Happy 100th birthday, Broken Blossoms!

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.

Wind, wind, incessant wind

Released 23 November 1928, The Wind is widely considered one of the greatest of all silents. It’s also one of the silents most famously not on DVD, in spite of its incredible reputation. The Wind was based on Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel of the same name.

In the 1880s, Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) leaves Virginia for her (male) cousin Beverly’s Texas ranch, Sweet Water. On the train, she makes the acquaintance of cattle rancher Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love, who frequently played villains), who tries to scare her away from this land of neverending winds and isolation. Wirt claims the wind often drives people, esp. women, crazy.

Letty is met by Beverly’s closest neighbours, Lige Hightower (Swedish import Lars Hanson) and Sourdough, who live fifteen miles away. After a difficult journey full of wind and sandstorms, Letty finally arrives, and is joyously met by her cousin Beverly.

Beverly’s wife Cora isn’t very pleased to have a new addition to their household, and is even more displeased when her kids immediately warm to Letty.

Some time afterwards, at a party, Sourdough tells Cora he’s going to propose to Letty that night. Lige breaks in and says he’s going to do it. In response, Sourdough challenges him to shoot a wooden owl on the wall. Since they both shoot equally well, they decide to ask together.

An incoming cyclone forces everyone into a storm cellar, where Wirt professes his love and begs Letty to come away with him. When the party resumes, he tells her to think it over, and that he’ll be in town till tomorrow.

Lige and Sourdough get Letty alone and propose. She doesn’t think they’re serious, but Cora feels very differently. She demands Letty leave Beverly alone, in spite of the fact that they were raised by Letty’s mother as siblings.

With no money or home, Letty decides to marry Wirt, but there’s a catch—he’s already married, and wants her as his mistress. Cora drives her away and demands she marry one of the other two.

Letty chooses Lige, whom she feels absolutely no passion for. Under the influence of alcohol, Lige becomes more brutish and insistent. Letty says he’s made her hate him, when she didn’t want to hate him. Lige says he thought she married him because she loved him and wanted to be his full wife.

Lige promises he’ll never touch her again, and will try to earn enough money to send her back to Virginia.

Letty encounters a group of cattlemen on their way to a meeting, to see what can be done to save the people from starvation. She begs Lige to take her with him, since she’ll go insane alone with the wind.

When Letty is unable to control her horse in the intense windstorm, Lige has her get behind him on his horse. She later falls off, and Lige orders Sourdough to take her home.

Lige’s party returns with an injured Wirt. With nowhere else to go, he stays in Lige and Letty’s house.

Letty is terrified of being alone with him, and denies the wind has made her crazy. She pretends she likes it. Wirt tries to tempt her with descriptions of how lush and beautiful Virginia is this time of year, but Letty stands firm. So terrified of Wirt is she, she runs right into Lige’s arms for safety.

Lige conscripts Wirt into participating in a roundup of wild horses. This is Lige’s one big chance to get money to send Letty home to Virginia. Once again, Letty is left alone with the wind.

And then, in the thick of a fierce windstorm, Wirt returns alone.

The Wind was both panned and praised by critics, coming as it did during that difficult transitional period away from silents and towards fully sound pictures. It suffered a net loss of $87,000 in the U.S., though it fared much better in Europe. Today, the film is considered a classic.

Both Lillian Gish and director Victor Seastrom (né Sjöström) were quite displeased with the ending, though, contrary to popular myth, neither written nor filmed proof exists of an alternate ending that was replaced.

Lillian Gish was an absolutely incredible actor, one of the greatest of the silent era. She communicated so much emotion without saying a word.

Intolerance at 100, Part I (General overview)

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Released 5 September 1916, D.W. Griffith’s 3.5-hour Intolerance was created to counter all the criticism he’d weathered for The Birth of a Nation the previous year. However, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t make it as some nitrate apology letter. The themes and title were intended as a response to critics he felt had been intolerant of him.

This was my 838th silent (out of 1,125 seen to date), and, speaking as someone steeped in silent cinema, this isn’t exactly a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent, or even one of the first 25 or 50. It’s the kind of film you really need a solid grounding in silent cinema to understand, let alone want to sit down and watch.

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This very ambitious film takes the form of four different stories, all woven together by a common theme of intolerance. The stories are intercut more and more frequently as the overall story progresses, to show their commonalities and parallels. Each story has its own color tint.

First, and perhaps most famously, is the story of the fall of Babylon. Next up on the timeline is the story of Jesus, starting with his first miracle at Cana. The third story relates the events surrounding the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. Last is a contemporary story.

Between each shift, The Eternal Motherhood (Lillian Gish) rocks a cradle, symbolizing the passage of time. I’m surprised she wasn’t given a meatier role, since she was Griffith’s favorite leading lady.

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Though it comes last in the overall timeline, we open with the modern story. Miss Mary Jenkins, a wealthy spinster, needs more money to finance her various charities. Her greedy, profits-driven brother cuts her a check, but it soon becomes clear that’s not enough. In response, he institutes a 10% pay cut for his workers, who start a strike. This strike is put down most brutally.

Many former employees move to the big city for new jobs, The Boy and The Dear One’s father among them. Suffering in poverty, The Boy turns to crime out of desperation.

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The Boy and The Dear One meet and begin dating. Since it was a huge scandal for a woman to be caught alone with an unrelated man, they quickly marry. When the Boy tries to quit crime, his boss, The Musketeer, frames him as a thief, and he goes to prison.

And then:

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What a vile pack of old biddies with nothing better to do than to meddle in strangers’ lives!

After The Boy’s release, The Dear One turns to The Musketeer for help in getting her baby back. The Musketeer has an ulterior motive, and tries to rape her. In the ensuing fight, The Musketeer’s girlfriend shoots him and escapes.

