Between the ages of 18 and 31, I saw thirty-four films directed by David Wark Griffith, generally acknowledged as the first great American filmmaker, if not the first truly epochal director in the world. As a child I had seen perhaps one or two of his movies when my father took me by the hand to the Museum of Modern Art. But in those years during which I went from enthusiast to student to apprentice to professional, I realized that, as is often said, it was in fact true that between 1908 (thirteen years after the first brief projected films) and 1925—-D.W. Griffith had pretty much done it all: established the entire popular vocabulary of cinema, and elaborated on it brilliantly and with global impact. Then along came Ernst Lubitsch from Europe—-as in: first there was Bach and then there was Mozart. Within six years, Griffith’s career was over. But twelve years before that, for his fourteenth feature—-after literally hundreds of two- or three-reel masterpieces—-he directed, produced, co-wrote and scored one of his most haunting and singular works, among the few cinematic poems ever made, his 1919 tragic romance, BROKEN BLOSSOMS (available on DVD).
I first saw the film in Manhattan when I was nineteen and the movie was already thirty-nine; on an index card at the time—-after noting the picture’s subtitle (The Yellow Man and the Girl)—-I wrote: “A classic, this poetic, naive, technically superb and moving outcry against brutality—-a fervent plea for feminine innocence—-remains as poignant and effective as it must have been forty years ago. Griffith tells the story of a wretched, tortured little London slum-girl—-her father’s cruel beatings, the brief respite she finds with a quiet Chinaman [not yet politically incorrect nomenclature]—-with economy, restraint and artistry; and with beautiful performances by Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess.”
Ten years later, at 29, I saw the movie again, this time in Westwood, California, and this time on the card I rated it “Excellent” and added: “More consciously artistic than any other Griffith film, and strangely, not as effective for that reason; it lacks the vigor of Hearts of the World or Way Down East which surround it, and also their cinematic wizardry. Still, it is a lovely work, and something he no doubt wanted to get out of his system—-like Ford’s more pretentious works; he was not to return to this style, and it is clearly not as personal to him as things like True Heart Susie or The Birth of A Nation.”
Nearly two decades later, I saw the movie again, in Vancouver, B.C.—in a beautiful tinted print: the big-screen original had numerous amazing sequences tinted blue and gold—-and by now having lived a little bit more, having experienced success, failure, love, and death of loved ones. At this point I was only three years older than Griffith’s 44 when he made the picture with such exquisite sensitivity, and I was overwhelmingly moved by Broken Blossoms. There was such extraordinary feeling behind every shot and gesture, every frame, every nuance of every performance, like visual music. But especially the transformingly beautiful and brave Lillian Gish, the living personification of characters about whom they say, “the good die young”; and the amazingly feminine, yet eloquently masculine Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese boy, the role that made him a world superstar. Donald Crisp, as Gish’s father, creates among the most loathsome, and convincing, pathologically violent heavies ever put on film.
Gish, of course, is so incandescent and breathtakingly honest that when you see her use thumb and forefinger to faithfully press upwards the corners of her mouth into a valiant smile of grit-filled endurance against the bestial inhumanity of the world, it becomes such a profoundly touching image that it will never leave you. As Orson Welles used to exclaim: “A stone would cry!” Griffith’s Broken Blossoms reminds one of the lyrical, resonant human magic of which the movies once were capable.