Thursday, September 20, 2018

NFR 52: Forbidden love and yellowface - 'Broken Blossoms' (1919)

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms.
 Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl
Dir: D.W. Griffith
Prod: D.W. Griffith
Scr: D.W. Griffith, from the Thomas Burke short story “The Chink and the Child”
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Premiere: May 13, 1919
90 min.

Yellowface. It’s the still-common practice of a white actor portraying an Asian character in film, in both lead and supporting roles. The practice extends at least back to Mary Pickford playing Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly in 1915, and the controversy extends to such recent releases as The Last AirbenderCloud Atlas, and Ghost in the Shell. It relates to blackface performance, as well as “redface” (whites playing Native Americans), whitewashing, racebending, and other terms much alive in media debate today.

The idea that people of non-white races can’t carry a film is an old one, belied in the case of Asian actors by early examples such as Sessue Hayakawa, who had already become a film star thanks to The Cheat (1915) and Anna May Wong, who was about to become one in The Toll of the Sea (1922). However, Hollywood did not have the guts to cast either as a positive central character, as it was considered impossible to sympathize with and root for a character played by someone considered to be of a definitively different and inferior kind. Over and over, for decades, these and other Asian actors in film were relegated to playing “exotics,” villains and villainesses, subservient types, hapless victims, ham-handed and idiotic comic foils, and the like. (Hayakawa eventually broke away from the studios and made his own independent films, in which Asian characters could take on dimensionality.)

Meanwhile, playing an Asian character was deemed to be a challenging bit of “stunt” acting, a transformation akin to the impressive body-morphing performances of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Christian Bale in The Machinist. An Asian performer could not be expected to expected to delineate the subtleties of an Asian character (???), therefore a nice bankable white person could wrap the mysterious, evocative, and utterly stereotyped Oriental Otherness about themselves, while still shining out and signaling their whiteness beneath. Cognitive dissonance, but it made the filmmakers money.

At any rate, young white actor Richard Barthelmess was tapped for the role, and it made him a star — he went on, ironically, to be silent film’s emblematic leading man, the fresh-faced, na├»ve but determined hero in films such as Way Down East (1920) and Tol’able David (1921). As Barthelmess aged, he made the jump to sound with little difficulty, but less impact, headlining the intriguing and dark Heroes for Sale (1933), then moving into excellent work in supporting roles such as Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and the 1942 version of famous Western slugfest The Spoilers.

As Cheng Huan, known more popularly as “the Yellow Man” in the intertitles (the original story by Thomas Burke from his Limehouse Nights [1916] was titled “The Chink and the Child”) Barthelmess emotes through a facial mask of imposed passivity, accentuated by the Asian makeup he’s wearing. Cheng Huan came to England eager to teach the ways of the Buddha, but slumps into opium-fueled lethargy as a common shop owner.

The story is a typical melodrama, intimate in scale in contrast to D.W. Griffith's mammoth productions Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. It's set in the poverty- and crime-stricken confines of London East End district Limehouse, also home to fictional opium dens, white slavers, and Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind Fu Manchu. There is an abused child-woman, played to perfection by Lillian Gish. Her character Lucy is given the age of 15, but as played by Gish she’s more of an addled 8-year-old, definitely prepubescent. Her wan, droopy helplessness is disturbing, especially the much-lauded gesture of her repeatedly forcing a smile onto her face. She only really comes to life when her father’s about to kill her, and she bashes about the inside of a small closet in hysterics.

She is the hapless punching bag of her father, the drunken boxer Battling Burrows, played by none other than — oh my God! is that Donald Crisp? You may remember him solely as the gruff but saintly patriarch in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941) and National Velvet (1944), but he started off playing baddies, and he is a real stinker here. He drinks, he grimaces, he pantomimes terribly.

