Silent Steve expired. Sorry. There was a lull in a storm. We’d given up on noisy films and slapped on another horrifying D.W. Griffith classic. Steve mimed through the thunder that this was brilliant, an apology to the people of the Earth who’d been bitch-slapped by Birth of a Nation and the sort-of apologetic Intolerance, and not at all racist in its own way. He said its full title was Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl; old Jack here grimaced; Steve’s arms erupted into a whirligig of explanation… and kept waving and waggling until he slumped into what I thought was a gentle sleep. Broken Blossoms.
Okay, here’s a film about caricatures and bastards. DWG was trying to come across as less racist, apparently, so let’s assume he was a creature of his time. It was 1919, the world war was just over, and that world was reviewing its sense of stereotypes. Trying to be kind, here. Because…
The film starts in studio China where Richard Barthelmess’s Cheng Huan decides to head off to the west to spread Buddhism – in a nice way. Off he goes, no-one challenging his obviously caucasian looks, and falls into the crappy end of London, drug addiction and misery. So far so clichéed.
Meanwhile, Lillian Gish is a waif. Again. There’s a suspension of belief needed here as she looks a tad old and healthy to be the brutalised – starved and bullied – daughter of a nasty piece of tosser from the boxing ring. It’s just the two of them in their hovel, and Donald Crisp‘s Battling Burrows (the Dad) is middle-aged-swarthy-nasty, bullying and so violent it takes the innocence out of the pantomiming and makes the whole thing more than a bit shocking. He sends Gish’s Lucy out begging, takes all the food, and has her cowering in a permanent state of pre-violence terror.
Really. She even does this weird-arse fingering of her face into a smile…thing. Waif has a rough time of it.
But one day she escapes post-beating, twirls her way into the shop where Cheng Huan is permanently smoking…and innocent love begins. And I say innocent because the title cards lay it on a bit thick. The visuals seem to be inviting a more prurient view, as Cheng Huan helps Lucy upstairs to a weirdly high, um, ‘recovery’ bed. There she affectionately calls him old-world words for the goodly folk of China…thus setting old Jack’s teeth on edge and Silent Steve’s arms on their catastrophic final whirl.
Lucy’s recovery goes well, the Gish going full-pity-me-mime with increasing strength as – elsewhere and essentially pissed – her Dad goes off to the boxing ring, realises his loss, gets inopportune word of where his daughter is, and blasts through DWG’s terrifically atmospheric sets to destroy the mutually supportive blossoms.
And then things go over the edge and DWG’s feel for ambience begins to feel like cinema is being invented in front of you. Gish, recaptured, whirls in a panic, trapped in a closet by her dreadful father. Old Jack had been smiling at Crisp’s thuggish caricature being offset by a properly camp cap, but, jeez, he axes his way into the cupboard and, with a whip to hand, puts you right off understanding the pains that drove him to be this kind of man. Perhaps the war? Perhaps cancer of the personality…
Bloody hell. It’s horrible. Bless the silents.
You think you’re watching a tellingly made, beautifully and creatively shot tale laced with thoroughly embarrassing stereotypes of a hundred years ago and then…well, and then you’re entranced. Caught in the agonies of Lucy’s empty, vicious world, the value she’d given and got from Cheng Huan fighting his own fight with western mores and despair…and then… There are quite a lot of stereotypes, by the way. Be prepared.
Go watch. It’s only 90 minutes long and, I guess, about love. For a while there old Jack found it affecting, silly but truthful, and well worth the investment of my time. If not Silent Steve’s. It turns out he didn’t make it to the end. He stopped as the storm stopped. And, in his honour, the TV room held a minute’s silent and watched The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912): his will insisted. And that’s why I’m not dragging on about the tragedy of him being dead.