Friday, August 31, 2012

Chaplin The Musical: The Tramp On Broadway

Every time in the past two weeks I mentioned that Katie-Bar-The-Door and I were going to New York to see a stageplay called Chaplin the Musical, I got the same reaction—wasn't Charlie Chaplin a silent film star?

Why yes, yes he was, and for my money, the greatest of them all.

But aside from the fact that he was himself a gifted composer and musician—"Smile," anyone?—Chaplin's comedy often played with the pace and rhythm of a melody, building simple movements into complex ones, anticipating some payoffs, denying others, going off in unexpected directions, finally returning to the beginning and starting something new.

Far from being an odd choice, Chaplin is an inspired subject for a musical.

If you've seen any of his movies (or read this blog), you're already acquainted with Chaplin the artist. If you've seen, say, the 1992 Robert Downey Jr. bio-pic Chaplin, you know something of the man. His onscreen alter ego, the Tramp, is the single most famous character of the silent film era—perhaps of any eraand for decades, audiences the world over laughed at his comic battles against poverty, hard work and the soulless machinery of a hostile society, longing, I suspect, to achieve the in-it-but-not-of-it insouciance with which the Tramp met his daily suffering. Oh, to relish the taste of the boot you've boiled for your Thanksgiving dinner the way the Tramp didthere's Chaplin's appeal reduced to a single scene.

The question in my mind was whether the Broadway play would focus primarily on Chaplin the artist or Chaplin the man. As a devoted fan of the former and largely indifferent to the latter (I can't help it: celebrity gossip bores me), I went in hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

As it turns out, Chaplin is a mixture of both, examining the man to explain the artist. In and of itself, that's not unusual. Most dramatizations of an artist's life—think Ray, Pollock and Walk the Line—attempt something similar. But Chaplin aspires to more than just a rehash of gossip with some imitations of well-known performances thrown in, and instead relies on songs, scenes from his movies, and occasional flights of visual fancy to reveal how Chaplin's memories influenced his art—and vice versa.

The play begins with an early scene of Chaplin's childhood lifted straight from his autobiography. As his mother, a music-hall singer, descends into the madness that left her institutionalized for the rest of her life, the young Chaplin, age five, took to the stage to rescue her from a booing audience. He was such a natural performer that, as he put it, "half-way through, a shower of money poured on to the stage ... I was quite at home."

A career was born but Chaplin was unable to rescue his mother in the long term. She wound up in an asylum and he wound up in Hollywood, but in a sense—at least as Chaplin tells it—he never really left that London music-hall stage. Throughout the play, Chaplin is only half living in the present, and in his movies and in his private life, Chaplin relives that moment over and over again.

The memory drives him to his greatest successes an artist and his greatest failures as a man.

The play drives the point home with both its casting and its staging. For example, one-time Tony nominee Christiane Noll, who plays Chaplin's mother, also plays Edna Purviance in The Kid and Paulette Goddard in The Great Dictator—two characters the Tramp struggles to rescue—while Zachary Unger plays both the young Chaplin and Chaplin's Kid co-star, child actor Jackie Coogan.

This isn't just a case of doubling up to save a bit of money. While filming the pivotal scene from The Kid—when a callous orphanage official rips the kid from the Tramp's arms—Unger morphs from Jackie Coogan into the young Chaplin and back again, as Chaplin the man forces himself to revisit his own childhood in order for Chaplin the artist to achieve the result he wants.

Yet later when Chaplin again remembers his childhood, it is the filmed clip from The Kid that plays on a large screen over the stage rather than the real life moment—a metaphor for how the memory becomes art and the art then supplants the memory.

Or to put it another way: how often has a song on the radio evoked the emotion of a time long past when the specific event has faded from memory?

Eventually, as it does for all great artists, Chaplin's creation takes on a life of its own, and Chaplin the man winds up performing with a chorus line of Tramp look-a-likes doing the dance of the dinner rolls from The Gold Rush.

For me, as a fan of Chaplin the artist, this is when the play is most interesting—and the most ambitious in its staging.

Given that Chaplin was a silent film star working exclusively in black-and-white, the costumes are appropriately muted shades of black, white and gray—which meant that the rare splashes of color, primarily red hair and red roses, really pop, not only visually but thematically as well.