Griffith intimidates the viewer with extreme closeup -- here, Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms.
One day, a badly beaten Lucy collapses in Cheng Huan’s shop, and he takes her in, caring for her and lavishing her with attention. Here the taboo of miscegenation raises its ugly head. Miscegenation, for those of you who don’t know, is the belief that people of different races shouldn’t love, physically or otherwise, formerly enshrined in law in many places, including the U.S. Cheng Huan can’t be shown relating sexually to a white woman, especially a 15-year-old. So he idolizes and spoils her, keeping their relationship on an infantile, asexual level. (At one point she asks, “Why are you so good to me, Chinky?” Ouch.) It is this sexless nobility that elevates Cheng Huan, oddly making him the most Christian of characters.

Of course, their idyll cannot last, and the inevitable happens. Griffith is doing what all the great film moralizers do — he outlines the abuse and retribution, while bemoaning same. Women and minorities have no chance in Western society in the world of Broken Blossoms, but Griffith pleads for them anyway, no matter how awkward or condescending he may be.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: The Dragon Painter.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

NFR Project 51: Maurice Tourneur's 'The Blue Bird' (1918)

The Blue Bird
Dir: Maurice Tourneur
Prod: Unknown (‘presented by’ Adolf Zukor)
Scr: Charles Maigne, from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck
Phot: John van den Broek
Premiere: March 31, 1918
75 min.

If there were such a thing as a practical course that prepared one for becoming a filmmaker, Maurice Tourneur took it. Trained as a graphic artist and illustrator, he served apprenticeships with sculptor Auguste Rodin and muralist Amelie Puvis de Chavanne. Switching to theater, he served as an actor and as a director in some 400 productions over the course of 11 years. Sensing the possibilities of the new medium, he then trained in the film industry, eventually becoming one of the most honored directors of the silent era.

The Blue Bird is one of four Tourneur films in the National Registry, all dating from his American period (1918-1928). All share a strong visual aesthetic — which first propelled, then hindered Tourneur’s career.

Here he’s at the height of assured inventiveness with a fairy-tale subject that’s but one of five film adaptations of the popular 1908 play by Belgian playwright and Nobel-winner Maurice Maeterlinck. Today, Maeterlinck is best known for creating the source material for Debussy’s sole opera, Pelleas et Melisande. The playwright was fond of symbolism and allegory, which made an impact with the audiences of the time, but which seem like a passel of condescending homilies today.

The story bears similarities to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published eight years before. In both, children go on quests in magical landscapes, accompanied by creatures not normally animate, only to learn that there’s no place like home. In Blue Bird’s case, the children are the decidedly Old World, Mitteleuropean Tyltyl and Mytyl, brother and sister who go on a dream journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness for the sick child across the road from them. With a talking Dog and Cat, and the “souls” of Water, Fire, Light, Sugar, Milk, and Bread, they search the Kingdoms of Night, Happiness, and the Future. (In a sublime moment, fire in a fireplace magically unfolds itself and dances, revealing its inner essence through a performer in a flame costume moving sinuously over a blowing fan that makes the cloth mimic tongues of fire licking, tasseling upward.)

Returning empty-handed, they find the Bird in their home as it was all the time. They give it to their sick friend, who promptly loses it but remains healthy and happy. Breaking the fourth wall, Tyltyl encourages the audience to find the Blue Bird in their own humble homes.

Backed up by a creative team that stuck with him for several productions, Tourneur was able to design and execute a sumptuous visual plan. Every setup is art-directed to within an inch of its life, every frame is a little artwork. This kind of attention to detail was by and large extremely unfamiliar to American moviemakers, who thrived on action and improvisation. Tourneur’s mature artistic integrity made him an auteur long before the phrase became popular.

A menagerie of smoothly executed effects proved dazzling. Though sometimes credited as an influence on German Expressionist film, Tourneur’s approach is much more of a direct influence on the creative team behind Douglas Fairbanks’s 1924 starring fantasy vehicle The Thief of Baghdad. Tourneur showed that a comprehensive and coherent visual world could be constructed on film, through ardent discipline that exploited the possibilities of production design.

