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VINE VOICEon 2 July 2012
Broken Blossoms was made in 1936 at Twickenham Film Studios and is essentially a remake of D.W.Griffith's celebrated silent film of the same title, itself based on a story called The Chink And The Child from Thomas Burke's Limehouse Nights. Griffith's film is rightly famed for its visual poetry and for the delicacy and pathos of its central performances (Richard Barthelmess as the "Chink" and Lilian Gish as the "Child") and I believe this remake was mounted in the expectation that Griffith himself would direct it. The story concerns a Chinese buddhist who comes to England in the hope of propagating his creed of peace and compassion but who rapidly becomes disillusioned by the racism and brutality he encounters living in London's Limehouse area. He falls in love with a beautiful but simple-minded English waif who lives with her violent father, a boxer. The Chinaman and the waif are two lost souls who find comfort in each other and inevitably their relationship leads to tragedy.

British movies of the 30s, perhaps discouraged by the censorship of the time, rarely tackled themes relating to the great political or social issues of the day and one is often surprised at the curious subject matter which our leading studios deemed to be commercial (lavish productions for example like Chu Chin Chow or Jew Suess.) This remake of Broken Blossoms is one such curiosity although it has a grittiness and level of realism not often encountered in British movies of the period. After some rather unconvincing opening scenes set in China, the director and his set designer do a fine job of evoking the atmosphere of the London Docklands and Chinatown of the period and this remake, at least visually, can often stand comparison with Griffith's masterpiece. But the two central performances never quite match the pathos of Gish and Barthelmess (although perhaps the pathos might have vanished had we heard them speak.) Dolly Haas was a German-born actress whose father was of British descent and at the time the movie was made she was married to its director John Brahm. In many ways she is absolutely right for the role of the waif, her fragile beauty, her innocence and vulnerablity being virtually pitch-perfect. But scriptwriter and co-star Emlyn Williams lumbers her with a mass of faux-cockney dialogue (one suspects he hadn't spent much time in the East End) with the actress encouraged to drop her aitches and mangle her vowels once too often. As for Williams himself, he well conveys both the early serenity of the "Chink" and his later rage and frustration. But it's difficult to believe that his perfectly enunciated English was picked up from some missionaries in China rather than at RADA. Neither performance, then, quite convinces although neither performance is bad.

If you're interested in the British cinema of the 1930s, then I certainly think Broken Blossoms is worth watching. It's quite a stylish production, occasionally more interesting than its famed predecessor, and Miss Haas's gentle beauty lingers in the mind. Picture and sound quality for this remastered release are both excellent.
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