It's no accident, I'm sure, that Chaplin's mother and his one great love, Oona O'Neill, are both played by redheads (the aforementioned Christiane Noll and Erin Mackey, respectively). And the red rose that passes from Chaplin's mother to the lapel of the Tramp's coat transforms from a symbol of loss to a symbol of love when by the play's end it finally passes from Oona back to Chaplin again.

The second half of Chaplin the Musical focuses on Chaplin's life after the Tramp. In case you're somehow not aware of it, the 1940s and '50s, when Chaplin's career went into decline, was an era when a charge of being a communist, a "fellow traveler" or even "soft" on communism could end a career. Chaplin himself lost his visa and wound up living in exile for twenty years, before returning to the U.S. in 1972 to receive an honorary Oscar.

(As an aside, I was going to write that the subjects of tabloid slander and political fanaticism seem especially timely now with another closely-divided election season upon us, but then I remembered that in America, the subject is always timely, for if you know your history, you know that, politically-speaking, once every decade or so, we Americans feel compelled to throw reason to the wind and eat our young.)

Focusing as it does on tidbits from Chaplin's conflicts with gossip columnists, crusading anti-Communists, indifferent audiences and his own ego, this part of the production is more conventional than its first half.

Ironically, though, as Chaplin's staging and storytelling become more typically "Broadway," the songs and the acting get better. Rob McClure who plays Chaplin—more about him in a moment—is terrific throughout, but of the supporting cast, it's Jenn Colella who stands out. Her turn as the (in)famous Hedda Hopper—a nationally-syndicated scandalmonger whose reach in the Hollywood of the '40s and '50s makes today's TMZ look like halfwits with a Twitter account—had the audience ready to charge the stage, and if you remember one song from the show, it'll be her paean to petty revenge, "All Falls Down."

But the key to the show is Rob McClure as Chaplin.

Creating a character based on a public person is so much more difficult than working from a blank slate. The actor is competing against the audience's memories of the person, and what they think they know of his story. When that public figure was also a multi-talented actor himself—well, no wonder people had been trying for thirty years without success to write a musical about Chaplin's life.

Re-creating Chaplin on stage is necessarily a three-tier process—first, imitating the gags; second, imitating Chaplin doing those gags; and third, finding your own comedy in the gags. The first requirement is obvious and the second is probably obvious as well, but the third is the difference between the note-perfect but stilted piano recital of a well-rehearsed amateur and music.

To play the title role, McClure didn't just have to look like Chaplin, he had to talk like Chaplin, walk like Chaplin—both on the ground and on a tightrope—play the violin, rollerskate, recreate the dance of the dinner rolls, fall down, throw a pie, spoof Hitler, again, all like Chaplin, and then after the imitation was perfected, make an audience care about the result.

"You do all the kind of concrete work that you can do," Philip Seymour Hoffman said of preparing to play his Oscar-winning role in Capote, "the documentaries or the audio tapes or the visuals or what you read, you interview people. ... But ultimately ... it wasn't just imitation, it wasn’t just mimicry, it was creating a character. A real guy and it was trial and error."

The question isn't whether McClure is as funny as Chaplin—I mean, are you going to judge The Last Temptation of Christ on whether the actor can divide the loaves and fishes?—but whether he brought a character named "Chaplin" to life in this play on this stage. The answer to the question is a definite yes.

Indeed, McClure's impression of Chaplin is so good I wish there had been more of it. Three-time Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan (Hairspray, The Producers, Annie) (book), Christopher Curtis (music, lyrics and book) and Warren Carlyle (director) dip into Chaplin's comedy from time to time as a basis for staging events in his life—the boxing sequence from City Lights to represent his three divorces, for example—but too often "tell" the audience that Chaplin was great rather than allowing McClure to "show" them.

Judging from those bits McClure was allowed to recreate, I think he could carry a longer sequence lifted from one of Chaplin's movies just to allow the audience a moment to laugh like they would have nearly a hundred years ago. But I'm not a producer or a Tony Award-winning playwright, so I'll freely admit I could well be talking through my hat.

Still, with a likeable hero, a catchy tune or two, and a couple of great performances, I'd call Chaplin the Musical a success, and well worth the effort the next time you're in New York.

