White Blossom 

Monday, May 16, 2005

Due to a misread comma, I thought Rudolph Valentino moonlighted as Richard Barthelmess in the 1919 D.W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms. We were ready to confine Valentino to a straitjacket in mediocrity prison. It appears that Richard Barthelmess is not Valentino; Valentino can go back to being the great heartthrob and Barthelmess can take his place in our prison.

Barthelmess, as the Yellow Man, was guilty of many crimes. Mostly the Yellow Man excelled at looking really stoned. Then there is the repetition of the hunched over pose against the wall. Most offensive were close-ups of his face. Nobody could have been fooled, even in 1919, of Barthelmess being anywhere near Chinese. We squinted at screen, trying to figure out if he wore "oriental eye" prosthetics.

In the movie, four years after Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (infamous for its glorification of the KKK), the Yellow Man is a sort of Buddhist missionary who relocates to London to teach foreigners how to be nice to each other. He secretly pines for a fifteen-year-old waif, played by Lillian Gish (and perfectly puckered lips). The girl's boxer father, a cross between Robert de Niro and Al Bundy, treats her like his punching bag.

After a savage whipping, the girl crawls away and collapses in the Yellow Man's shop. The Yellow Man treats the wound on her naked shoulder then zeroes in for a kiss as the girl pulls away. He tries to seduce her again later, yet she thwarts him again prompting this text: "His love remains a pure and holy thing - even his worst foe says this." So he resorts to putting moonbeams in her hair: "There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon, and places them on her hair." Yes, those are the words: the image of Barthelmess stealing these rays from the lyric moon surpass in silliness.

He dresses her in Chinese silks and decorates her hair with flattened cinnamon buns, creating the look that would haunt the dreams of nerdy adolescent boys forever in its reincarnation on Princess Leia's scalp. She delights in the dried flower he gives her - one of my fellow viewers remarked that "she's so excited about potpourri!" He can't get enough of her - she "smote him to the heart" after all - and he gets her a doll. One reviewer suggests that "For Lucy, the doll becomes a surrogate for the grateful love she cannot direct toward the Yellow Man." i.e. the doll gets caressed.

You know this idyll can't go far. Sure enough, papa comes along and drags the girl off home for the fatal beating. Before she dies, she has a chance to panic in a closet as her father axes down the door to music that must have inspired the Jaws theme. The girl's heartbroken would-be lover shoots the father to death - then the Yellow Man carries the girl back to his place for a few funerary rites followed by suicide.

It couldn't have happened any other way.

"A married acquaintance has told her, 'Whatever you do, dearie, don't get married.' Warned as strongly by the ladies of the street against their profession." Just like Roger Ebert said, this girl has no options. While the more imaginative of us might ponder an alternate future where the girl hovers over a wok and the Yellow Man wipes faces of the mixed-race triplets, onscreen white woman-nonwhite man relationships never prospered unlike some of their real-life counterparts. Plus, look at the precedents in Hollywood: four years before Broken Blossoms, The Cheat portrayed a nasty Sessue Hayakawa branding a wayward white woman.

The science of eugenics also pointed out that marriages between white women and men of other races resulted in miserable wives. (No eugenics study I have read mentioned whether the husband was happy.)

The girl had no choice but to die.

The Yellow Man, if he was to prove to audiences his honourable intentions, had to die along with her. He also never got that kiss because any relations with the girl would have tainted his role as the heroic foreigner. For me it was almost as bad as the teaser bed scene between Ishmael and Quequeeg.

The text accompanying the film is jarring for those of us on this side of racial tolerance: "Now - Limehouse knows him only as a Chink store-keeper" and "What makes you so good to me, Chinky?" Indeed one of the film's alternate titles is The Chink and the Child. (Broken Blossoms is also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl and Scarlet Blossoms.)

Yet despite all my complaints, I watched it a second time, fast-forwarding to my favourite bits.


Written January 18, 2005. Haven't been especially eloquent in the last few weeks. There's been an ongoing Monopoly game on this side of the screen and it will soon be over (my rival refuses to sell me Park Place) and then I'll be writing again.

Thank you for reading.

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