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"Broken Blossoms," a 1919 silent film directed by D.W. Griffith, starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp


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"Broken Blossoms" is the story of a kind Chinese man who falls in love with a young English girl. Lillian Gish, 23-years-old at the time and with 63 films already under her belt, stars as Lucy, the misfortunate 15-year-old daughter of Battling Burrows, a drunken and abusive London prizefighter.

It is an interracial love story ahead of its time. As Roger Ebert notes in this excellent review, the affair is chaste (interracial marriage was illegal in 1919), but the subject matter made the film controversial and groundbreaking when it was released.

It is a short film, only an hour and a half long. It is simple, sad, and gritty at times. After watching it, I realize why Gish is sometimes referred to as the First Lady of American Cinema. She gives a brilliant performance as the poor, battered girl who masks the fear of her father's fists with a weak, forced smile.

Gish's Lucy is angelic and pitiful. She is beautiful and broken. You can't help but root for this pathetic, abused child to find a better life than the hell she is living. Without uttering a sound, Gish's expressive eyes reveal the terror she feels every time her father enters the room. There is an unforgettable, claustraphobic scene where she hides in a closet that is one of the most powerful moments I have seen from any film of any era.

As in Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," there are moments of racism in this film, and some parts of the movie will seem quite dated to today's audience. The longer title of the film refers to the leading male role as "The Yellow Man," and in one scene, Lucy calls her saviour "Chinky." Asian characters are played by white actors, including the leading man Richard Barthelmess. Barthelmess, by the way, gives a very strong performance as a kind soul whose heart is overflowing with love for Lucy. He treats poor Lucy with such tenderness, it brought me to tears.

His kindness is in stark contrast to the pent-up anger of Battling Burrows, played by Donald Crisp. Crisp's Burrows is like a cartoon character of an old-timey strongman come to life. When he takes out his rage on poor Lucy, he is terrifying. There are some very disturbing images of child abuse in this film.

I watced this movie on a whim, after reading about it in Roger Ebert's review of "The Birth of a Nation." This is a lovely film with incredible acting. I never imagined I would enjoy a silent film from nearly 100 years ago as much as I did "Broken Blossoms."

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