Chaplin The Musical is in previews now at the Barrymore Theater in New York. It officially opens on September 10, 2012. You can check out the official site here.

Postscript: To give credit where credit is due, it was Katie-Bar-The-Door who made the observation about the relationship between the costumes and the thematic significance of the occasional splashes of red. You'd think as a devoted fan of redheads I might have noticed that myself. Well, nobody's perfect.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Monkey's Back

Katie-Bar-The-Door and I were in New York for the past several days, going to plays, spotting celebrities, drinking at round tables in the Algonquin, etc. I'll be offering up a lengthy review of Chaplin The Musical in the next day or two.

In the meantime, Paul McCartney sings The Monkees theme song:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

That's Typing Tuesday #25: The Multiverse

That's Typing Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

I don't know what physicists think about, but I do know that sometimes when I'm out walking the dog it occurs to me that somewhere in the multiverse, the dog is walking me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Are You Ready For Chaplin The Musical?

I sure hope so because you'll be getting one of the Monkey's patented two thousand word essays on the subject a week from today ...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

It's Dorothy Parker's Birthday

It's Dorothy Parker's birthday—let's celebrate with a few choice quotes often attributed to her. I can't vouch for their accuracy or authenticity, and the images are not my own.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

That's Typing Tuesday #24: The Great Gatsby

That's Typing Tuesday, in which I occasionally share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

Obviously I haven't seen Baz Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby yet—it's not due in theaters for another year. But generally speaking, I'll say this: making a movie of The Great Gatsby is like going to a museum, taking all the pictures off the wall and studying the hooks. The dialogue and surface level action is meaningless—simply contrivances upon which Fitzgerald hung his gorgeous prose and startling insights.

I hope Baz Luhrmann can lick the problem of bringing Gatsby to life, but if he can, he'll be the first, for Gatsby is already alive, and anyone trying to adapt it to another medium necessarily has to kill it first.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Colleen Moore (It's Her Birthday, You Know)

I almost started this post with the line "Largely forgotten today, Colleen Moore was one of the biggest stars of the silent era ..." but then realized that with the exception of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and maybe Greta Garbo, that's true of every silent film star.

So I'll just say Colleen Moore was a big star and was a bigger influence at the time on the classic "flapper" look than Louise Brooks ever hoped to be. That said, she's probably best known now, if at all, for her "Fairy Castle," a 9-foot square, 12-foot tall dollhouse which is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and is viewed by 1.5 million visitors every year.

As always, I think the best way to get to know a film performer is through the work. Here is a clip from the 1926 comedy Ella Cinders which I hope will inspire you to seek out more of her films:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Big Brother

After a lifetime of hard work, my older brother finally hung it up last week. But as my former next door neighbor once pointed out, just because he's retired doesn't mean he needs a rocking chair.

I ain't ready for the junkyard yet
'Cause I still feel like a new Corvette
It might take a little longer but I'll get there
Well, I don't need your rockin' chair

Happy birthday, brother.

Poll Results: A Plurality Of You Can't Stand Her, But For Those Who Can, The Divorcee Is Your Favorite Norma Shearer Movie!

You know, sometimes the headline says it all.

Friday, August 17, 2012

J'accuse! (1919)

This is my contribution to the Speechless Blogathon now underway at Eternity of Dreams.

A contemporary of D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade, Abel Gance directed over fifty movies in a career that stretched from the silent era to 1972, but his reputation as one of France's greatest directors is founded on three silent movies, the epic bio-pic Napoleon (1927), 1923's La Roue ("The Wheel"), and this one, J'accuse! from 1919.

Contrary to what you might expect if you know anything about French history, the novelist Émile Zola and/or the phrase "J'Accuse," this is not an early film version of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, in which a virulently anti-semitic French military court-martialed Alfred Dreyfus for selling secrets to the Germans without evidence of anything other than that he was Jewish (after Zola's essay "J'accuse!"—"I accuse!"—turned Dreyfus into a cause célèbre, an investigation revealed that another officer was guilty of the crime).

