Broken Blossoms (1919) dir. D. W. Griffith. USA.
“…and then there is Lillian Gish’s face. Was she the greatest actress of silent films? Perhaps; her face is the first I think of among the silent actresses, just as Chaplin and Keaton stand side by side among the men. When she was filming ‘The Whales of August’ in 1987, her co-star was another legend, Bette Davis. The film’s director, Lindsay Anderson, told me this story. One day after finishing a shot, he said, ‘Miss Gish, you have just given me the most marvelous closeup!’ ‘She should,’ Bette Davis observed dryly. ‘She invented them.'”
Abigail: This film is not exciting or large scale, but it is chock full of angles and shots we recognize still. Close ups are used not to gesticulate, but to show feeling. Title cards are used for dialogue as often as they are for scene setting. In fact, the scene is set more visually than in words for the first time – adding fog to a wet London street and using establishing shots in a modern way. The subtitle: The Yellow Man and the Girl, of course does refer to a Chinese man, come over to Britain to train the savage Anglo-Saxxons in the peaceful ways of the Buddha. This, of course, rankles modern sensibility, and there are several shocking instances of racial slurs and embarrassing stereotypes (the “yellow man” – for that is the only name he is given in title cards – is a casual opium addict, and a shopkeeper ). It is easy to forgive this insensitivity due to the time period – in fact it was pretty progressive, you could say, showing interracial (if a white man in yellow face can be called interracial…) love! But it does conjure, for me at least, the fact that racism and sexism are built into the vocabulary of film. The way we shoot women and racial minorities is still tainted because of the people who built the medium, and their prejudices. It is impossible to pick and choose what sentiments were influential, and which we left behind – if setting the tone with fog was influential, so was casting the greatest movie star of the time as a sniveling victim, and a white man as her Chinese lover.
Forrest: “Broken Blossoms” is…significant. Which is different than being good, or enjoyable, or anything else. It features a notably terrible performance from the usually excellent Lillian Gish, some deeply unfortunate yellowface, and the sort of plot that only makes sense if you don’t think about it. But it’s certainly innovative, and it shows Griffith further refining the vocabulary of film. He more or less masters the closeup in this, and his (soundstage) London is as magical and mysterious as his enormous period sets were impressive. It’s also less than half the length of his two earlier epics, so in some ways an exercise in restraint. It’s a step down from the dizzying heights of “Intolerance,” but by no means a step back.