Broken Blossoms - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1919

Director: D. W. Griffith

Production: D. W. Griffith Inc.; black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 95 minutes; length: 6 reels. Released 1919 through United Artists. Filmed December 1918 and January 1919; cost: $88,000.

Producer: D. W. Griffith; scenario: D. W. Griffith, from the story "The Chink and the Child" by Thomas Burke; photography: G. W.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms
Bitzer; editor: James Smith; music: Louis F. Gottschalk; special effects: Hendrick Sartov.

Cast: Lillian Gish ( Lucy, the Girl ); Richard Barthelmess ( Cheng Huan ); Donald Crisp ( Battling Burrows ); Arthur Howard ( Burrows's Manager ); Edward Peil ( Evil Eye ); George Beranger ( The Spying One ); Norman Selby or "Kid McCoy" ( A Prize Fighter ); George Nicholls ( London Policeman ); Moon Kwan ( Buddhist monk ).



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Lesage, Julia, " Broken Blossoms: Artful Racism, Artful Rape," in Jump Cut (Chicago), 1981.

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Broken Blossoms is Griffith's most intricate film, a delicate mood piece that is set within a sharply confined space and delimited amount of time. The film opened to critical acclaim in this country with reviewers responding particularly to Lillian Gish's bravura performance and Henrick Sartov's soft-focus photography. Its most profound effect, however, was felt by European filmmakers. In France, where the film premiered in 1921, it became something of a cult object. French impressionist directors like Louis Delluc, Marcel L'Herbier, and Germaine Dullac tried consciously to emulate its stylized lighting and atmospheric effects. As Vance Kepley stated, " Broken Blossoms may have been to the early French experimenters what Intolerance was to the Soviets." Louis Moussinac summed up the admiration French filmmakers felt for Griffith's film: "C'est le chef-d'oeuvre du cinema dramatique."

Broken Blossoms came as something of a surprise to critics who knew Griffith only through The Birth of a Nation , Intolerance , or his World War I extravaganza, Hearts of the World. In fact, this modest film shot in 18 days on a shoe-string budget, was at first considered box office poison. When Griffith approached Paramount to distribute the film as a special, Adolph Zukor unhesitatingly turned him down. "Everybody in it dies," he wrote. Mindful of the recent failure of Nazimova's The Red Lantern and Sessue Hayakawa's waning popularity, Zukor concluded that the brief vogue for film chinoiserie had passed and was eager to let Griffith distribute it himself. Griffith paid Zukor $250,000 for it, and eventually released it through the newly formed United Artists; dressed up with an elaborate live prologue, three separate orchestras and choirs, and a specially tinted screen, the film garnered a small fortune.

Today, the film's critical stock is soaring: Broken Blossoms is widely regarded as Griffith's masterpiece, eclipsing even his better known epics. Lillian Gish's masterful performance aside, critics have been especially impressed by the formal sophistication and narrative complexity of Griffith's film. It is, above all, a film marked by terrific compression. The concentration of time and space gives characters, objects, and decor sustained metaphorical power that is never dissipated. Just as skillful is the dramatic structure which gives the impression of simple straightforwardness while camouflaging an intricate intertwining of expository and narrative sequences.

Thematically, the film is perhaps Griffith's most adventurous work. Susan Sontag has called Griffith "an intellect of supreme vulgarity and even inanity," whose work ordinarily reeks of fervid moralizing about sexuality and violence. But in Broken Blossoms he lowers his guard, nearly breaching his cherished Victorian convictions. Activities obviously taboo in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance —a racially mixed love affair, auto-eroticism, opium eating, sado-masochism, revenge killing—are transformed here into sensually satisfying pastimes that resonate in dangerously nonconformist ways. For once in Griffith's work, racial bigotry is a target for reproach. The few citations to post-war 1919 American culture, far from catering to the rampant xenophobia and mood of self-congratulation, hint at the dark side of American provincialism. The glancing references to munition workers, American sailors, and First World War battles illustrate the west's penchant for self-destructiveness and violence.

—Russell Merritt

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