In the year 1915 D.W Griffith made a huge splash in the motion picture industry when he released his Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film was a commercial and box office success that catapulted Griffith to a high level in the hierarchy of film. However in 1916, his success was grounded when his film Intolerance did not perform well at the Box Office. Though the film was extremely artful and inspired the Soviet film movement, it was a box office failure due to the length and extremely complicated plot. The years 1918-1920 were years that D.W. Griffith directed numerous, safer films that appealed to the public. Among his most important films of the period were True Heart Susie and Broken Blossoms.
Unlike Griffith’s earlier epics which lasted much in the excess of two hours, Griffith’s films during the period of 1918-1920 were much shorter in length. These films had much smaller casts and production sets along with having more basic plot premises without intertwining storylines. There is one exception, his 1920 film Way Down East which cost approximately three quarters of a million dollars to make. (Simmon 13) During this time period he made in excess of ten movies along numerous shorts and re-edits and re-cuts of Intolerance. One can see the differences between the films if you compare a film like Intolerance which had thousands of people involved in the film along with the vibrant sets of Babylon with True Heart Susie which had a much more meager setting and cast.
The period of 1918-1920 is the high point of the collaboration between Griffith and his female star Lillian Gish. After snubbing Gish with a small role in his epic Intolerance, Gish returned to star in numerous of Griffith’s pictures during this time period. Gish also originated the story and starred in Griffith’s 1918 film The Greatest Thing in Life. For the film Broken Blossoms Griffith wanted to use Lillian Gish for the lead role, however Gish thought she, at age 23, was much too old to play Lucy Burrows. However as Roger Ebert states in his review of the film, “Griffith wanted a star, and Gish was that,” and Gish ended up playing the role. (Roger Ebert) I find this ironic because Griffith practically shunned Gish in Intolerance yet three years later he muscled her into a lead role.
It is no secret that D.W. Griffith had a racially prejudiced typical Southern white male mindset. Throughout his career he portrayed African Americans and other types of minority races in a negative fashion, it is ironic that he actually partially responsible for the re-growth of the Klu Klux Klan. In my screenings of these films I did not notice one character that was of African descent, one can argue that the storylines did not permit African Americans to be portrayed. I have to disagree because one can always be thrown in as an extra, it seemed that Griffith went out of his way not to cast them. In his earlier films like Birth of a Nation where he hired white people in black face to portray African Americans.
The film Broken Blossoms concentrates on the love story between Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan. Cheng Huan comes to London to spread the words of Buddha but consequently opens up a shop, too disillusioned to spread the word. Through his shop he meets Lucy, whom is abused by her father, the boxer Battling Burrows with the film ending under extremely tragic circumstances. The role on Cheng Huan was played by Richard Barthelmess who was Caucasian. Griffith tried to make Barthelmess look as Asian as possible and giving the time period and the lack of makeup technology I think they did a decent job. I would have found it much easier if they employed an Oriental actor for the role would further the film’s credibility. At the time there was really only one Oriental film actor who played a leading role and that was Sessue Hayakawa during that time period whites dominated all of the Oriental roles. Griffith was very stereotypical towards Cheng Huan, according to Roger Ebert, “He is a peaceful Buddhist, opium addict, shopkeeper.” (Roger Ebert)
I have noticed that D.W. Griffith also had a very chauvinistic approach to women. I find that he often has to have the lead female characters in his movies rescued, too helpless to defend themselves or make their own decisions. This stems from his earlier film Birth of a Nation where the girl’s father would rather have her dead than be raped by a crazed gang African Americans, I believe that girl is old enough to make her own decision especially the magnitude being life and death.
The character of Susie in True Heart Susie lives her life to please her man, William who is at first interested in her but then his infatuation shifts to the more vibrant and playful Bettina. Susie dedicated her whole to life to William even selling her prized cow so he can further his education. Sadly it all goes for nothing when he decides to marry Bettina which went against her Aunt’s advice the man always marries the plain girl. Susie was crushed, the only reason she lives is to please William and he does not love her back, nor does he know that she mortgaged her whole future for his. The thing that gets me though is that Susie does not really seem to care, though heartbroken she still serves as one of Bettina’s bride’s mates. With William, Susie figuratively put all her eggs in one basket not caring to meet anyone but him. According to Variety, “…while the real true-hearted, but plain and unbeautiful ones are left in the lurch,” this shows that really caring girls are always the ones who always get the short end of the stick despite the Aunt’s advice. (Variety) Griffith though portraying Susie as weak however shows that she exhibits great character. Even though Bettina admitted she was unfaithful by partying with Sporty Malone, Susie took her in and did not tell William about Bettina’s escapades.
