A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1919 – Broken Blossoms
1919 is a rough year for film. I thought 1917 was tough… nothing compared to 1919. Almost everything I could have chosen would have led to me talking about the same stuff I’ve already talked about. So I just defaulted to Broken Blossoms, which is the most famous film of 1919, getting a D.W. Griffith bump, and, as it turns out, it actually ended up being a good choice, since I did find something really interesting to talk about.
Full disclosure – I’d never seen the film before I started this feature. And my requisite for choosing any film was that I’d had to have seen it, because otherwise, how do you talk about it?
So I watched this film, and… first off, I thought it was about white slavery until I did. Am I confusing this with another Griffith movie? I thought maybe it was Orphans of the Storm, but that’s not it. I don’t know. For the longest time I thought this movie was about white slavery. Maybe after Thoroughly Modern Millie, every movie with Chinese people is somewhat about white slavery for me.
Anyway, I figured out pretty quickly what I’m going to talk about with this film, and that’s good old-fashioned Hollywood racism!
Because holy fuck, Hollywood is racist as shit.
First off, do you know what the subtitle of this movie is? Or I should say the alternate title? The Yellow Man and the Girl. So, for those keeping track, D.W. Griffith has a film referencing Native Americans as “Red Man” and Chinese people as “Yellow Man.” And one of his movies features the KKK as the heroes.
He seems chill.
But don’t worry. Just in case you thought that was the most racist thing about this movie, the original title of the book it’s based on is “The Chink and the Child.” So it actually does get worse.
Now, my main gripe with this film (is not the character names. One of the characters is called Battling Burrows, which is fucking awesome. That sounds like a drunk writer in the 20s. I want to be Battling Burrows, with a touch of the brogue and a solid left hook), is that it does what all Hollywood did for years and years – it cast white people as other races! The Yellow Man (that’s his fucking name by the way, in the movie) is played by Richard Barthelmess. You don’t know who he is nowadays, but he was one of the most famous silent film actors of the era. The first time they had the Oscars, and gave out Best Actor, only two people were nominated: Richard Barthelmess and Emil Jannings (Jannings won). Very clearly a white man. And he plays an Asian main character. And to me, that’s offensive.
Not because I’m against him doing it. It’s more — they could have just cast an Asian person in the role, and it goes back to the bigotry and racism that’s been ingrained in Hollywood for over a century now. Black people, Asians, women — they can barely get good roles. Especially back in the 20s and 30s. And then, when there actually was a part they could play that’s not an over-the-top, “Yes, massah” servant or a shifty nephew of Fu Manchu, they fucking gave the part to white people. There is a movie, it’s called Dragon Seed. It’s actually a really engaging and well-made movie, and I like it. But it is about a Chinese family dealing with a Japanese invasion of China. It’s based on a novle by Pearl S. Buck, who also wrote The Good Earth (which I’ll mention again in a minute). And the Chinese family is played by Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston and Aline McMahon. Also playing Asians are Agnes Moorehead (though I’m okay with that, because she could play anything), Henry Travers (that’s right, Clarence. Every time a bell rings, the Chinese food is here), J. Carrol Naish, Akim Tamiroff — these are Academy Award nominated (and winning!) actors. All of them. And they’re all essentially doing Yellow Face. Just fucking cast Asians in the parts. It’s offensive to me to see Katharine Hepburn with her eyes stretched out to look like an Asian person. Because she fucking sounds like Katharine Hepburn still. And then, when they try to sound Asian, it’s so horribly offensive. They took in fortune cookie wisdom voices. It’s ridiculous.
Other horribly racist examples — The Good Earth. Paul Muni and Luise Rainer. Luise Rainer won a fucking Oscar for playing Asian. And it’s completely offensive. How about Gale Sondergaard? For a decade, she made a living playing sinister Asian women. This blog first started with me mentioning The Letter, the Bette Davis movie where she gets “shanked by a Chinese woman.” Gale Sondergaard plays the Chinese woman! (And this is the woman who was originally cast as the Wicked Witch of the West. Not Asian.) It’s pretty gross how often Hollywood did this.
And I haven’t even gotten into black face yet. Holy shit.
Think of your favorite musical star of the 30s and 40s. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland — every single one of them was in blackface at some point or another. Every one of them.
Now, blackface was a vaudeville tradition and all of that, so I’m guessing it was rooted in some sort of… whatever. But still — no. It’s not okay. Hollywood would put white people in blackface and not give parts to actual black people. There’s a movie from 1945 called Saratoga Trunk. Starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. I believe it was directed by Sam Wood, if you asked me off the top of my head. It features Flora Robson playing one of the most horrendously offensive cajun mammy stereotypes I have ever seen. I could barely watch the film when I saw it.
And she got nominated for an Oscar for it.
So not only was racism rampant in Hollywood, apparently they actually lauded actors who played the other races, because apparently it showed range, and not some deeper issue of hatred going on in the industry.
And that’s what I feel this film represents about film history — the astounding amount of racism in Hollywood
Also, is it me, or does Richard Barthelmess look like he’s autistic for the entire movie?
Now, I know the film has the first interracial romance and all, and that’s kind of a big deal… but they’re played by white people. And it’s not a real romance. It’s just a spiritual romance. Because it’s a white and an Asian. They can’t have them fuck. That would be indecent. So they’re just spiritually in love instead of dick in vagina in love. So let’s not pretend like it’s that progressive.
I will give him credit for having everyone die at the end (spoiler alert. But it’s not like you’re gonna watch this movie for the story anyway. Or watch the movie, period). I’ll always think well of a movie that has the balls to not only skip the happy ending route, but deliberately go, “Fuck happiness, we’re gonna end in the most depressing way possible.” So kudos for that, at least.
Look, I don’t really know how to end this article without throwing up my hands about how racist Hollywood was. So I’ll just leave you guys with this:
There was a point in the world where it was okay for this song to be released.
Because what could possibly be wrong with that, right?