Wednesday, September 5, 2012

An Apology to Lillian

When it comes to 1920s actresses, I admit to being fond of the flappers and vamps.  Crawford, Bow, Bara...Anita Page and Marie Prevost...they all simmer with vitality, the badasses of the silent screen.  Because of this, I found myself avoiding other actresses, afraid they'd be too ingenue-like, too dainty and frail to be interesting.  Foremost in this category was Lillian Gish.

I knew she was one of the greats, but something about her just put me off.  Too virginal, I thought.  Too sweet, without even the saucy edge of a Mary Pickford.  But in the interest of equal time, I recorded some of her films during TCM's recent "Summer Under the Stars" day.

"Broken Blossoms" convinced me I was very, very wrong.  

Gish and "The Yellow Man"

The film started quietly enough, beautifully enough; shots of Cheng Huan ("The Yellow Man") preparing to come to America to spread his message of peace and tolerance were delicate, soft and yielding as their subject.  Richard Barthelmess, in a role we see as racist today, imbues his character with dignity and honor, playing him with a subtlety that rescues Cheng Huan from becoming a caricature.  

We then meet Battling Burrows, played broadly (and frighteningly) by Donald Crisp.

A pugilist by trade and an angry bastard by birth, his method of stress relief is to regularly beat his waiflike daughter, Lucy (Gish).  Lucy was dumped on his doorstep and he's resented it ever since.

One day, after a particularly violent episode, Lucy crawls out to the street and makes her way to Cheng Huan's shop (alas, as in real life, his dreams were not realized).  Little did she know that he has been watching her, loving her from afar, a bright and pure point in a painful world:

He rubs his eyes, thinking her an after-effect of the opium he's been using to dull the pain of his disillusionment.  After discovering she is very real, he takes her under his wing, dressing and caring for her as for a goddess.  She spends happy days there, comforted, receiving 

until an associate of her father discovers her there and brings word back to Burrows.  He drops what he's doing and runs to drag his daughter home, away from "the dirty Chink".  He is most displeased and plans to show her how much:

What follows is one of the most harrowing, terrifying, raw scenes I have ever seen in any movie, much less a silent.  This is what made me sit up and realize Lillian Gish is a marvel.  The famous "closet scene" where Lucy becomes a feral animal, desperate to get away from her father's fists.  Lord, rewatching it brought tears to my eyes:

In her book "The Movies, Mr Griffith, and Me" Gish relates that the set went quiet after that scene, and that Griffith himself whispered "Good God, you should have told me you were going to do that."

I will not spoil the rest of the movie for those who have yet to see it, but trust me -- I will never, ever judge a book by its cover again.  By all means, if you haven't seen it yet, go get it right now.  Five stars.

Waiting at home for me is "The Wind", "La Boheme", and "The Scarlet Letter".  I cannot wait to watch more of this riveting woman's work.

(Special thanks to A Silent Film Diary and Golden Silents for providing the images in this post.)


Emma said...

For some reason, Lillian was one of my first classic celebrity obsessions. Of course, then I was about 13 and I didnt watch many of her films, I just loved reading about her. She was such a pioneer and a fighter - like a silent era Bette Davis. I was reading a small book by Louise Brooks and she wrote a great chapter on Lillian. According to Louise, a number of moguls actively tried to end Lillian's career, even stopping her from winning the first Academy Award, because she wouldn't take orders.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

I remember that Brooksie essay! I don't know why I never gave Lillian a chance before -- she is so captivating, so real. I'm three-quarters of the way through her book, too, and can't help but admire her wonder she was one of your first obsessions! (Mine was, appropriately enough, Louise Brooks. LOL )

Emma said...

I'm going to have to read her book, it looks good.

Lolita of the Classics said...

Broken Blossoms <3 I set some music to that particular scene, Killing Fields by Mike Oldfield. Sadly that clip is lost and gone forever - YouTube disabled my account for copyright infringement (I had cut out a scene from Jud Süss, horrible of me), and I don't have the original video I made. So, shed some tears for me.
I hereby punish you with an award! 7 x 7 Award