He saves her but then ...
... almost kisses her.
He is the first person to offer Lucy love.
He dreams of possession.
The doll is a brilliant prop, later used effectively when Gish cowers in the closet before Burrows kills her.
Her pathos calls out to me. I want to protect her.
Angela Carter compares this waif to de Sade's Justine, understanding the play in Broken Blossoms between sexuality and childishness.
Father-daughter relation: Burrows cannot stand seeing Lucy in the Chinese man's bed.
If the artistic structure of Broken Blossoms deals only superficially with race, it deals profoundly with sexual politics, especially masculinity. In particular, it implies that all three "types" of men under capitalism will desire the same type of woman—the unattainable woman or nonsexually active one. [open endnotes in new window] Battling Burrows represents the "family man." Because he is an entrepreneur, an aggressive boxer, he represents the self-made man, and because of his economic level, he also represents the working class. Thus Griffith has condensed onto the figure of Burrows traits of both the capitalist and the worker. In this context, Burrows possesses his blonde virgin and good wife and child within the context of a man's possession of his family. As I mentioned before, Griffith condensed and displaced all his notions of the potential evil of family life onto the figure of a lower class man both for his own protection and that of his audience. Similarly, projected onto the figure of the Chinese man are all the traits of the romantic hero, living only for the pursuit and never living out the fulfillment.
The woman that both men need, each for different reasons, is played by Gish in a way that collapses virgin, child, and wife all into the same role. For the father, she is the traditional good woman and also the virgin child. For the Chinese romantic hero, she is like Faust's Gretchen and DeQuincy's waif or even Werther's Lotte—a figure desirable from afar.
When I first saw Broken Blossoms, I asked myself, what does it mean that both men have to get a virgin? Griffith's emblematic schema of the sexual possibilities for men in the West, that is, under capitalism, makes the answer clear. The men in the film live in a world of men, and Burrows embraces that world while the Chinese rejects it. None of the men in the film can enter into or even imagine a world where women are sexually active, initiators and agents of actions and decisions, and bearers of social power.
Coming to the same conclusion, but in a contrasting way, G.W. Pabst's silent film Pandora's Box also took up the theme of the capitalist's and the romantic hero's sexual decisions, but that film traced the fate of two men who aligned themselves with the seductress, the dark woman. Lulu, played by the dark-haired Louise Brooks, was the mirror opposite of Gish—a destroyer of men and the bearer of chaos. In Broken Blossoms, the function of the good woman, the virginal woman, is to be put on a pedestal and yearned for, and after marriage or within the family, she is to be possessed. It is not Lucy's own vision, for Griffith early included scenes that showed Lucy losing all illusions about her future as a woman, either in marriage or as a prostitute.
That all the main characters must die at the end of Broken Blossoms and that the sexual-political situation as Griffith presents it is so static and despairing is no accident. Griffith presents a sparse yet emotionally charged outline of what happens when men cling to established norms of masculinity or rebel against those norms as a romantic hero would. Broken Blossoms has the vision to present both kinds of emotional possibilities which men in capitalist culture can allow themselves as, at worst, murderous in their consequences, and, at best, as crippling to men and oppressive to women.
A woman viewer's response
To conclude, I would like to try to analyze why I liked the film. First, as I pointed out, Griffith's films have many ways to pacify our superego while promulgating a racist and sexist ideology. Broken Blossoms' intent seems to be to combat racism. The fact that the Chinese man has the outlook of the romantic hero more than the point of view of someone from a non-white race does not at first seem racist, since the romantic hero has long been a figure women have found sympathetic. Sheila Rowbotham in Woman's Consciousness, Man's World spoke for my whole generation when she exposed the basic infantile selfishness of that figure as encountered by women in real life, but even so the sensitive, often androgynous man in fiction still has his appeal. Men authors give him "womanly" virtues and also a man's right to be agent of his own destiny. Broken Blossoms takes a clear stand against violence and male brutality, and, in the figure of the Chinese man, it valorizes male tenderness, gentleness, and appreciation of beauty and innocence. No matter how many times I see the film, its simple praise for virtues I too prize in men comes through with an emotional power.
For most viewers, the other side of that message, that Brutality is Wrong, is conveyed not through the caricature of masculinity as enacted by Donald Crisp as Battling Burrows but through the pathos elicited by Lillian Gish. Broken Blossoms established Gish's critical reputation and was part of a series of films Griffith made in this period that looked lovingly at the small detail and at Woman in the domestic sphere. Griffith's films were famous for their female roles, and Griffith was admired for the performances he drew from actresses and the way he filmed them. Broken Blossoms, for example, featured Griffith's first use of the irregular "Sartov" lens, which resulted in his dramatically exploiting from then on softly-blurred close-ups of Gish. It was also one of the first commercial films in the U.S. to be promoted successfully as high art.
Although our attention is constantly being drawn to Gish, she is not playing a woman seen on women's terms or from a woman's point of view. Her role is reduced to the depiction of a Virgin, a "vision" of women often manipulated in male, or rather, patriarchal, art. Within the narrative structure, the figure of Lucy is a term or a marker in a male story about male concerns.
