Tag Archives: romance

Broken Blossoms (1919) – A Lyrical Tale of Love, Idealism and Death

19 May

Today I will talk about my favourite silent film ever, Broken Blossoms (1919), which tells a story of an innocent love between a beautiful waif girl Lucy and a Chinese opium-smoking dreamer Cheng, broken idealism and death, set in the seedy and decaying Limehouse district of London.

D.W. Griffith’s film “Broken Blossoms” first premiered on 13th May 1919, almost a hundred years ago. The introductory title card says: “It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears“. It was based on Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” from his collection of short stories called “Limehouse Nights”, first published in 1916, and it tells the story of a sad, helpless and beautiful twelve year old girl called Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), her loutish and abusive boxer father (Donald Crisp), and a man recently arrived from China, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), whose dream is “to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.”

I have immediately been attracted to the atmosphere of the film; seedy, dangerous streets and alleys of London’s East End, with poverty-stricken immigrants, thieves and prostitutes, and a little girl wandering the streets all alone, an untainted little blossom whose heart yearns for kindness, gentleness and flowers. The same dark gritty streets have swallowed Cheng’s idealism. He is presented as a naive and romantic opium-smoking idealist and a dreamer, who finds himself too weak to fight evils and injustices that surround him, and instead of spreading the gentle message of Buddha, he wastes time in opium-induced reverie, working in his shop or standing at the corner, lost in his thought, not just powerless against the mud of society, but lying in its dirt.

“The Yellow Man watched Lucy often. The beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to the heart.” (32:43)

“Lucy’s starved heart aches for the flowers.” (36:38)

Thomas Burke’s literary style is described as a blend of realism and romanticism, and this is exactly the kind of mood that Griffith has created. Throughout the film, the opposites clash and meet; Lucy lives in poverty and is abused mentally and physically and yet she dreams not of wealth and power, but of flowers and kindness, and Cheng is just a shop keeper on the outside, but his mind is always in the state of sweet reverie. Their life-conditions are realistic, but their idealistic friendship and love are so naive and romantic. When the two finally meet in the street, Cheng’s kindness soon grows into innocent adoration for this pretty little thing.

Burke’s fantasy of Limehouse follows in this tradition of an alternative world-turned-upside-down … a French definition of chinoserie that neatly encapsulated the late-Victorian and Edwardian concepts of Chineseness which found expression in the staged Orientalisms of Looking-Glass worlds. (…) In Bakhtinian terms, Chinese Limenhouse presented itself as a place of carnival. The district of Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway are London streets overlaid with the trappings of an alien culture.  The shop windows are filled with arcane products, restaurants are denoted by weird hieroglyphs and serve weirder food. Stragely dressed people and the locality’s dimly lit glooms provoke an early association with theatrical spectacle and grotesquerie, Limehouse is always enveloped in transforming mists and enveloping fogs.” (Thomas Burke’s Dark Chinoiserie: Limehouse Nights and the Queer Spell of Chinatown, by Anna Veronica Witchard)

Sad little Lucy forcing a smile

Here’s a lyrical part from the story describing the moments Cheng saw Lucy and his daydreams about her from then on: “So he would lounge and smoke cheap cigarettes, and sit at his window, from which point he had many times observed the lyrical Lucy. He noticed her casually. Another day, he observed her, not casually. Later, he looked long at her; later still, he began to watch for her and for that strangely provocative something about the toss of the head and the hang of the little blue skirt as it coyly kissed her knee.

Then that beauty which all Limehouse had missed smote Cheng. Straight to his heart it went, and cried itself into his very blood. Thereafter the spirit of poetry broke her blossoms all about his odorous chamber. Nothing was the same. Pennyfields became a happy-lanterned street, and the monotonous fiddle in the house opposite was the music of his fathers. Bits of old songs floated through his mind: little sweet verses of Le Tai-pih, murmuring of plum blossom, rice-field and stream. Day by day he would moon at his window, of shuffle about the streets, lightning to a flame when Lucy would pass and gravely return his quiet regard; and night after night, too, he would dream of a pale, lily-lovely child.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

A quote from the story:

Always the white face was scarred with red, or black-furrowed with tears; always in her steps and in her look was expectation of dread things. (…) Yet, for all the starved face and the transfixed air, there was a lurking beauty about her, a something that called you in the soft curve of her cheek that cried for kisses and was fed with blows, and in the splendid mournfulness that grew in eyes and lips. The brown hair chimed against the pale face, like the rounding of the verse. The blue cotton frock and the broken shoes could not break the loveliness of her slender figure or the shy grace of her movements as she flitted about the squalid alleys of the docks…