Instead, Gance tells a fictional tale set during World War I, a conflict Gance served in, was wounded during and then returned to in order to film authentic combat scenes for the film. The story, such as it is, concerns itself with a poet who is in love with a girl who has been forced against her will into marriage to a wealthy brute. The husband (Séverin-Mars, who later managed to star in 1923's La Roue despite dying in 1921) is the kind of guy who leaves slaughtered deer carcasses bleeding on the dining room table while he beats his wife. The poet (Romuald Joubé) writes naive pastorales which he rapturously reads to his bedridden mother. And the girl (Maryse Dauvray, who looks like Florence Vidor but isn't) frets by the window.

Fortunately, war breaks out before the husband makes good an implied threat to kill his wife and the poet. Both men march off to war while the girl is sent to live in shame with her in-laws.

And then in a series of improbable twists, the girl is taken captive by the advancing German army while the poet winds up as a lieutenant in command of a front line unit that includes the husband. When both men perform absurdly fanciful acts of heroism, mutual suspicion and resentment turns to grudging respect and even abiding friendship.

The rest of the movie's twists and turns I'll leave to you to discover except to say that I didn't really believe in any of them. Gance moves his characters around like chairs on an empty stage in service of a plot that strains credulity and a message that is so muddled I can only assume I know what it is.

This is typical of the three films for which Gance is best know. Any individual image or sequence in a Gance movie is as beautiful as any you've ever seen, and the rapid cutting he employs strongly influenced the Russians (such as Sergei Eisenstein) who were busy developing the montage as a means of quickly compressing events that occur over a period of time or in many places at once.

The problem is, Gance gleefully piles up image on top of image until whatever point he was trying to make or mood he was trying to evoke is muddied at best. Gance is a jazz musician lost in a solo that goes on so long both you and he forget what he's trying to play.

Fernando F. Croce of Slant magazine calls Gance's work "[f]ertile to a fault" and accurately complains that "Gance's ... experimental joyousness clashes with the film's disenchanted mood." Michael S. Gant writing for DVD Reviews notes that "Perhaps Gance, who, as silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow has written, thought of cinema 'not as a single art, but as a pantheon of all the arts,' couldn't constrain his creative fervor to fashion a coherent message." Even David Camak Pratt, an unabashed fan of the film writing for PopMatters admits "J’Accuse is a messy picture. The title (translating to I Accuse!), the director, and much of what has been written about the film insist that it is a pacifist manifesto. As such, it fails."

It's like the first time I saw Napoleon, I marveled at the beauty and technical innovations (such as the use of a handheld camera) on display in a sequence where the little boy Napoleon takes charge of a snowball fight at school. And then the scene kept going and going, for eight-and-a-half minutes, and it began to dawn on me, "What the what?—Spielberg didn't take this long to show the invasion of Normandy!"

A sense of proportion is also the hallmark of a great artist (said the man who once wrote a 12,000 word blog post about the Marx Brothers).

So J'accuse!—"I accuse"—who of what? Gance is a little unclear, pointing his finger at so many targets (French leaders, old men, unfaithful wives, the sun in the sky), and denouncing them for so many sins (war, rape, adultery, profiteering, but also of not proving worthy of the troops and their cause), that in the end I have to assume he's accusing his audience of that defect common to all human beings that makes unhappiness possible in a world of so much beauty. Which is a rather gross simplification of war's—any war's—causes, but then it's a rare artist who has ever analyzed his way to a deeply-felt response to the grim realities of war.

In that sense, J'accuse! reminded me of Thomas Ince's Civilization (1916), another ambitious film that tried and failed to explain war in cosmic terms. Not until directors narrowed their focus to real stories of the men who fought and died in the Great War did they produce such classics as The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front, films that didn't need to gild the message that war is a barbarous pursuit.

As for Gance in general and J'accuse! specifically, revel in the beauty of any given moment, admire and respect his influence on the craft of filmmaking, but abandon all hope ye who enter here looking for a coherent narrative.

Postscript To capture the authentic footage of combat that shows up in part three of J'accuse!, Gance traveled with the United States Army's 28th Infantry Division during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in September 1918.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Beatles Demand Equal Time

The story of driving down to Liverpool with Katie-Bar-The-Door, on the other hand, would probably play more like an episode of—well, what? Are there any happily married couples in film, television or literature? Other than Nick and Nora Charles, and Gomez and Morticia Addams, I can't think of any. Although, granted, minus the murder mysteries and the seven foot butler, we very much resemble both of those couples.

