Broken Blossoms (1919)
Or The Yellow Man and the Girl as it’s charmingly also known as, though If you find that offensive it’s worth bearing in mind that the Thomas Burke Limehouse Nights short story it’s based on is charmingly titled The Chink and the Child.
That said this is a generally well thought of slice of social realism directed with a fair degree of flair by one of silent cinema’s better known directors, D.W. Griffith (who earlier courted controversy for his positive depiction of slavery and the Klu Klux Klan in Birth Of A Nation). Maybe he felt the need to atone because this is a sympathetic (if somewhat patronising) tale of an abused young girl, Lucy Burrows, played by Lillian Gish (often known as The First Lady Of American Cinema) and a kind-hearted Chinese man who falls in love with her, albeit somewhat chastely.
The Chinese man does have a name (Cheng Huan) but he’s only ever referred to as “The Yellow Man”. He leaves his native China because he “dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.” This seems to result in him opening a shop in Limehouse and smoking opium (naturally) when he’s depressed until he rescues Lucy from the clutches her rather brilliantly monikered violent alcoholic prize-fighter father, Battling Burrows.
The film is renowned and praised for its small-scale aesthetic , with one critic Richard Schickel crediting it with inspiring “the likes of Pabst, Stiller, von Sternberg, and others, [and then] re-emerging in the United States in the sound era, in the genre identified as film noir” and it’s certainly fair to say it pulls very few punches in its depiction of child abuse which audiences of the time were said to find “nauseating”. Of particular note is the scene where Gish is locked in a cupboard, “writhing like a tortured animal who knows there is no escape” (Wiki). On the day of filming her screams are said to have attracted a crowd of people who had to be held back outside the studio.
“The Yellow(face) Man” is portrayed by Richard Bathelmess as a kind of idiot-savant simpleton in the mould, perhaps, of a silent “oriental” Forrest Gump but with none of Forrest’s renowned luck. The character is clearly sympathetic in the writing and playing but there’s something very irksome about his good natured and asexual (or so it’s intended) fawning over young Lucy. I have to say, as well, that even for a silent movie star Barthelmess has a quite deathly pallor.
The one other Chinese character of note is the unsubtly named Evil Eye (it’s fairly easy to gauge his dramatic function) who is again portrayed by a (unconvincing) Caucasian. Incidentally there is one scene that juxtaposes between The Yellow Man and Evil Eye both leering at the hapless Lucy in the cobbled Limehouse street where we’re obviously meant to contrast the protagonist and antagonist but I have to say that if anyone were to see just that scene in isolation they’d be hard-pressed to tell which is the villain.
My favourite scene? When The Yellow(face) Man wraps Lucy in an ornate chioiserie blanket and all is tender until we see a subtitle of Lucy’s dialogue which reads “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?” though I have to say so pale is he perhaps she should have substituted “Chalkie” for “Chinky”.
Stay tuned for the next in our series of Yellowface Film Reviews where we get our talons into the Yellowface “classic” that is The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex running till October 19th