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3

Cheng had seen Lucy many times before, but they have never conversed. Their encounter takes place one evening when Lucy, after being beaten up by her father, weak and vulnerable, aimlessly wanders the dangerous streets at night and somehow finds herself lying on the floor of his shop. When Cheng returns to his shop after going out for noodles and tea, his mind still floating in a vibrant opium dream, he think she too is a product of his altered conscience, but quickly comes to his senses and takes care of her. These are his thoughts upon that sweet unexpected encounter: “O lily-flowers and plum blossoms! O silver streams and dim-starred skies! O wine and roses, song and laughter! For there, kneeling on a mass of rugs, mazed and big-eyed, but understanding, was Lucy … his Lucy … his little maid. Through the dusk she must have felt his intense gaze upon her; for he crouched there, fascinated, staring into the now obscured corer where she knelt.

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (from a title card, at 55.18)

Now, for the first time in her life, Lucy feels safe and loved, and he nurtures her for three nights; showers her with kisses, gentleness and hugs, listens to her sorrows, buys her a doll and flowers, cares for her as if she were indeed a gentle flower found on a road. He dresses her up in beautiful, sumptuous gold and blue fabrics from the far East, thus turning her into a little Chinese princess, he even gives her a love-name: White Blossom. In this pale, frail Cockney girl he found an object of affection and a soul to offer nourishment to. This is where an interesting technical aspect of the film comes from; the scenes in his Oriental fairy-tale bedroom are in a pink-purple colour so they look magical indeed compared to the  which is black and white. His room is a safe haven of beauty.

What he brought to her was love and death. For he sat by her.  He looked at her – reverently, then passionately. He touched her – wistfully yet eagerly. He locked a finger in her wondrous hair. She did not start away; she did not tremble. (…) No, she was not afraid. His yellow hands, his yellow face, his smooth black hair… well, he was the first thing that had ever spoken soft words to her; the first thing that had ever laid hand on her that was not brutal; the first thing that had deferred in manner towards her as though she, too, had a right to live. She knew his words were sweet, though she did not understand them.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 2

Slowly, softly they mounted the stairs to his room, and with almost an obeisance he entered and drew her in. A bank of cloud raced to the east and a full moon thrust a sharp sword of light upon them. Silence lay over all Pennyfields. With a bird-like movement, she looked up at him – her face alight, her tiny hands upon his coat – clinging, wondering, trusting. He took her hand and kissed it; repeated the kiss upon her cheek and lip and little bosom, twining his fingers in her hair. Docilely, and echoing the smile of his lemon lips in a way that thrilled him almost to laughter, she returned his kisses impetuously, gladly. (…) So they stood in the moonlight, while she told him the story of her father, of her beatings, and starvings, and unhappiness.

After the rapture of their encounter passes, Cheng began to redecorate his little room to make it fit for his White Blossom:

… the clock above the Millwall docks shot twelve crashing notes across the night . When the last echo died, he moved to a cupboard, and from it he drew strange things… formless masses of blue and gold, magical things of silk, and a vessel that was surely Aladdin’s lamp, and a box of spices. He took these robes, and, with tender, reverent fingers, removed from his White Blossom the besmirched rags that covered her, and robed her again, and led her then to the heap of stuff that was his bed, and bestowed her safely. For himself, he squatted on the floor before her, holding one grubby little hand. There he crouched all night, under the lyric moon, sleepless, watchful; and sweet content was his. (…) Weary and trustful, she slept, knowing that the yellow man was kind and that she might sleep with no fear of a steel hand smashing the delicate structure of her dreams.

Here is how the room of his Oriental princess is described in the story:

…and now at last his room was prepared for his princess. It was swept and garnished, and was an apartment worthy a maid who is loved by a poet-prince. There was a bead curtain. There were muslins of pink and white. There were four bowls of flowers, clean, clear flowers to gladden the White Blossom and set off her sharp beauty. And there was a bowl of water, and a sweet lotion for the bruise on her cheek. (…) Cleansed, and robed and calm, she sat before him, perched on the edge of many cushions as on a throne, with all the grace of the child princess in the story. She was a poem. The beauty hidden by neglect and fatigue shone out now more clearly and vividly, and from the head sunning over with curls to the small white feet, now bathed and sandalled, she seemed the living interpretation of a Chinese lyric. And she was his; her sweet self and her prattle, and her birdlike ways were all his own. Oh, beautifully they loved. For two days he held her. Soft caresses from his yellow hands and long, devout kisses were all their demonstration. Each night he would tend her, as might mother to child…