The cops come to the tenement, and judge The Boy guilty through circumstantial evidence. Keep in mind, this was before Miranda Rights! The Boy is arrested, sent back to prison, and condemned to the gallows. Can he be saved in time?

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I think it’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with at least the basics of the life of Jesus. This section begins with his first miracle by the wedding at Cana (turning water into wine), then goes through some of the other Biblical events, ending with the Crucifixion.

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Third to be introduced is the French story, which shows the bad blood between Catholics and Huguenots in the time of Charles IX. This story really suffers from cast bloat. So many characters are introduced so quickly, it’s hard to remember who’s whom!

Though the Jesus story is the shortest of the four, it’s actually the French story which feels the most undeveloped. Huge chunks of time also transpire between each segment. When the massacre begins, it’s hard to feel gut-wrenching anguish, since we didn’t get to know these characters at all. This story is just kind of there.

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Finally, we get to the decadent Babylonian story. There are rival factions at work, as well as a storyline about the “incorrigible” Mountain Girl getting punished by being sent to the marriage market so a “good husband” can “tame” her. Belshazzar saves her, but she later gets in trouble again by fighting against Belshazzar’s rival.

Then King Cyrus of Persia moves in with his army, and the fall of Babylon commences.

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Overall, I liked this film a lot better the second time around. It does have weaknesses, and its style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a very important part of film history.

Celebrating Way Down East at 95

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Way Down East, starring the iconic legend Lillian Gish and the rather forgotten Richard Barthelmess, was released on 3 September 1920. I think this was the first film directed by D.W. Griffith I actually loved and enjoyed upon first viewing. As I’ve said, if I had it to do all over again, I would’ve started with his brilliant Biograph shorts instead of deliberately avoiding him because of his most controversial film. That really unfairly colored my entire perspective on this legendary director, as well as on Lillian Gish, for such a long time. But we can’t change our actions or feelings from the past, and can only move forward.

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Way Down East is the third of four film adaptations of Lottie Blair Parker’s 1897 play. While a lot of Griffith’s other films are rather heavy-handed, with a sharp black and white perspective, this film isn’t like that. There’s certainly still a strong message and condemnation of small-minded people who judge without knowing the whole story, but it’s conveyed in a more natural way.

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Lillian Gish plays Anna Moore, a poor country girl who’s sent to some big-city cousins by her ailing mother. The hope is that she’ll come back with some money, and their lives will improve. The big-city cousins and their friends, however, think she’s some pathetic hayseed and mock her behind her back.

Into this situation steps Lennox Sanderson, a right cad who deceives Anna into believing he’s in love with her. After a whirlwind “courtship,” they’re married by a pretended minister. Lennox tells Anna she can’t tell anyone about their marriage, but when she discovers she’s pregnant, a public reveal is necessary.

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Lennox is far from thrilled to learn he’s going to be a father, and after Anna keeps pressing him, he finally admits they’re not really married. She’s horrified and heartbroken, and goes home to her ailing mother to confess. When her mother passes away, she’s forced to rent a room in a boarding house run by a very Victorian, judgmental woman. One of the other women staying by the boarding house is just as gossipy and judgmental.

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The child is born in the boarding house, and becomes very sick. The miserable old biddies have begun hearing talk about the child being fatherless, and don’t believe Anna’s story about the husband being away. The baby continues getting sicker, and Anna performs an emergency baptism, naming her child Trust Lennox.

The judgmental spinster running the boarding house discovers there really is no husband, and kicks Anna out after her baby passes away. During her trek to find work and lodgings, she stumbles across Squire Bartlett’s farm. The crusty Squire isn’t sure he can trust a strange woman, but the loving, understanding Mother Bartlett prevails upon him to remember his Bible and be kind to the stranger.

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Naturally, handsome young David Bartlett falls in instalove with Anna, but she constantly rebuffs his attentions. She’s developing feelings for him too, but refuses to divulge the real reason she won’t get into a romantic relationship with him.

In the middle of Anna’s new life on the farm, who should show up again but dastardly Lennox. Each is stunned to see the other, and Lennox demands she be the one to leave. Lennox is determinedly wooing David’s cousin Kate, who’s been planned as David’s bride for quite a long time. There’s competition for Kate, however, as a local eccentric, the Professor, is also wooing Kate.

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The truth comes out when one of the old biddies from the boarding house comes to town, and the Squire throws Anna out of his home, right in the middle of a raging blizzard. However, before Anna leaves, she exposes Lennox in front of everyone. David, meanwhile, is livid to discover what Lennox did to her, and runs into the snowstorm to rescue her.

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The dramatic, penultimate ice floe scene is the most famous part of this film, and one of the most famous moments of silent cinema. D.W. Griffith was so committed to film realism, he waited until a real blizzard hit to film this scene. Several members of the film crew died from pneumonia as a result. Lillian Gish was such a professional, she put her hand and hair in the freezing water, and could’ve very well gotten pneumonia or hypothermia from all those takes.

I felt the bone-chilling cold the first time I watched this scene, and was really nervous about whether or not she’d be rescued in time. This was all done without any special effects or sound, just good old-fashioned acting.

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This is a film I’d heartily recommend to someone looking to explore Griffith’s features. While it is a melodrama and rather long, it’s not as overwhelming as something like BOAN or Intolerance. However, there are some poorly-executed slapstick scenes with the Squire’s farmhand Hi Holler, which really feel out of place and awkward in this film.

While I personally feel the pendulum has swung WAY too far from the opposite extreme of the baby snatch era, seeing this film makes me so glad the sexual double standard is no longer that extreme. A lot of people these days don’t even realize what it was like for women who had children out of wedlock in this era, and the serious consequences of non-marital sex.