In 1915, D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation, which was an entertaining movie, but had the slight drawback of being the most racist movie ever made. To atone for this great sin, he had to do penance, and that’s why he made Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages the very next year, whose message was that we should all be tolerant of one another, something the glorious Ku Klux Klan of the previous movie definitely was not. Intolerance was a boring movie, but it had to be done. Unfortunately, it was also done to us, punishing us for enjoying Birth of a Nation, I suppose.
Griffith must have still been feeling guilty by 1919, because in that year he also made Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl, in which he tried to atone for his racist classic one more time. The very title may sound a little racist to our twenty-first century ears, but he probably thought it was an improvement over the source material, a short story by Thomas Burke entitled “The Chink and the Child.”
The Asian in both titles is Cheng Huan, played by Richard Barthelmess in yellowface. He is a Chinese Buddhist who decides to move to London to bring enlightenment to the white race. He is unable to bring said enlightenment to the British, however, no doubt because the people in England were not sure what to make of a man who was apparently incapable of using the muscles in his face to form an expression. I guess that was Griffith’s idea of the inscrutable Oriental. However, Huan is able to achieve nirvana on a regular basis at the local opium den.
Whereas Barthelmess played Huan without an expression, Donald Crisp played Battling Burrows with enough expressions on his face for the two of them. Burrows is a boxer who enjoys being cruel to his young daughter Lucy. In fact, the only time Burrows is not bullying or beating Lucy is when he is at the saloon or in the boxing ring. But he insists that she put a smile on her face, and so Lucy uses her two fingers to force her lips into a smile, which is ludicrous. Supposedly, Lillian Gish, who played Lucy, came up with that idea, and apparently Griffith liked it, because she does it over and over again. The reason for this, presumably, is that if she had simply forced a smile on her face the way a normal person might do, we in the audience might be so dull-witted as to think she was actually happy.
After a particularly severe beating, Lucy accidentally stumbles into Huan’s shop. When the effect of his opium pipe wears off, Huan notices her on the floor and takes her upstairs to his bedroom. His love for her is pure and noble, but expressed in such a way as to seem downright creepy. But when her father finds out she has been in Huan’s bedroom, he beats her with a whip until she dies. Huan goes over to where Burrows lives, and, discovering that Lucy is dead, pulls out a revolver and shoots Burrows several times, killing him on the spot. Huan goes home and commits suicide by disemboweling himself with a knife. I thought that was something a Japanese Samurai might do as a matter of honor, not something a Buddhist is likely to do, but then I wasn’t aware that Buddhists went around packing heat, so what do I know?
This movie is simplistically didactic, instructing us that an Asian might actually be a better person than a Causian. And to benefit from that lesson, we have to sit through what may be the most miserable ninety minutes in cinematic history.
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