Anyway, here is an example of why no matter how much I respect Elvis, I prefer the Beatles:

Fear And Loathing In Memphis

My little brother just reminded me that today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tenth anniversary of Elvis Presley's death—which is to say, twenty-five years since I drove him and eight of his closest friends, some of whom we'd just met at an "Elvis is Still Dead" party, from Nashville to Memphis for an impromptu crack-of-dawn celebration of the life and death of the King of Rock n Roll.

Didn't quite work out that way—the atmosphere was decidedly more funereal than joyous—and maybe if weren't a dyed-in-the-wool Beatles man I would have anticipated that, but the true story of the trip itself would rival Kerouac's On The Road (or The Hangover II, if that reference skews too old for you). If I ever get around to writing it.

Well, someday.

In the meantime, a little Elvis:

Postscript: My brother tells me a more accurate image from that trip would be this one from Ralph Steadman. Certainly it's a better likeness of the Monkey himself ...

Happy Birthday, Julie Newmar

How will you be celebrating?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Broken Blossoms (1919)

This is my contribution to the Summer Under The Stars Blogathon underway at Sittin' on a Backyard Fence. For those of you in the United States, you can see Broken Blossoms on Turner Classic Movies tomorrow morning, August 15, 2012, at 6 a.m. You can see two other Gish films mentioned in this post, Orphans of the Storm and Intolerance at 7:45 a.m. and 8 pm, respectively. A good day to set your DVRs. Or just skip work entirely.

I've written about silent film director D.W. Griffith many times, both to praise him and to bury him, but I've been steadfast in my insistence that, love him or hate him, he was the most influential director of the silent era. "[W]hereas other directors simply parroted the techniques that worked on stage," I have written, "and wound up with actors in togas milling around in front of painted backdrops, Griffith seemed to understand from the outset that film presented its own unique set of problems and opportunities. By composing his actors within the frame, by relying on revealing actions rather than words and, especially, by juxtaposing images and events through editing, Griffith was able to create within his audience an emotional involvement in his stories."

In effect, Griffith invented a film "language" and in the process created what we today think of as the modern movie, a contribution to film history as important as the invention of the camera itself.

If you're only going to see one D.W. Griffith movie in your life, Broken Blossoms starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp is the one to see. The Birth of a Nation is more (in)famous, Intolerance was more ambitious, and the nearly 500 shorts he made for Biograph between 1908 and 1913 were more influential. But in terms of a film that is moving, well-acted and accessible, that features all of Griffith's strengths without also suffering from his weaknesses, and let's be honest, that clocks in at a reasonable 88 minutes instead of 3-plus hours, Broken Blossoms is the only choice.

Not only was Broken Blossoms the best picture of 1919, it was arguably the best silent movie made in film's first three decades.

If you're familiar with Griffith's work, you know he often painted on large canvases, tackling entire historical eras on sets the size of small cities. But if Intolerance was Griffith's Sistine Chapel, Broken Blossoms is as small and intimate as a portrait by Vermeer.

Based on Limehouse Nights, a collection of short stories by Thomas Burke set in the slums of London, Broken Blossoms is the story of Cheng Huan, a Chinese immigrant with naive dreams of teaching Buddha's philosophy of peace to those "sons of turmoil and strife," the barbarous Anglo-Saxons of England. "It is a tale of temple bells," says the opening title card, "sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears."

If you've never seen a silent movie, particularly one from film's earliest days, Griffith's skill at introducing Cheng to his audience might escape your attention. Griffith's legacy is so ubiquitous, we don't even notice it anymore, but if you've ever seen a movie or a television show, you've seen Griffith's style. First he establishes the mise-en-scène—an establishing shot of a Chinese treaty port, cutting to a closer shot of a particular part of town, then even closer to a single street, followed by near documentary shots of people on the street—a traveling shot of three girls, shots of a father with his children, including an over-the-shoulder shot of their reaction to his kindness, then a cut to "sky-larking American sailors."

