Sunday, 5 March 2017

Gish of the day… Broken Blossoms (1919), Donald MacKenzie, Regent Street Cinema

My second Gish this week and I've seen two excellent performances from Dorothy and Lillian that could hardly be more different.

This was DW Griffith in his peak run, following up Intolerance with a tale of inter-racial love, brutish intolerance and steadfast faith in gods and each other. Apparently, it was Mary Pickford that recommended Eltham-born Thomas Burke’s book of short stories, Limehouse Nights (1916) to Griffith and Broken Blossoms was based on the story, The Chink and the Child… alliteration can get you many places but, this case, it can’t guarantee your title will stand the test of time.

Burke was not impressed with the end product but DW took his outline and delivered an intense, close-quarters song of love and hate that was probably the only way he could go after Babylon. The set is shrouded in pea-soup fog and maybe it pre-figures German films of the twenties and even Film Noir with its foreboding atmosphere and singular lack of a guaranteed happy ending.

Lillian Gish
Those Germans may have had Emil Jannings but America had perhaps the greatest physical actor of the generation in Lillian Gish, a woman who generates such frailty that you doubt she’ll make it through the film. From the outset, her character Lucy – supposedly a teenager – is so weak she cannot even raise a smile. She was delivered onto the doorstep of her father, boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp with cauliflower ear painfully folded over like a pasty!) by one of his former lovers and has had to endure his disdain for all the intervening years.

Burrows isn’t a battler he’s just a brute and he treats his daughter like dirt. Lucy waits on him and has to stand by to see if there will be any food left over for her to eat. She is so beaten down she cannot stand straight and the only way she can force a smile is by using her fingers to push the edges of her mouth up…. imagine a life so full of unrelenting sadness that smiling is physically unlearned?

Donald Crisp
You can well understand why Griffith took a number of months to finish the film in post-production, he confessed that he couldn’t look at “…the damned thing; it depresses me so.” Yet finish it he did and it is one of his most complete and revered films.

That said, this is DW and so we must confront the anachronistic elephant in the screening room… but what’s it doing there I hear you cry, you only get elephants in India? Whilst there are actors of Chinese origin in the film, the lead role and other key parts are played by white actors with quite horrible make up. We are at a point here between Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong and it was deemed that Richard Barthelmess would make for a more acceptable hero as Cheng Huan than an actor requiring less make up...

He does a decent job through the goop and it’s just one of those 100-year old things you have to try contextualise; a bit like the Elizabethan boys playing girls in Shakespeare, the British Empire and, in the far future, a multiple bankrupt, TV personality being US President… that sort of thing.

Richard Barthelmess
Cheng is shown at the film’s start preparing to take his faith to the West and encountering American sailors having a wild time in the Chinese port in which he lives. Griffith goes out of his way to set up Cheng’s Buddhist background with a frequently referenced shot of temple bells and is at pains to stress the sincerity of beliefs every bit as heartfelt as those in the West.

Cut forward a few years and Cheng is a weary walker in East London streets, leaning against the front of his shop as he relives how his attempt to bring a new faith to aggressive Anglo-Saxons has turned sour. He survives in London’s notorious Limehouse (before it was riddled with City financiers) and having chased one dragon too many lives a disappointed life as a gambling, self-medicating shopkeeper.

Living in terror
But Cheng hasn’t lost his good nature even if he has been worn down. He watches Lucy often in their street and loves her from a far, seeing the beauty that all of Limehouse ignores. After one particularly savage beating, she literally falls into his doorway and he helps her recover. There are some sweet scenes between the two as gifts are given and affection grows even though Lucy is alarmed by one close encounter as The Yellow Man (cringe) pulls out of an intended kiss.

This is too early for an interracial happy ending (see above) and sure enough, Lucy is spotted and her father told. He has a big boxing match across the river but once he’s done with his opponent he’ll be right over to meet out further punishment...

Barthelmess and Gish
Against this harsh, unrelenting force, the flowers that signify and surround Lucy and Cheng seem so hopelessly futile and, of course, blossoms are the most fleeting of all flowers. Cheng describes Lucy as his White Blossom and Gish acts as much like a spring bloom as any person could, her presence being even more insubstantial and fragile than usual – she is almost too painful to watch.

Lucy's interaction with her thuggish father has Gish conveying a hopeless mix of sadness and terror through her forced smiles: the actorly equivalent of rubbing your tummy, tapping your head and hopping on one leg… all submerged deeply in character. Barthelmess is unfortunately little more than a prop in their scenes together – well I wasn’t watching him - whilst Lillian exhibits her full range of tender intricacies. Victorian child-woman and all those things Griffith wanted her to be, Lillian Gish still dazzles with her virtuosity: her talent outshining her director.

An horrific moment as Lucy tries to avoid another beating
Donald MacKenzie accompanied on the Regent Street Cinema’s organ and showed just why he is one of the leading players in the UK. The organ is so evocative of the picture house past that it works in different – very specific - ways to piano which has a more timeless feel. To play beyond the audience’s tonal expectations requires narrative awareness as well as sensitive technique and Mr McKenzie has clearly mastered both. After a while you forget about the sound and just feel along to the music and the bells … and the whistles!

The print was not the best but there’s exciting news of a new restoration emerging from Paris – Silent London has an update on this and other treats in store in her latest podcast. Broken Blossoms is another tricksy Griffith film for us 21st Century folk but for Billy Bitzer’s camerawork, DW's cinematic vision and Lillian's guts this is one I would like to watch again and with the new Carl Davis score!

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