Having 1919 behind you is like having the wind at your back.
That’s because the films we watched from 1919 were no picnic, and the films of the 1920s are generally pretty awesome. But we still have to recap our 1919 films, and although we only watched two this week, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to it:
This is a film widely regarded as classic Chaplin: the sympathetic characters, great acting through body language, and extensive pathos and ambiguously sentimental ending are all classic Chaplin, but there’s really only one thing I can note about this short: we didn’t really laugh that much. It’s just not as funny as the other Chaplin films we’ve seen.
Chaplin often threw himself into wild comedy with dramatic pathos thrown in (The Kid, 1921) or extensive pathos with comedy included (The Circus, 1928). When the two elements come together just right, as in City Lights (1931), it’s a beautiful thing… but The Vagabond shows the formula out of balance, so focused on the bittersweet drama that the comedy never really leaves the ground. It’s forced to taxi and halt, taxi and halt, never quite taking flight.
Compared to the work of many filmmakers, this would be a good film… but compared to Chaplin’s other films, The Vagabond leaves something to be desired.
Well. I’m glad we watched Broken Blossoms, and here’s why: we’re trying to be somewhat representative here in the SVU, picking films that give us a taste of a little of everything film has to offer. Broken Blossoms was directed by D. W. Griffith and it stars Lillian Gish, and those are two very, very big names from the silent era. I don’t think we’re going to wind up viewing any more from either of them, so I was glad to have them represented in a film.
Shame it had to be such a stinker.
Broken Blossoms was a hit upon its release in 1919, but the film hasn’t aged well – and unlike last week’s Tarzan film, the difference of tastes makes for a film more awkward and frustrating than hilarious. The film falls prey to what I am going to hastily dub the two R’s:
Racist – If you’ve heard the name D.W. Griffith, chances are it’s in conjunction with his epic Birth of A Nation, which is, by most accounts, a well-made film but which also glorifies the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan. According to the DVD insert, after the outrage surrounding Birth of A Nation, Griffith made Broken Blossoms partly in some misguided attempt to prove that he was not racist.
Considering the subtitle of the film is ‘The Yellow Man and the Girl,’ you can probably guess how that turned out.
The main character is a white man pretending to be Asian. His lifestyle is portrayed in stereotypically Asian ways. And both ‘the girl’ and her father refer to him by names I ain’t gonna type on this blog.
Now, let’s get in the mind of 1919 America. As late as the 1950s, ethnic stereotypes were simply taken for granted in most American media, and – as near as I can tell from hearing the words of those who were there – much of the lighter names and stereotypes were hardly considered more offensive than the high-school stereotypes we have today about geeks, jocks, cheerleaders, etc.
Was it wrong? Absolutely! Making snap judgments about someone because of the color of their skin was as wrong then as it is now. All I’m trying to say is that it was MUCH less of a taboo and MUCH more conceived as a harmless generalization.
SO. Imagine you’re a filmgoer of 1919. Your standards of racism are much different, and racial stereotypes abound everywhere in the media, perceived, to a certain extent, as the norm. With that frame of reference, and a desensitized attitude toward racial stereotypes, does Broken Blossoms really come off as all that racist?
Romance – This is a tragic love story at the core, and yet despite its romantic intentions, I often felt compelled to quote the words of Tom Servo: “This isn’t charming, it’s creepy!”
Zach, the behavioral anthropologist of the group, helped put things into perspective: while love is enduring, romance is constantly changing with each new generation, and what people considered wildly romantic in 1919 may not be what we consider wildly romantic in 2010. A hundred years from now, people may watch the most tender films of our age and say the same thing: “that’s not charming, it’s creepy!”
And not just about Brokeback Mountain, either.
But I digress… In the 1910s, the romantic notion of a reckless love was apparently this:
1) Stalk a woman. Watch her steps as she walks down the street. Follow her from a distance. Stare at her through heavy-lidded eyes.
2) If you find that woman beaten and abused, try to kiss her. If she shies away from your kiss, back off and carry her to your bed.
3) Nurse that woman back to health with tea and incense. Oh, and give her a doll. She loves dolls. Keep her in your bedroom, and don’t tell anyone.
4) If you return to find her missing, search the town until you find her. But first, have a spaz attack – after all, you’re distraught!
It’s not the creepiest romance I’ve ever seen (Wuthering Hights, anyone?)… but it definitely doesn’t resonate with modern audiences, and I don’t know that it was ever that heart-rending. The Romeo and Juliet ending doesn’t have the Romeo and Juliet effect – it comes off not as tragically moving, but as “horribly depressing,” as Tyler put it when “The End” came on the screen.
The Good Stuff: So why was this movie a hit? Does it have any redeeming value?
Well, I can see why D.W. Griffith was revered as a director; his method of framing shots, intercutting action, and creating a sense of place, time and energy with the camera hold up well even by today’s standards – and are above and beyond anything else I’ve seen from the pre-1920′s era.
Lillian Gish? I fail to see the appeal that made her a star, but she does a fine job of conveying the emotions she’s called upon to produce. Not all of her acting translates well to modern viewing, but if this film is any indication, she was a solid actress.
Apart from a small glimpse into those two legends of the silent era, I can think of little to recommend this film on. But apparently they loved it 91 years ago.
Depressed? I understand. But cheer up – next week is 1920, and the 1920′s were a great decade for cinema!
Coming next week: The Mark of Zorro.