paced and poignant. Dramatic, sad, but not melodramatic.
This film reaches in a seizes your heart; you'll never forget it.
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
As WWI was ending, it seemed the world had lost its innocence. The director who himself would become outdated within another decade, decided to tackle the subject of child abuse. D.W. Griffith, one of the true pioneers of American film, did so in tender fashion with one of his most simple yet most beautiful films.
The Great War may have ended, but something far worse was sweeping the globe and it would take more lives than the war had. Lillian Gish came down with the Spanish flu before filming began but, rather than remain in bed waiting to die, she donned a surgical mask and went to rehearsals for "Broken Blossoms." She would survive, but not before the film itself almost suffered the fate she had feared.
Viewed today, this is a somewhat dated but lovely and atmospheric film of great tenderness. It was not met with enthusiasm, however, by Adolph Zukor. He was not interested in art but profits and, perhaps rightly, felt that such a depressing film with such a sad ending would not go over well with the public. Griffith would borrow the money to purchase the film back from him and release it through United Artist. It would be a huge commercial and critical success and prove Zukor wrong.
Lillian Gish would have many poignant moments as a girl never shown kindness or love. Left with an abusive father (Donald Crisp) who beats her on a regular basis, her youth is stolen and full of despair. Both Gish and Mary Pickford would continue to play younger than their actual age, and Gish loses herself as a 12 year old with a heart full of hurt.
Richard Barthelmess is the Oriental shopkeeper who loves her and will help her escape her dreary lot in life. Once full of hope himself, he has long since abandoned his efforts to bring the ways of peace to this side of the world and lost himself in the opium dens of the Limehouse district where they reside.
There is a true tenderness here as he will come out of his haze long enough to show Lucy what love is, while not taking advantage of her. Griffith makes it clear with a couple of "almost" kisses that he loves her but respects her purity. It is ironic that scenes like those, which were the very ones that made him suddenly "out of date," are also the ones which have made films like "Broken Blossoms" survive as art.
Gish is really special as a young waif warned against marriage by those afflicted, and warned against free love by those girls in the profession. It leaves her with no place to turn except towards Battling Burrows and the humiliation and pain that comes with him.
A hidden ribbon is the closest thing to love Lucy has ever known until she is cared for by Barthelmess after one of her beatings. A scene where she does not have enough tin foil to purchase a flower is not easily forgotten.
Donald Crisp is somewhat exaggerated as was the custom in many silents, but it does not detract from the beauty of the film itself. When news gets to Battling Burrows that Lucy is with the Chinaman, tragedy will soon follow.
The HBO version has a specially tinted print from the Rohhauer Collection and a new recording of the original score. There is also a brief introduction from Lillian Gish herself in this presentation from David Gill and Kevin Brownlow. The Kino version is quite excellent also from what I have been told and is still in print for purchase as new. Film buffs, and silent film buffs in particular, cannot go wrong with this film. It is a restful and gentle painting of a heartbreaking scene.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 1999
"Broken Blossoms" is one of the most sentimental and heartrending films I have ever seen. It couldn't be more uncommercial. Lillian Gish gives such a strong, convincing performance as a frail girl who has struggled under an abusive boxer father and finds true love and compassion through a poor Chinese storekeeper (Richard Barthelmess). Donald Crisp as the father gives reliably strong contrast from Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess's characters, which adds to the already strong credibility they give. The scene when Gish being trapped in a closet while Crisp tries to get her out is very intense. Even more intense is the end. But what touched me most was when the Chinese man went out of his way to decorate the girl's room like a princess's, and gave her beautiful clothes to wear. This film is so sentimental it seemed like a dream. I highly recommend it.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 1999
Better than the more famous "Birth of a Nation" and "Way Down East," this is one of the simplest, most heartfelt films Griffith made. Lillian Gish is utterly convincing as a fifteen-year-old waif brutalized by her boxing champ father. Her abject terror before the first beating is heart-breaking: what an actress! Richard Barthelmess also gives a sensitive performance as the Chinese immigrant (audiences of the day would not have accepted a real Chinese actor in the role). The film is more direct and embarks on less tangents than others in Griffith's canon, which makes it more successful in its emotional impact. I can't help but think that this story would have been wonderful for a Puccini opera.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2004
This is Webster's definition of melodrama : 'A dramatic presentation characterised by heavy use of suspense, sensational episodes, romantic sentiment, and a conventional happy ending.' 'Broken Blossoms' contains all the characteristics of melodrama save the happy ending. 'Broken Blossoms' is an intelligent film, even progressive, as it focused on a subject taboo for the time, that of a romantic affection that crossed racial lines, in this case between the teenaged Lillian Gish and the older Richard Barthelmess who portrays a Chinese shop owner.
