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Broken Blossoms

September 23, 2010

7. Broken Blossoms
Directed by D.W. Griffith
USA, 1919

IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
Second viewing


A frail 15 year old girl suffers regular beatings from her boxer father. After a particularly nasty beating she collapses in the shop of a kindly Chinese man. He takes her in and looks after her, but the danger of her father finding out looms heavily…

Essential Scene:

Lucy (Lillian Gish) limps back into her house to see her father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), drinking.

Title card: Lucy, as usual, receives the Battler’s pent up brutishness.

Burrows yells at her and mutters while Lucy begs him not to whip her.

After ordering her to do yet another task, Burrows demands:

Put a smile on yer face, can’t yer?

The next title card immediately informs:

Poor Lucy, never having cause to smile, uses this pitiful excuse instead.

Lucy’s long, sad face struggles to smile before she slowly puts her hand up to her face, and pushes up the sides of her mouth with her fingers. A weak smile appears on her face, but she has push it in place again as it starts to fade. Her face turns to a terrified stare as her father starts to order her about again.

I first saw this moment in the form of a parody. In Go West (1925), Buster Keaton is ordered to smile — and what can a deadpan comedian do to force a smile? He pushes the sides of his mouth up with his fingers. Failing miserably, he shakes his head in defeat. This was funny but poignant, it told you something about his lonely character. With Lillian Gish there is no comedy base, which makes her scene even more saddening.


D.W. Griffith doesn’t really do subtlety when trying to manipulate your emotions. His title cards are meant to give you a hit between the eyes to say “Be sad!”, “Feel sorry for her!”. Thankfully Lillian Gish’s performance is so beautifully subtle that she counteracts Griffith’s heavy hand. She portrays Lucy with such a youthful innocence and yet she walks like an elderly woman due to her repeated beatings. You begin to fear the beatings on her behalf because you think that she can’t take it anymore.

In a change to Griffith’s flamboyant previous films, Broken Blossoms is set in a gritty inner city with a seedy, claustrophobic feel. It may be a bit melodramatic but it’s still very hard hitting, as it’s a sad fact that such horrific domestic abuse is still rife.

Fascinating Fact:

Broken Blossoms was the first film to be released by United Artists, which was formed in 1919 by D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin.

Broken Blossoms is in the public domain and is free to download from It is also available on DVD from Eureka! Classics.

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