Broken Blossoms (1919)

The beginnings of yellowface in the cinema are far less controversial than D.W. Griffith’s earlier Birth of a Nation, but Broken Blossoms lacks complexity and relies on main characters’ outsider status alone as the reason for them to be together. 

Broken BlossomsUSA
3.5*

Director:
D.W. Griffith

Screenwriters:
Thomas Burke

D.W. Griffith
Director of Photography:
G.W. Bitzer

Alternate title: The Yellow Man and the Girl

Running time: 90 minutes

D.W. Griffith’s depressing 1919 romantic drama Broken Blossoms may have the dubious title of being a pioneer in the use of yellowface (having white actors play Asians, most notably by grotesquely deforming their facial features), but it also arguably started the trend of creating a couple from two people who have very little in common and no obvious chemistry.

In the early 20th century, the placid Cheng Huan is moved by the “gentle message of Buddha” towards the West. An encounter with a rowdy crew of American sailors who use to their fists to solve problems horrifies the timid Cheng and reinforces his belief that the West needs the East’s positive and peaceful approach. He sets sail for London, where we find he has become an outcast who barely speaks to anybody but runs a tiny shop in the capital’s squalid Limehouse district, where, according to the film’s title cards, “the Orient squats at the portals of the West”.

Griffith, as he had done since at least The Drive for a Life in 1909, continues to deploy parallel editing on many occasions, although it this case one would be hard-pressed to say he is perfecting the approach. He focuses on the stories of the two main characters, Cheng and Lucy, whose lives are comparable to each other in their sorrow, and Griffith expects we would expect the two strands to be firmer tied together than apart.

Of course, that is a mistake too many directors still make today. The simplistic notion that people would not only gravitate towards each other but become intimately connected simply because they are outsiders is extremely silly. Cheng barely speaks to anyone. Lucy is equally timid, although she is also suffering tremendous domestic violence at the hands of the man who raised her, a perpetually drunk miscreant boxer, Battling Burrows, who takes out his general frustration with life on his adopted daughter. So, naturally, Cheng and Lucy find each other and immediately merge their souls.

Lilian Gish plays Lucy, and unlike the expressionless, dour face (naturally, framed under a conical hat) that the white Richard Barthelmess wears to portray Cheng, hers vibrates with a melancholy that is ever-present. A scene late in the film in which she locks herself in a closet out of fear for her own life and then writhes along the wall in anguish has justifiably been hailed for its visceral impact on the viewer.

A running visual theme that Gish utilises exceptionally well is the small gesture of using her fingers to push the corners of her mouth upwards, thus forcing a smile onto her “tear-aged” face. These are moments that could easily have come across as contrived but are instead conveyed with a real sense of desperation thanks to the actress’s skills as a performer.

This is supposed to be a romantic film, as the title cards inform us almost immediately after Cheng and Lucy set eyes on each other: Cheng’s loving care of the physically and mentally abused Lucy is “the first gentleness she has ever known”, and she “seems transformed – into the dark chambers of her incredulous, frightened little heart comes warmth and light.” Cheng is so taken with this creature of purity that he scoops up the moonlight falling through the window and places it worshipfully on her hair. And yet, the two of them almost never speak; as the film, despite its obvious intention to produce a romance, chooses to focus on scenes of action (sometimes irrelevant to the main couple) with Burrows the boxer.

Cheng, who hovers lasciviously over Lucy while she sleeps, makes for a rather pathetic hero, and we have little reason to empathise with him, except for him being such a tender fellow who is taken advantage of by a brutish boxer, and more generally, by Western civilisation. On this point, Griffith, who had made the racially insensitive Birth of a Nation four years earlier, is surprisingly broad-minded. In one scene, the obviously mild-mannered Cheng meets a missionary, about to set off for China to “convert the heathen”, who hands him a pamphlet on Hell, presumably because he assumes the Chinaman would require salvation from the Christian Trinity.

Fortunately, despite its one-dimensional characters and the utter simplicity of its central romance, Broken Blossoms does have at least two moments that stand out from the rest. One is a shot at the beginning of the extended climax, when Burrows discovers Lucy in Cheng’s apartment. The camera shoots his face looking straight at us, and we can just about see his nostrils flaring as the rage builds to a terrifying crescendo. Although there was never any risk that the viewer would be empathising with the villain, this momentary re-positioning of the viewer is clever and comparable to (though better executed than) the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.