The entire sequence takes a little more than ninety seconds, but with no more than the corner of a small set, and by my count some twenty extras, Griffith created the sense of a bustling foreign port town, both culturally diverse and completely alien to an American audience in 1919. Is it an important sequence? Only in the sense that it grounds the narrative in a reality that establishes the world Cheng moves in before we've even met him, a technique Griffith had invented while at Biograph and perfected in such films as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

Now go and look at the beginning of a movie as great as, say, Casablanca, or a television show as mundane as C.S.I., and see what I mean about how Griffith's approach to storytelling is ubiquitous.

Cheng is played by Richard Barthelmess, who was in the process of replacing Robert Harron as Griffith's go-to actor (just as Harron had replaced Henry Walthall). It may be a bit jarring for a modern audience to see Barthelmess, a white actor, in Asian makeup (actually just a rubber band around his forehead stretching his features tight across his skull) and perhaps it's a pity that Griffith didn't cast Sessue Hayakawa in the role, but I'll say two things in Griffith's defense and let it drop: 1) it was common practice in Hollywood for Caucasian actors, from Warner Oland to Paul Muni to (God help us) Mickey Rooney, to play Asians well into the 1960s, and 2) Richard Barthelmess gives the best performance of his career in this movie.

Equally jarring, the film refers to Cheng as "the Yellow Man" throughout. But before your head explodes, let me point out that the term "Yellow Man" is used here both purposefully and ironically. As the film was being filmed, the United States was once again experiencing one of its periodic bouts of anti-immigrant xenophobia, this time directed at Asian-Americans, which the Hearst newspaper chain had dubbed "the Yellow Peril" and "the Yellow Terror." That Cheng, a modern-day Good Samaritan, turns out to be the film's most sympathetic and heroic character is a direct challenge to the prejudices of Griffith's audience. By using the racist term "Yellow Man" here, Griffith has set up his audience to do an about-face by the picture's end. Whether the device works or not, or is justified, is up to you, but be aware that it is a conscious artist choice.

Gish said later of Griffith, "He inspired in us his belief that we were working in a medium that was powerful enough to influence the whole world."

Cheng's mission to convert the heathen white man is preternaturally gentle, hopelessly naive, or both, and with a fade and an intertitle, Griffith leaps forward several years to the Limehouse District of London where Cheng is known only as a "Chink storekeeper." He's thinner, his back bent, his step slower, old now if not in years, then in spirit. The shot of Barthelemess standing against a wall with his head bowed, leg bent and arms wrapped around himself tells you everything you need to know about the intervening years—indeed, not only tells you what you need to know, but makes you feel it as well.

It's a masterful shot that eliminates the need for a half-hour's worth of exposition, and when in subsequent posts I complain of Abel Gance's and Erich von Stroheim's inability to get to the point by showing a single telling detail, this is the sort of simple sequence to which I'm referring.

Having established Cheng, Griffith then introduces us to Battling Burrows and his daughter Lucy, played by, respectively, future Oscar-winner Donald Crisp and Griffith's favorite actress, Lillian Gish. Burrows is a prizefighter, a drunk, a preening ape with a cauliflower ear, and a father so cruel to his illegitimate daughter that the critic for Variety threw up at a private preview of the film.

Nobody in Hollywood history has ever been better at playing pain and suffering than Gish, and here at last is a role that cuts right to the chase with no pretensions that she represented the flower of Victorian womanhood. No plucky Mary Pickford lass is she. Gish is a whipped dog, the very pantomime of defeat, working as a virtual slave to an abusive drunk who threatens her with the lash if she doesn't keep up a happy front, leading to perhaps the defining shot of Gish's great career—using her fingers to push the corners of her mouth into a grotesque, desperate approximation of a smile.

A later scene where Burrows breaks down the door of a closet where Gish's Lucy is hiding was so harrowing that during its filming one passerby called in the police. "My God," Griffith told Gish afterwards, "why didn't you warn me you were going to do that."

"The case could be made," wrote Matthew Kennedy for Bright Lights Film Journal, "for Gish's character as the most pitiable creature the movies have ever seen." According to Felicia Feaster writing for TCM, "one critic of the day cheekily proposed a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lillian Gish."

