Broken Blossoms (1919): Griffith’s Poetic Melodrama, Starring Lillian Gish

Broken Blossoms, made in 1919, and based on “The Chink and the Child,” a story by Thomas Burke, is one of D.W. Griffith’s most poetically tragic films.

It’s also one of his more modest and accessible feature, which may have contributes to its immense commercial success.

The performances by the three lead are sensitive, benefiting from the deft helming of Griffith, who establishes the right mood for his domestic melodrama, lapsing only occasionally into sentimentality (a recurrent problem in many of the auteur’s films).

Richard Barthelmess plays a young Chinese aristocrat who hopes to spread the gospel of his Eastern religion in London’s Limehouse district.

Rapidly disillusioned, Barthelmess opens a shop and takes to smoking opium. One evening, Lillian Gish, the waif-like daughter of drunken prizefighter Donald Crisp, collapses on his doorstep after yet another brutal beating by her ruthless fathers.

Barthelmess shelters the girl, providing her with the love and kindness she has never known. Crisp, offended that his daughter is living with a “heathen,” forces the girl to return home with him.

In a terrible drunken rage, Crisp beats Lillian to death. Barthelmess arrives on the scene, kills Crisp, then kneels beside Lillian’s body and takes his own life.

The film was remade in the U.K. in 1936

Running time: 102 minutes.