Movie Dictator Club: Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl (1919)

The theme for the Movie Dictator Club for the month of June, 2010 is silents, or those movies without words that most of the populace avoid because people are stupid!

Written By: D.W. Griffith
Directed By: D.W. Griffith

I find myself split right down the middle when it comes to Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl and those who know me know that my problems begin with the title and with the lead actor. I absolutely abhor the old film practice of casting white actors as Asian characters, it was stupid then, it’s stupid now and no amount of arguing will convince me otherwise. I’m, sorry, but this is one of the few issues that I will remain a stone on. The title, Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl, is problematic because it represents a duality within the film that I had a hard time taking in.

On the one hand D.W. Griffith wants to tell a progressive story, perhaps this was a part of his career long quest to convince people he was not racist following The Birth Of A Nation. But, on the other hand the film uses racist terminology at every turn, and not just from characters who are racist, but also through the narration of the title cards. The argument could be made that the term, “Chink” was an accepted term at the time, but I don’t believe that to be the case. The people who used that word then and now know what it meant and how derogatory it was, and the same goes for the term yellow when applied to someone of Asian decent. I don’t quite think Griffith ever comes to grasp with the difference between the racism of his characters and the racism he allows to make up the fourth wall aspect of the film through the repeated usage of such slurs. Because of that a tale I believe he felt was going to be progressive and make a statement about race relations instead feels trapped in its time and like it is doing more damage than good to the racial cause.

Once we move beyond those issues the viewer is left with a gripping melodrama, and make no mistake about that, Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl isn’t a drama, it is a melodrama. In typical silent fashion everything is larger than it needs to be, characters play into their stereotypes a bit more and the big moments are truly big. That is fine though, Griffith never intends for Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl to be a small picture, even if people have viewed it as one of his smaller efforts since its release. This is a film that works off of emotion and Lillian Gish’s face, those two things throw subtlety out the window and leave a film that is blatantly honest in its intentions. Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl is a soppy love story and it is very proud of that fact, as well it should be.

This brings us to the one element that raises Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl to another level, the performance of Lillian Gish. I’m hesitant to say that her performance was all in the face, because she does a lot with body expression and mannerisms as well, but that is the best way to quantify the power behind her performance. There is a scene late in Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl where she is trapped in a closet as her father chops away at the door with an axe. The fathers actions are frightening, but that fright is magnified by the glimpses we get of Gish’s face as she spins around in a fearful daze. From the moment she looks at the camera Gish grabs a hold of that apparatus and never lets go, not for a single nanosecond.

Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl has other strengths as well, the foggy look of the film, the pacing of the melodramatics, and those elements plus the positives I discussed above are what help Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl to overcome its blatantly racist tendencies and remain a film that is well worth seeing. If you’re like me it may take you a bit to get over the negative aspects of Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl, but once you do you are in for a good old fashioned melodrama and a face that could tell a thousand stories all on its own.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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2 responses to “Movie Dictator Club: Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl (1919)

  1. I can see your issue with the whole race thing. It bugged me some, but I didn’t find it as obtrusive as you did.

    Gish really does give a fantastic performance and I’ve loved her in everything I’ve seen her play in, especially The Night of the Hunter.

    I’m not sure if you are trying to knock melodrama, but I love me some silent melodramas. I’m a sucker for them.

  2. Not knocking the melodrama at all, Broken Blossoms is a fine melodrama, I just wanted to highlight how much of a melodrama it is in my review.

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