Their romantic involvement was potentially explosive; in the early 1900s the Chinese were more aggressively prejudiced against than any other racial group. In order to avoid the very real possibility of offending audiences to the point of outrage, absolutely no suggestion of anything overtly physical could be allowed between Gish and Barthelmess. Griffith handled the budding romance with the utmost of care, manipulating the interactions between the couple into genuine masterpieces of facial expression, gesture, and veiled emotion.
In addition 'Broken Blossoms' offers up an unflinching look at child abuse and neglect, and alcoholism, topics less against the constraints of popular morality but no less powerful. The 'spare the rod, spoil the child' method of childrearing was encouraged by many in both the secular and religious sectors, and alcoholism if not exactly widely tolerated was blatantly rampant and a highly visible affliction, at least in the major cities.
Gish, as Lucy, plays a battered child who lives in fear of her drunkard father (Donald Crisp, who stepped out of his usual character for this role.) Despite her awful circumstances Lucy tries her best to keep a good home for her father and maintain a happy disposition. Her strong, endearing character and many fine qualities are noticed by Barthelmess and admired most wistfully from afar. When circumstances place Lucy in Barthelmess' care for a time we are treated to a most poignantly charming interaction which ought touch all but the stoniest of hearts. One cannot help but hope for the best for these two, but of course that cannot be.
The double tragedy of the ending is extraordinarily powerful and all too believable, given the finely wrought characters within this film. (There is the famous scene of Lucy trapped in the closet awaiting her fate ~ a fete of superb acting.) Although supremely dramatic and dreadful in scope nothing appears over the top. Everything works exactly as it should without a false step. Without a doubt 'Broken Blossoms' remains one of the greatest and most enduring of silent melodramas.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2007
...and one of my favorite films period. It's not D. W.'s best, that distinction belongs to ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL (not yet on DVD). I much prefer BROKEN BLOSSOMS to Griffith's mammoth spectacles (which are important historically but are overrated when compared to his Biograph shorts and smaller scale films like this one). What I value most about this movie is how it is able to fully create a completely self-contained world and then draw the viewer into it. The soft focus photography of Billy Bitzer, the original score by Louis F. Gottschalk, and the marvelous performances by the three principals enhance the film's dreamlike quality and bring me back again and again to relive the experience much like the opium users depicted in the film.
Criticisms concerning Richard Barthelmess playing a Chinese character miss the point. The important factor is the character's nature not his nationality. The same can be said for criticism of Donald Crisp's turn as the brutal father. His portrayal is deliberately exaggerated for melodramatic effect (he was asked to make the part as apelike as possible) and it later served as the basis for the facial expressions and movements of the original KING KONG. Lillian Gish delivers one of the great silent film performances of all time which clearly shows why she was the first lady of the silent screen.
There are a number of DVD versions of BROKEN BLOSSOMS out there so you must be careful which one you choose. Anything with a budget price should be avoided at all costs. "You get what you pay for" is especially true of silent film video releases. These are public domain copies which are taken from 16mm second generation prints, usually transferred at the wrong speed, and feature a music score that was tacked on without regard to what is happening onscreen. These cheap copies can easily ruin your viewing experience for the reasons listed above.
Right now there are only two releases of the many available which show BROKEN BLOSSOMS the way it was meant to be seen. The Kino version and the Image version. Neither is a complete restoration as none of Griffith's films have been fully restored. The Kino has a slightly better picture quality and a number of extras while the Image features the original color tinting and score composed for the film which adds immensely to its overall effect. Unless you really love film and want all the extra features, I recommend the Image version for its greater emotional impact.