The other moment worth considering is the complex morality at the end of the film. Here, the story seems to come full circle, as Cheng’s ineffective approach to the pugilist sailors at the beginning of the film comes back to haunt him, and either he has been consumed by the barbarity of the Anglo-Saxons he had believed he would be able to save, or he has decided to solve his problems in a different, albeit equally futile, way.

Although Broken Blossoms will be remembered for its mainstream normalisation of the practice of yellowface (even though the film opened pre–Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of miscegenation), in terms of morality the film is a vast improvement over Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Dante’s Inferno (1911)

Italy

4*
Director:
Giuseppe de Liguoro
Screenwriter:
Dante Alighieri
Director of Photography:
Emilio Roncarolo

Running time: 68 minutes

Original title: L’Inferno

Though creaking a bit with a load of peripheral characters that appear for a mere handful of seconds, as they are usually physically constricted from moving around, this very first filmic depiction of the “Inferno” part of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a remarkable visualisation of the story in a way that the cinema had not really taken advantage of before.

The one striking exception is the director whose style certainly influenced director Giuseppe de Liguoro: Georges Méliès, whose formative tendency (films whose meaning was enriched, even informed, by their visual style, in contrast with the Lumière brothers’ documentary-like films that strove to capture the world as it is without demonstrating any real creativity from the filmmakers, except for their placement of the camera) is on full display in this film that takes place in the underworld.

The film’s opening montage already gives us a peek into the underworld, presenting us with fragments of despair whose characters or settings we do not know yet (they will all be revealed over the course of the film), but the writhing bodies present a world undeniably abhorrent that rapidly comes into view.

Dante’s Inferno is very text-heavy as a screen full of words precedes nearly every scene, and this screen tells us what we are about to see and especially who the diverse assortment of characters are that Dante and his guide, the poet Virgil, meet on their way through he underworld. The problem is that the film’s one-hour length means the entire journey has to be condensed and all of the duo’s interactions with the condemned last a very short amount of time.

Sometimes, the names of the characters are onscreen for a longer period of time than the physical individuals themselves. But Dante carries on, carried – as  are we, the viewers – by the trance-like music that accompanies the film’s most recent release, of the German electronic band Tangerine Dream.

There are many noteworthy special effects in the film, and the moments when Dante or Virgil or Dante’s muse, the young Beatrice who has an impressive spinning halo above her head, lift off to float away or fly off are very effective and do not seem as rudimentary as one might have expected. It’s pure Méliès for the contemporary viewer: at once fantastical and uncanny because of the slight awkwardness of the movements or the stammering nature of such an old film of which not all the frames were in perfect condition.

At other times, the use of superimposition and even of forced perspective (see, for example, Dante and Virgil meeting the giant Antaeus) is equally splendid. At one point, a headless man appears holding his own head – it is very easy to guess how this was done, but the effect is rather good.

Famously, Dante is reminded to “Abandon all hope [ye who enter here]” and the images we certainly fit very well with this notion. Those trapped down below have been sentenced to suffer for their sins for all eternity and the variety of ways in which they have to pay for their time spent on earth can make for rather uncomfortable viewing, from the Summonists (those who have cheated the Church) trapped with their heads buried in the sand, and the spendthrifts who have to roll bags of gold around their circle, to the hypocrites wearing cloaks of gold on the outside but filled with lead on the inside.

Dante is a bit of a wuss, as he faints or screams all the way through Hell, once even pulling a tuft of hair from a head sticking out of the ground, but on the other hand the majestic Virgil, wearing a white sheet and wearing an olive wreath on his head in the style of an Olympic Games winner, and gesticulating hither and thither in extremely melodramatic fashion, doesn’t make any better an impression.

It is a frightening moment when Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucanus appear and give the travelling duo the Roman salute, as within a few years of the film’s release, it would be co-opted by the fascists in Italy and Germany and become the Hitler salute.

This world where steam seems to be everywhere is a place where no one wants to end up. It is a place of endless misery, and the film presents a thorough catalogue of the pain and suffering that awaits those who choose to live according to their own vices and desires. It is sometimes rather obvious that the story was conceived on the first level to warn Dante’s fellow Florentines of their reckless behaviour, but the rundown of the levels of Hell makes for a powerful visual argument against immorality.
The film is unfortunately very episodic, and even the relationship of the two main characters, Dante and Virgil, is not allowed to develop. But as a purely visual experience, this film is a feast.