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BROKEN BLOSSOMS (director/writer: D.W. Griffith; screenwriter: based on a short story “The Chink and the Child” by Thomas Burke; cinematographer: G.W. Bitzer; editor: James Smith; music: Louis F. Gottschalk and D.W. Griffith; cast: Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows), Richard Barthelmess (Cheng Huan), Donald Crisp (Battling Burrows), Arthur Howard (Burrows’ manager), Edward Peil, Sr. (Evil Eye), George Beranger (The Spying One); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: D.W. Griffith; Kino Video; 1919-silent)
“This mawkish Victorian melodrama rises above its faults with a stylishly beautiful film that also brings real tragedy to the screen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Though it was once considered one of director D.W. Griffith’s (“The Birth of a Nation”/”Intolerance”/”Orphans of the Storm”) more daring and better melodramas, today it’s outdated, suffers from being overly emotional and too sentimental. It’s based on a short story “The Chink and the Child” by Thomas Burke. To Griffith’s credit, he’s trying to make a positive statement about tolerance and the acceptance of non-controversial aspects of interracial love without raising too much the eyebrows of his many intolerant viewers.

The story is set in the London slum of Limehouse during WWI, where gentle opium smoking Chinese storekeeper Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) has left his native China and settled down in the London ‘East End’ dock area in order to practice his non-violent Buddhist ways and help the Westerner become more peaceful. He comes into contact with a frail, 15-year-old Cockney waif Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish, was 23 at the time and couldn’t convince me she was a teenager), whose bigoted, brutish prize-fighting father Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) regularly abuses her. She collapses in the doorway of Cheng’s store after her father beats her for accidentally stabbing his hand while serving a meal. In the film’s most magical scene, the Chinese man offers the battered Lucy shelter from her beastly father, unconditional love and sprinkles an imaginary moondust on her hair as she cuddles up in bed. To avoid any complaints of miscegenation, the love between the two is kept innocent and pure. This simple holy love offered is something her father can’t understand, and he’s so enraged that he beats her more severely than ever. When the Chinese man learns of her new beating through a dubious-intentioned Chinese man known as Evil Eye, he comes to comfort her as she lies in her death bed. But the father returns and Cheng in self-defense kills him with his gun. When Lucy succumbs to the beating, Cheng takes his life with his knife.

Beaten throughout her life by her ignorant, drunken bully father, the beating only becomes fatal when the intolerant father is in such a rage because he hates all foreigners. But to call Griffith a progressive regarding racial matters, even though the film is progressive for its time, seems giving him a compliment he doesn’t deserve. The main Chinese character, played by a white actor, is called either the “Yellow Man,” “Chinaman” or “Chinky” by everyone in the movie, which doesn’t impress me as being too sensitive. Nevertheless Griffith’s movie does make its Chinese character into a sympathetic figure, which was at a time when the Chinese immigrant received much abuse. In the end, this mawkish Victorian melodrama rises above its faults with a stylishly beautiful film that also brings real tragedy to the screen.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”