Back, with another D.W. Griffith offering. You’ll remember Intolerance, a massively-budgeted epic, nearly bankrupted not just Griffith himself, but an entire studio. So he really had to rein things in out of necessity for this – there are only about four sets and five prominent characters. That minimalism, plus the melodramatic love story within, helped the film turn a profit and the studio turn a corner. I also think it helped the film, in the end.
The love story takes place between Cheng Huan (actor Richard Barthelmess, in somewhat unconvincing yellowface) and Lucy, a poor and abused teenage orphan. Huan and Lucy live in London’s Chinatown, where Lucy is the ward of a cruel boxer, “Battling Burrows” (Donald Crisp). The prelude scenes introduce Huan taking his leave of China on a self-imposed mission to “spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands”, but by the time he meets Lucy he is a disillusioned shopkeeper with an opium habit. Huan often sees Lucy peering longingly through his window at the selection of dolls he has on offer; his shop window is one of the few tastes of beauty available to her.
One night, after a particularly cruel beating at Burrows’ hands, she staggers out of their house in a daze and wanders to Huan’s shop, collapsing on the floor. Huan takes her in, devotedly tending to her wounds and showering her with chaste affection until Burrows learns where she is and storms to Huan’s shop, destoys everything, and drags Lucy home to beat her soundly. But love for Lucy spurs the pacifist Huan to arm himself and attempt a rescue.
This is a melodrama with a big ol’ capital M. All three principals ham things up considerably; much of Barthelmess’ performance consists of simply looking at Lucy with quiet devotion, and Crisp seems to have a permanent sneer on his face. And there are plenty of lingering close-ups of Lillian Gish as Lucy, looking sadly into the camera with big tear-filled eyes. There’s even a running bit where Burrows repeatedly chides Lucy to “put a smile on yer face”, and because of the sheer misery of her life, all she can muster is to manually use two fingers to prod the corners of her mouth into shape.
The exception is the film’s “closet scene”, a moment towards the end where Lucy, in an effort to escape a thrashing from Burrows, barricades herself in the closet – but Burrows has a hatchet, and starts chopping his way through, to Lucy’s terror.
Reportedly, Gish really sold this scene on set during filming, to the point that neighbors were knocking on the studio door after hearing the screams and asking “is everything okay?” Even Griffith himself was rattled – immediately after the take, there was a moment of silence, broken by Griffith finally retorting, “My God, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that?”
One other shot may not translate as well into today’s conventions. During a scene where Huan is tending to Lucy, he is watching her sleep; there is a long closeup of his face, as he stares directly into the camera, followed by a two-shot of him turning away from her on the bed and leaving. I know that it’s probably supposed to depict Huan’s tempation and desire, but it just looks really creepy:
Alternately, it reminded me of Peter Capaldi’s very first appearance as The Doctor on Doctor Who –
The smaller scale actually helps Griffith; he couldn’t afford to throw two-story sets or period costumes into the mix. He even goes minimalist with the lectures in his title cards; save for one small scold in the film’s opening, Griffith steps back and lets the story simply unfold. There is one scene with a whiff of social commentary that made me chuckle, though; early in the film, as Huan is opening up his shop, he is visited a pair of priests. One is the local minister, and is greeted warmly by Huan; he introduces the other to Huan as his brother, proudly saying that his brother is “about to depart for China to preach the gospel to the heathen.” The scene comes no more than two minutes after shots of Huan ambitiously departing China on his own evangelical crusade; but Huan simply smiles blandly, teeth slightly grit, and says “….I wish him luck.”