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Broken Blossoms (1936)

Main image of Broken Blossoms (1936)
DirectorJohn Brahm
Production CompanyTwickenham Film Studios Productions
ProducerJulius Hagen
AdaptationEmlyn Williams
Adapted from film byD.W. Griffith
Adapted from story byThomas Burke
PhotographyCurt Courant
EditorRalph Kemplen
MusicKarol Rathaus

Emlyn Williams (Chen); Dolly Haas (Lucy Burrows); Arthur Margetson (Battling Burrows); Ernest Sefton (Manager); Gibb Mclaughlin (Evil Eye)

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A Buddhist missionary travels from China to London. He meets and falls in love with a young girl in the slums of the East End but tragedy threatens when their relationship is discovered by the girl's brutal father.

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A remake of D.W. Griffith's 1919 silent classic, Broken Blossoms(d. John Brahm, 1936) is a melodrama set in the seamy docklands of East London. In this version, German stage and screen actress Dolly Haas reprises the Lilian Gish role of Lucy, a young girl maltreated by her brutish, drunken father Battling Burrows, played by Arthur Margetson, who famously starred in The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (d. Denison Clift, 1935) with Bela Lugosi. Donald Calthrop, Hitchcock's favourite villain rounds out the heavyweight cast as Chen, the Old Chinaman.

This story is worth investigating for a number of reasons: the differences in narrative between the short story on which it is based, the silent film and the sound film; and as a representation of a working-class community, not to mention Chinese people, in early cinema.

'The Chink and the Child' appeared in a collection of short stories, Limehouse Nights (1916) by Thomas Burke. With its emphasis on atmosphere and descriptive flourishes, it was a natural for early film. Lucy's neighbourhood is lavishly recreated here as a horror set with dark alleys, lugubrious mists and fetid waterways. The lighting is sepulchral, the production design evokes menace.

There is an obvious voyeurism in this representation of the East End, illustrated in a scene where a coach load of tourists arrive to gape and exclaim over the horrors of the neighbourhood. This warped fascination is stirred by the presence of immigrant communities and their representation in contemporary literature and film.

The film adaptations added the stereotype Chinese villain the Evil Eye, and softened the character of Chen, the naïve and otherworldly philosopher. Viewed from today, the film's racism is no less blunt than in the short story, but the several other nationalities that populate the stories - the Malays, Africans, Jews - have been excised.

Broken Blossoms was given an A certificate; a contemporary review in the Monthly Film Bulletin described it as unsuitable for "those who dislike being harrowed". Violence permeates the film and the themes of child abuse, racial bigotry, interracial (and paedophiliac) love and murder make this disturbing viewing for any audience.

Dolly Haas gives a wrenching performance as the fragile waif, though it is Chen's glances that carry the emotional registers of the film. Given the film's strong visual sense, and the exquisite performances, the dialogue seems almost unecessary.

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. Naive monk in London (5:40)
2. Take my advice, dear (2:50)
3. The tyrant Burrows (4:04)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Calthrop, Donald (1888-1940)
Harris, Jack (1905-1971)
Kemplen, Ralph (1912-2004)
Radford, Basil (1897-1952)
Verno, Jerry (1894-1975)
Vorhaus, Bernard (1904-2000)
British-Chinese Cinema