Although no longer available as a new release, there are plenty of good, used copies to choose from and at a better price too. But no matter which version you choose, just sit back and let this nearly 90 year old film work its magic on you. Think of it as a male version of MADAME BUTTERFLY with a healthy dose of Dickens thrown in. It takes a little work to bridge the gap of time, but if you're willing to make the effort then you will be amply rewarded.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2001
"Broken Blossoms" is an example of silent film melodrama at its epitome. The elements are in place: abuse, neglect, despair, broken lives, a faint glimmer of hope brutally extinguished. This film explores a topic daring for its time, an interracial love between an older Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) and a fifteen-year-old English girl (Lillian Gish). As physical interaction between the couple was strictly forbidden due to the morals of the day, director Griffith turned "action" into "emotion." Barthelmess' eyes and facial expressions tell all, and Lillian Gish is absolutely luminous. What she endures at the hands of her father (Robert Crisp) is truly appalling, as it had to be. Child abuse was commonplace and condoned in certain sectors; brutality was a part of life. To watch Lucy suffer is to suffer as well, so when she stumbles into those few short idyllic days with her adoring, idealistic admirer we watch with joy as she blossoms under his love and care. For a small space in her miserable life a young girl is allowed to be a young girl. Thus, the inevitable is that much more tragic. Lucy cannot remain the beloved of a man society forbids her to build a life with, and for this she pays with her life. The violence of Lucy's end is horrific, and Gish's portrayal of helplessness against an insane wrath shattering. This is a girl who truly tried, who did her utmost best to please a man she knows as "Daddy," even to the point of forcing her lips into a smile with the tips of her fingers when asked to do so (these scenes with her drunken father are among the most poignant of the film). Lucy convinces us as supremely worthy of a great love, thus what happens following her death is entirely convincing. Suffice to say it is not a happy ending, merely a perfect one. "Broken Blossoms" is indeed high melodrama, and among the finest such ever put to film.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 1999
Shorn of the "epic" effects of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is easily Griffith's finest achievement in film-making on an intimate scale. Dream-like in cinematography and ferocious in intensity, the film revolves around Gish's powerful performance of a battered slum child who finds sanctuary under the protection of a disillusioned Chinese shop-keeper. Mixing moments of innocent bliss and sheer terror, this languid yet completely unnerving film is as delicate and subtle as its title implies.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2001
Okay, everyone's discussed the scene where Miss Gish is terrorized by her father with an axe, so I'll leave that alone, but there's a lot else to recommend about this film. Despite the use of White actors to play Asians, this is a very strong anti-racist film for it's day and it's hard to believe that the same man who brought you "Birth of a Nation" brought you this.
The story is wrenching from beginning to end. Almost no comedy appears at all, but yet it's very watchable. Some interesting scenes that are WAY ahead of their time compare the gentle Chinese man with the Whites he interacts with. For example, our hero goes to England to "teach them the peaceful ways of Buddha." While in the slums of Enngland, our man is met by missionaries who tell him that they're "going to China to convert the heathen." The irony is added when the missionaries give our unnamed hero a book entitled "HELL." Griffith doesn't expound upon the subtle joke, but it's point is made to the audence, our man is ALREADY in hell while the missionaries are off to heaven.
Another set of poignant scenes involves Miss Gish's "pathetic attempts to smile in a world that gives her little reason to do so." This must be seen to be understood.
This isn't likely to be at your video store, but it should be in your local publiuc library. By all means, get it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2006
D.W. Griffith's silent feature Broken Blossoms was a film I was assigned to watch for my film class in College. I have never had the opportunity to ever view a silent film but I was glad I got to view this beautiful and heartbreaking love story. Lillian Gish plays Lucy, she is beaten by her prizewinning fighter father, she is forced to spend her days in her tiny, house. One afternoon, Lucy sneeks out while her father is away, but she doesn't go far, she faints in front a chinese man's store. He takes her back to his home and nurses her back to health. He has loved her from afar and knows about her living conditions, he promises Lucy he will take care of her from now on. He gives her fancy clothes and food, he adores Lucy, he wants to protect her from her abusive father. I won't give away the ending but Broken Blossoms is a landmark and important film. D.W. Griffith was one of the first director's in cinema history, bravo to him and his body of work.