I find that Griffith believes that all women should be overly loyal their man because in the end her loyalty was rewarded when Bettina died and she ended up with William living happily ever after. I believe that ending would be much sweeter if Susie rejected William thus putting him into the precarious predicament she was in before, by embracing William she threw away her whole sense of individuality. It shows that woman is only there for the man and the man is in control, which I believe should not be in the case, but then again I have to realize the time period this film was made in men and women had different roles in society. Lucy in Broken Blossoms is also viewed as a helpless female, however I believe that she is in a different category than Susie. Lucy was oppressed and abused by her father, she was stuck in a predicament that ended up leading to her death shows unable to change her destiny trapped in the life she was unfortunately born into. I believe that Susie was more in control of her destiny rather than Lucy was summoned to her death.
D.W. Griffith employed numerous close ups to show the raw emotions of the characters in Broken Blossoms. One of the greatest assets to Griffith was being able to use Donald Crisp’s facial expressions to show his utter brutality and sadistic nature. In the scene where Battling ended up killing Lucy, Griffith constantly flashed to close ups of both Gish and Crisp, which really worked out well because the scene took place in two different rooms. In Gish’s close-ups the viewer is able to see the fear resonating through her face, I was really moved on how well Gish was able to portray the fear of somebody who was about to die.
I especially liked how Griffith portrayed the beating received by Lucy, I felt that the facial expressions deleted the necessity to show the actual beating. “…Burrows lifts the whip to beat her. But, as with earlier beating the horror of the incestuous violence is too great to be dealt with and is denied articulation: the screen fades to black as Lucy covers her face…just as earlier she dropped out of the lower frame…” (Allen 148) The movie already being so intense does not need to see the actual violence. I do not believe that beatings would have been well done thus taking away from the dramatic flow of the film.
Though I found the movie True Heart Susie more enjoyable because of the positive storyline and bouts of humor, I believe that Broken Blossoms was far more influential and significant for a variety of reasons. Broken Blossoms deals with a far more intense subject matter, the issue of child abuse and love between two different races was a revolutionary idea for Griffith to explore.
The film had a profound impact which stressed equality and showed that just because someone is an immigrant or not white, it doesn’t mean that they are incapable of love. The character of Cheng Huan underwent a metamorphosis where he went from a peaceful Buddhist to the revenge killer of Battling Burrows. I believe that this is film is great is because of the characterization, the cast is small so Griffith was able to delve into the characters taking out their emotions and putting them onto the screen. Lucy was seen in two different lights; to Cheng she was angel, a damsel in distress to be rescued, to Battling she was another punching bag no different than his next opponent. Cheng was a nothing in society, another immigrant trying to keep afloat in the big city however to Lucy he was her angel, somebody to rescue her from the harsh reality of being beaten to a pulp.
I am astounded by how Cheng and Lucy’s relationship was portrayed in this film, there was love and only love, they did not use race to separate themselves. This was also done at an intense time in America’s history and according to Roger Ebert, “helped nudge a xenophobic nation toward racial tolerance.” (Ebert) Whenever a film is able to help change the mindset of America, it is considered a monumental film.
I find it ironic that Griffith can make film that were so racially intolerant like Birth of Nation which basically showed African Americans in a negative malicious fashion that was also untrue. I find it hypocritical that he followed up this film with Intolerance which preached how wrong and unjust intolerance is when he was intolerant to African Americans. Even though I don’t believe that Griffith could make up for the damage he caused to African Americans, a film like Broken Blossoms shows how far Griffith has come in a span of four years. In this film he exemplifies that humans are humans, not colors, no matter what your race you still have a soul. Since Griffith was so powerful in the film industry and around the country, when he makes a film people watch and listen. It shows that Griffith had the power to change minds and I think with this film he did exactly that. By portraying a minority in a positive light he could have been able to change some mindsets.
The years 1918-1920 were a very prominent but different time for D.W. Griffith, in no other years in his film career was he so busy churning out films. Griffith’s films followed a very similar formula, having a vulnerable girl in distress and having a male change the complexion of her life. However, the impact Lillian Gish played was very profound and prominent. People say D.W. Griffith made Lillian Gish into the star she was, however I think it goes both ways, without Gish’s strong acting performances Griffith’s films would never be the masterpieces that they are.