Other film version of Blue Bird include a 1940 Technicolor outing starring Shirley Temple — specifically programmed to counter the smash hit Wizard of Oz the previous year, it bombed big-time. An infamous, all-star 1976 American/Soviet coproduction directed by a 77-year-old George Cukor cratered as well.

In the end, Tourneur’s desire not a just be a cog in a major studio’s machine prompted him to leave America while filming The Mysterious Island and return to France. There he overcame the poor opinion of those French who thought of him as a World War I draft dodger; later he made films in a tense truce with Nazi occupiers. Tourneur’s last great film, Le Main du Diable (Carnival of Sinners, 1943) was a parable about an artist making a deal with the Devil.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Broken Blossoms.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On the Impossibility of Seeing a Film As It Was Intended to Be Seen

Screenshot from the trailer for the first CinemaScope epic, The Robe (1953)

True story. If you remember theatrical films shown on television in the 1960s, or if you just remember annoying things in general, you will recall that at the beginning of said films, and sometimes at their ends, all the figures on the screen would be compressed vertically, like Giacometti sculptures. Eventually, they would all pooch out again, and you would enjoy what you could see of the film's intended epic grandeur.

For indeed you were now helplessly held in the paw of the pan-and-scan technique, by which an arbitrarily designated squarish section of film was shot and transmitted, fitting the aspect ratio of your television screen. Many a night we would try to interpret what was happening in the off-stage portions of the film, as actors threatened and pleaded into the wings. This occurred most often when lauded Biblical or historical epics were on the schedule -- a big must in our family. (I never understood how big, beautiful, and fluid West Side Story (1961) was until I saw it in our local revival house, the Ogden.

The reason was of course the anamorphic lens. Whuut? Considering how smart I think I am, I sure don't know much about this subject. Here are some good links to help you understand the technology and its offshoots, rivals, boons, and limitations -- Harrie Verstappen's eloquent outline of the problem in Movie Screen Aspect Ratios on his Looniverse site; John L. Berger's wonderful; and Ben Kirby's elegant explanation in Empire.

These writers and other film historians demonstrate a constant shift in the presentation of film from one kind of advanced technology to the next; with decidedly mixed results for the viewer. The CinemaScope/Cinerama films could never be seen properly unless and until they were housed in the intended auditorium.

Aspect ratio is only one of many factors that are dicey in a movie theatre, at a drive-in, in a improvised venue, and on any one of hundreds of differently designed viewing platforms, from mammoth hi-def units to phones.

In theatres, images are usually too dim and sound is far too loud -- my first film back in a theatre after a long neurological illness? -- Blade Runner 2049. I nearly passed out and left squinting and deaf. On recorded film as well, the quality soars and craters. It takes a diligent viewer to buy, visit, support, and subscribe to

Digital distribution has its own drawbacks. I watched Frost/Nixon (2008) in a crowded theatre one night and, as Michael Sheen says, "Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?", the movie stops. Twenty minutes and any groans later, we were excused with vouchers for a future screening. There is no foolproof way. The best you can do is hope for a trained and concerned projectionist and house manager who work together to make the screening as high-quality as possible.

My personal CinemaScope/Cinerama fix got met at Denver's idyllic Cooper Theatre, perched on a hilltop in Glendale in modernist splendor. The best explication of its glories can be found here in Shannon Stanbro's "The Cooper, Theatre of Tomorrow" in Historic Modern Denver. There were elevated smoking balconies at the right and left rear; there were "crying child" rooms, soundproofed, fronted with large windows and containing speakers so that new mothers could stay and keep watching the film instead of fleeing into the lobby with their squawking kids.

I've meant to write about the Cooper as part of my long-running Formative Film series, and am about five titles away from talking about it in depth. It is safe to say that viewing some of the original Cinerama and CinemaScope titles there, including a pristine and astonishing archival print of How the West Was Won (1962), were life-changing film-going experiences. But then, anytime we wanted to see a 70-millimeter, large-format drama or action film, we went to the Cooper, unconscious connoisseurs. We did dwell in the heart of the New American Cinema era (1967-1982), more exciting and inclusive than it would ever be again, without knowing it.