We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. We’ll be covering a new film on the list every week. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
Today, I do my best Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread impression to ask DW Griffith, “Are you a special agent sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?” Because yes, it’s time for another Griffith joint. Made with the supreme confidence of a white man at the peak of his social relevance who has never even questioned the potentially problematic nature of his own opinions, Broken Blossoms is the story of a Chinese opium addict who becomes attached to a poor girl horribly abused by her father. And yes, it does feature a certain Asian slur that begins with a C, which Griffith casually tosses into a title card as a term of endearment, in case you wanted to know right off the bat what we’re getting into.
Cheng Huan or the Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess in some pretty gnarly yellowface) is a formerly idealistic immigrant to London who was once determined to lead a pure, spiritual life, but quickly became disillusioned and addicted to opium, because he is a Chinese character and Griffith only knows so many Asian stereotypes. But when he sees the hardships experienced by Lucy (Lillian Gish), he grows infatuated with her innocence and kind nature. His affections for her seem to lie somewhere between paternal and romantic. At any rate, he considers himself her self-appointed protector against the violent abuses of her alcoholic father.
The nature of their relationship is murky for a lot of reasons. Firstly, interracial romances were just not done in American cinema at this point — anti-miscegenation laws would still be on the books in several states for another forty-odd years, after all. And even the brief hints of anything approaching romance in Broken Blossoms were only acceptable with a white man in the leading role rather than an Asian actor. This would be a common enough practice for the next few decades, allowing films to take advantage of the appeal of supposedly “exotic” characters but not actually showing interracial relationships (or, for that matter, hiring actors of color.)
The race issue isn’t the only odd element to the dynamic between Cheng Huan and Lucy. It’s incredibly difficult to gauge how old Lucy is supposed to be. Lillian Gish was an adult actress around 26 when Broken Blossoms was filmed, but she looks and acts about ten years old. Is she playing an actual child, or is this just another example of DW Griffith infantilizing his female characters in pursuit of a chaste ideal? She’s likely playing somewhere between her actual age and the young age she appears, but the ambiguity makes it tough to get a read on how to interpret their dynamic.
Despite these problems, Barthelmess and Gish are both talented performers. Gish is heartbreakingly fragile as Lucy, determinedly pushing the corners of her mouth up with her fingers in a broken facsimile of a smile. The film’s climax, where a terrified Lucy hides in a closet from her father drunkenly trying to claw his way in, is as devastating to watch now as it must have been a hundred years ago. Barthelmess puts in what must have been considered an empathetic, sensitive performance in 1919, even if it’s undercut by his makeup, deeply offensive by today’s standards, and the fact that he shouldn’t have been cast in that role in the first place.
The filmmakers would probably say that they deserve credit for writing an Asian lead character in the first place and one who’s the hero of the piece on top of that. Maybe that’s true. There’s not much in Broken Blossoms that comes across as more racially insensitive than Hollywood depictions from decades later, such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or, for that matter, the entire cast of How I Met Your Mother during their infamous yellowface episode. Perhaps this is one instance where we can give Griffith the benefit of the doubt and say that even if the racial depictions of Broken Blossoms haven’t aged particularly well, they were certainly ahead of their time.