The critical question that remains unresolved for me as a feminist viewer is this: Where does Lucy's pathos, which affects me so strongly, derive from? Are my eyes constantly on Lucy in the way that a male viewer's would be, insofar as traditional feature films constantly have us look at woman as objects in stories told through men's eyes? Do I or can I stay on the film's surface and admire it as anti-racist and/or as Art? Do I respond to the figure of Lucy primarily because I appreciate this virtuoso film role for an actress, one that demands a range from childlike ingenuousness to complete hysteria? By extension, do I admire more of Griffith's films for such roles and for women's acting in them?
Most students I have taught remember specific Griffith films in terms of "what happens" to the female lead and in terms of the actresses' performances. Broken Blossoms is seemingly "about" Lucy's plight, her moment of love, and her murder. The surface emphasis on Lucy's story is enhanced both by Gish's acting and the close-ups of her face and glowing hair. Such an emphasis on the waif Lucy gives the film an appeal to both men and women. Although, for me, the device of Lucy's making a smile with her fingers is repulsively saccharine, the way Gish captures Lucy's limited emotional experience and the way her figure is filmed seem so "right" for this sad tale. For example, Griffith brilliantly assigns Gish the prop of a doll to represent Lucy's awakening to her childhood, sexuality, and maternal emotion all at once, and then he maintains a visual emphasis on the child clinging to that doll while she is attacked in the closet. While seemingly fixed in a rigid stance, Gish can let her eyes, posture, or fluttering hands express a whole range of emotions, and when she is attacked in the closet, she can let her body totally respond to the hysteria of impending death.
Gish draws us in and holds us, and our sympathy at the child's plight both pacifies our superego and assures us that such things happen only to poor waifs and not to us. The other drama, that of masculinity and of men's need to get a virgin, is enacted on a level of the film which I think many people can observe but which goes by relatively uncommented on either by the overt story line or by the intertitles. And on this level, the film leads us all to participate in Lucy's rape by her father and her seduction by the Chinese man, the seduction in fact of a child who has just been given her first doll.
The film depicts interracial love yet hides the ways it makes that love "safe." It protests male brutality yet draws us into male violence and child-abuse. I cannot speak for a Third World person's reaction to the film's ambiguous combination of anti-racism and racism. I do know that, as a feminist, it is my being drawn into cinematic depictions of this kind of sexual perversion that disturbs me the most. It seems a gauge of my own colonized mind.
Lucy's pathos draws me into identifying with a cinematic depiction of woman as victim. On the one hand, as a viewer, I want to protect this girl as a motherless child. Her helplessness calls out to me. As a girl and also as a woman, I have both felt helplessness (even been addicted to it) and nurtured others from helplessness to independence (the teacher's role, the lover's role, the mothering role that I have learned in my female socialization).
On the other hand, Broken Blossoms' patriarchal, extreme depiction of father-daughter relations also reflects my own internalized and eroticized fears of male authority, dominance, and control—fears that also derive from my girlhood in this culture. I have to ask myself: In what ways as a viewer do I "participate" in Lucy's brutalization and rape? I know how many levels of culture (from the structure of language to the structures of fiction to the structures of the economy) operate in a way that would encourage me to eroticize female submission. In her key work on the presentation of women in male pornography, Angela Carter compares Broken Blossoms to de Sade's Justine:
Carter discussed the mechanism of denial in terms of male spectators' response to Gish's roles. I would also apply that mechanism to my own response. My response may include a denial of "lust"—i.e., my own erotic reaction to my preferred female stars. But more clearly, Gish's role as waif-woman both elicits my own Oedipal fears and fantasies and allows me to deny them. The extremity of Lucy's condition allows me to deny that there is an internalized, "masochistic" drama of the brutalized girl child that I, the mature woman, still carry around with me emotionally. Furthermore, Gish, acting the desired and abused girl, represents the vision I as a "good girl" had to have of my sexuality—it was there but denied, and I long thought that its destiny was to be possessed.
Broken Blossoms openly teaches that its configuration of male dominance/female submission is destructively perverse. Do woman viewers who identify strongly with Gish's role sense that Broken Blossoms has artistically presented their own problems in such a way that it has brought sexual-political problems to the surface for conscious consideration? I suspect not. As a viewer, pathos has overwhelmed me. When I identify with women on the screen as victims, it is difficult to move away from "feeling" to a more active, self-aware response.
Even with this caveat, my response to Broken Blossoms is ambiguous. I cannot help but admire it. In a visual style fully adequate to expressing the complex interrelations between romantic striving and male brutishness, the film offers us a symbolically complete, although schematized and condensed, representation of masculine options under capitalism. Like most bourgeois, patriarchal narrative art, it provides a social and superego "cover" for its viewers so that they can immerse themselves in its flow. Yet here the "cover" is so honorable and so exhaustive (high art, anti-racism, anti-child abuse, male idealism and tenderness pitted against brutishness, female pathos and admirable woman's screen role) that, below its manifest content, Broken Blossoms demystifies the romantic hero as a semi-paralyzed pursuer of unattainable ideals and creates a daring metaphor to describe the patriarch's possessive role in the nuclear family in terms of incest.