So far, everything seems idyllic; a tale of love, a tale of blossoms, sweet melodies and sweet words spoken in moonlight, in the seedy streets of Limehouse where the warm light of lanterns permeates the eternal mists, but after three dreamy nights, Lucy’s father found out of her whereabouts and was furious to hear that a foreigner, a yellow-man had taken his daughter, even though he himself had never loved her. When Cheng was out to buy more rice, the furious Burrows came to the chamber of White Blossom, smashed all the beautiful porcelain, ripped the muslin curtains, and dragged Lucy by hair downstairs and back to their house… To quote the story: “The temple was empty and desolate; White Blossom was gone.”

There is a famous scene from the film called “The Closet Scene”, which you can watch here, where Lucy is hiding in a closet and her father is trying to smash the door with an axe, and she’s screaming (we can’t hear her of course), but her face expressions reveal the fear she’s feeling. It is said that in reality she was screaming so convincingly that lots of people gathered outside the studio, thinking that there really was something bad going on.

Death of the White Blossom had made life impossible for Cheng too:

The sacrament of his high and holy passion had been profaned; the last sanctuary of the Oriental  – his soul dignity – had been assaulted. The love robes had been torn to ribbons; the veil of his temple cut down. Life was no longer possible; and life without his little lady, his White Blossom, was no longer desirable.

More in the state of deep sadness and despair than anger, Cheng took the frail lifeless little body of Lucy, still warm, to his home, not a soul had seen him in that night of thick velvety river mist and….

He laid her upon the bed, and covered the lily limbs with the blue and yellow silks and strewed upon her a few of the trampled flowers. Then, with more kisses and prayers, he crouched beside her. So, in the ghastly Limehouse morning, they were found – the dead child, and the Chink, kneeling beside her, with a sharp knife gripped in a vice-like hand, its blade far between his ribs.

American screen actress Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) in costume for her role in the MGM film ‘Romola’, an adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, directed by Henry King, 1924

Last spring I watched a lot of Old Hollywood films, in particular I found myself falling in love with silent films and watched a lot of those. I really loved the Gothic suspense mood of “The Sparrows” (1926) starring Mary Pickford, but “Broken Blossoms” is still my favourite silent film. I’ve fancied Lillian over all other silent film actresses for a long time. Mary Pickford is more famous, without a doubt, but she is cheerful, happy-go-lucky, like the Sun, while Lillian’s face exudes melancholy and wistfulness, she is more like the Moon. One line from Rabindranath Tagore comes to my mind whenever I think of Lillian: “Her wistful face haunts my dreams like the rain at night.

Role of the frail and gentle Lucy is typical for Lilian Gish. She said it herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” I happen to love the characters of gentle, fragile, helpless, beautiful waif-like virgins, guilty as charged. I know that silent films are not for everyone, but I see them as hidden jewels! I’ve noticed that I pay way more attention while watching a silent film, because the face expressions, gestures and title cards mean way more;  you have to read their feelings from their face, isn’t that wonderful?! I also very much love the fashion aspect of the films; Lillia Gish has the cutest hairstyle, and the same goes for the clothes both she and Mary Pickford are often wearing; hats, frilly dresses, white lace… It is amazing how they were in their twenties and still playing child-parts, while today girls of fifteen are encouraged to look older and more attractive.

In the end, they are both “Broken Blossoms”; broken idealism and broken life. Have you see the film? Read the story? Don’t you think Lillian is a pretty little thing? The film is on Youtube, as are many other silent films, and Thomas Burke’s stories you can read here. I felt so inspired after watching the film again, that I decided to read not just this story, but some other from the collection as well. They are so interesting and lyrical, and despite being set in London, the atmosphere is that of a magical Oriental world. Suddenly everything is about street lamps, mists, blossoms, perfumes, sweet melodies and roses. Here is a quote from another story, “The Sign of the Lamp”: “He talked of a land of lilies and soft blue nights which he had left that he might adventure in strange countries, and see the beauties of the white girls of other lands and learn great things… All these things he told her in successive sweet evenings of June, when Limehouse, was a city of rose and silver, and the odour of exotic spices lured every sense to the secret amiable delights of the pillow.” So alluring, can you resist not reading it?