Broken Blossoms, released 13 May 1919, was based on British writer Thomas Burke’s 1916 story “The Chink and the Child,” from his collection Limehouse Nights. All the stories are set in and around London’s Chinatown in the Limehouse district, in the East End. A second story from the collection, “Beryl and the Croucher,” was turned into a film in 1949, No Way Back.
In contrast to many of D.W. Griffith’s other films of the 1910s, Broken Blossoms is a small-scale production instead of a grand, sweeping, lengthy epic with a huge ensemble cast. It tells a heartrending, intimate story of marked visual contrasts.
The première at NYC’s George M. Cohan Theatre, during the D.W. Griffith Repertory Season, featured moon lanterns, flowers, and gorgeous brocaded Chinese draperies.
Critics and laypeople alike loved it, to the tune of $700,000 ($10,412,843 today). However, many were deeply disturbed by the depiction of child abuse, some so much they left the theatre to vomit. Griffith himself took several months to edit it, so disturbed and depressed was he by the subject matter.
In 1996, Broken Blossoms was chosen for inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. The film is widely regarded as one of Griffith’s finest, and one of the great treasures of film history.
Owing to the strict anti-miscegenation laws of the time, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess were unable to have any love scenes. Even when both actors were white in real life, they were legally barred from kissing onscreen if their characters were in an interracial relationship.
Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) sets out from China with a pure heart and soul full of love and idealism, little realising what ugliness and cruelty await him. He “holds a great dream to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo–Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife.”
Prior to his departure, Cheng interferes in a fight between foreign sailors, trying to tell them not to do unto others what is hateful to themselves (a maxim found across almost all religions). His message of peace and love is received with violence and mockery, but that makes him even more determined to spread the word.
London’s notoriously seedy, impoverished East End is a shocking wakeup call to this gentle-hearted, sensitive Buddhist missionary. A few years after his arrival, he’s nothing but another poor shopkeeper, and his “youthful dreams come to wreck agains the sordid realities of life.” To try to cope with the ugly real world, Cheng smokes opium and gambles.
Meanwhile, boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is raising his daughter Lucy (Lillian Gish) as a single dad. Battling, “a gorilla of the jungles of East London,” is violent outside the ring too, and an alcoholic. It really speaks to how desperate Lucy’s mother must’ve been to relinquish her to Battling.
Battling’s manager rightly complains about his drinking and womanizing, but Battling keeps his anger in check for the sake of his career. He saves the release of his rage for Lucy, his personal punching-bag, who’s too passive and weak to stand up for herself or escape.
Lucy is warned by both her married friends and prostitute friends not to follow in their footsteps, since their lives have been nothing but sorrow and misery since starting down those respective paths.
Cheng has been admiring Lucy from afar for awhile, struck by her fragile, haunted beauty amidst the muck and mire of Limehouse.
Battling’s manager finds him womanizing at a bar, and the ensuing lecture sends Battling into a rage. At home, he unleashes his rage upon Lucy with a whip.
Severely wounded and half-conscious, Lucy escapes after her father departs for training across the Thames, and collapses on the floor of Cheng’s shop. Cheng shows her the first gentleness she’s ever known when he cleans her wounds.
Cheng carries Lucy upstairs to his flat and tenderly nurses her back to health, beautifully decorating the room as befits a princess. He also gives her gorgeous clothes and renames her White Blossom.
Troubled waters start brewing when one of Battling’s friends comes to Cheng’s shop. While Cheng is out getting change, he hears an odd noise from upstairs and goes to investigate, finding Lucy asleep in bed.
Battling is horrified to learn Lucy is living with a Chinese man, and races home to get his revenge after the big fight. The concluding scenes are some of the most powerful, heartbreaking, and unforgettable of cinematic history.