The scene where she sits on a dock by the river, her knee bent, her shawl pulled around her narrow shoulders, echoes the one of Barthelemess resting against a wall, again not only short-circuiting the need for more exposition, but also linking the two characters in the viewer's mind before they have even met.

And meet they finally do. After Burrows beats her nearly to death, she stumbles through the streets of Limehouse until she reaches Cheng's doorstep. When he helps her, it is perhaps the first hint of kindness she's ever experienced—and responds with a genuine smile that touches Cheng's lonely heart. But a victim to the end, Lucy's hard-earned fear of men and her deeply-ingrained racism prevent her from fully embracing her salvation.

Those used to the epic scale and complex editing strategies of Griffith's best-known works will no doubt be surprised by the simplicity and delicacy of this chaste, tragic romance. The entire film takes place on a handful of modest sets with three main characters and as many supporting ones, yet the effect is deeper and more satisfying, at least to me, than anything else Griffith ever attempted. It's a virtuoso effort all the way around, with career turns by Barthelmess, Gish and Crisp, and the confident direction of a consummate artist.

Griffith directed Broken Blossoms for Adolph Zukor at Paramount Pictures, but Zukor— who made a similar mistake with Mary Pickford—was appalled at what he saw and refused to release it. The story goes that an enraged Griffith returned the next day with $250,000 in cash and bought the film back on the spot. Thus, it became the first release through the newly-formed United Artists and fortunately for Griffith, it was both a critical and commercial success.

Of the four main participants in Broken Blossoms, Lillian Gish went on the greatest success. After stellar performances in Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, she left Griffith's employ, eventually landing at MGM where she signed a contract to make six pictures at $400,000 a year and with complete control over choice of cast, director and screenplay. While there, she made some of her best pictures, La Boheme, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind.

After the advent of sound pictures, Gish turned to radio and the stage, but eventually returned to Hollywood, earning an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Duel in the Sun (1946). These days she may be best known as the shotgun-toting granny in the noir classic The Night of the Hunter. She received an honorary Oscar in 1971 "[f]or superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures." She died in 1993 at the age of 99.

Donald Crisp went on to success not only as an actor but as a director as well, including co-directing the classic Buster Keaton comedy, The Navigator (in fact, his scenes in Broken Blossoms were filmed at night because he was directing a film of his own during the day). He worked steadily until his retirement in 1963, appearing in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Sea Hawk, National Velvet and Pollyanna. In 1942, he won the Oscar for his supporting performance in How Green Was My Valley.

Richard Barthelmess proved to be one of the most popular actors during the silent era and for anyone looking to see him at his best, look not only at Broken Blossoms, but also at such films as Way Down East (1920) and The Enchanted Cottage (1924). In 1921, Barthelmess formed his own production company where he made one of his best received and remembered films, Tol'able David. Later he became one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was nominated for the first Oscar for best actor (losing to Emil Jannings). His career went into a gradual decline during the sound era—maybe his best known sound role was as a pilot married to Rita Hayworth in Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings—but he continued to work until 1942 when he joined the Navy Reserve. After the war, he lived comfortably on his real estate investments and died in 1963.

As for Griffith, I'm of the opinion that Broken Blossoms was his last completely-unqualified masterpiece. The bucolic fantasies and Victorian morality plays that would follow were wildly out-of-step with the tastes of audiences recently bathed in the blood of the Great War. The best of his remaining films, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, feature terrific performances (and in the case of the former, a concluding action sequence where Richard Barthelmess races across a disintegrating ice floe to rescue Lillian Gish just before she plunges over a waterfall—real ice, real waterfall, and two stars who were nearly killed), but the one is marred by heaps of cornpone humor, while the other, an epic retelling of the French Revolution, features some history lessons that, frankly, border on the ludicrous, even by Griffith's outlandish standards.

"Griffith in 1919," wrote Roger Ebert in his Great Movie series, "was the unchallenged king of serious American movies (only C.B. DeMille rivaled him in fame), and Broken Blossoms was seen as brave and controversial. What remains today is the artistry of the production, the ethereal quality of Lillian Gish, the broad appeal of the melodrama ... [a]nd its social impact. Films like this, naive as they seem today, helped nudge a xenophobic nation toward racial tolerance."