Cast: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp
SUMMARY: Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) — referred to in the intertitles as the “Yellow Man” — is a young man from China who decides to leave his country in order to act as an unofficial missionary. A few years later, he is living in London and running an unsuccessful business. Periodically, he sees a young girl come into the neighborhood to shop, and finds himself taken by her beauty and sad nature. This young girl’s name is Lucy (Lillian Gish), and she lives with her father, professional boxer “Battling” Burrows (Donald Crisp). Burrows has little interest in being a father, and forces his daughter to act as a maid, and as a whipping post when he is angry. Lucy, who is only 15, has had her spirit broken, and seems to barely stand up most of the time. When she returns home later than expected one evening, her father beats her severely. Lucy stumbles out of the house and through London, eventually collapsing just inside Cheng Huan’s shop. When he finds her there, he shows her the first kindness she has ever known by gently and tenderly caring for her. He puts her in his own room, and gives her a special silk robe to wear instead of her old rags; he also brings her flowers and dolls, which she has never possessed.
Lucy begins to recover and smile for the first time, but a friend of her father’s accidentally discovers her location. When he tells Battling, the man vows to teach both his daughter and Cheng Huan a lesson. He storms over to the shop, seizes Lucy while Cheng Huan is occupied, and drags her home. Back at the Burrows house, Lucy locks herself in a closet in an attempt to avoid the beating she knows is coming from her father. She screams for help, but nobody hears or comes to her rescue; her father eventually breaks down the door and fatally beats her. Meanwhile, Cheng Huan has returned to his shop and learned what has happened to Lucy. He arms himself with a pistol, and heads for the Burrows house. While Battling is in the other room, Cheng Huan slips in and finds Lucy. As he is holding her, Battling returns. He tries to pick up an ax from the floor, but Cheng Huan shoots him several times. He then picks up the dying Lucy and takes her back to his shop. Once there, he places her back on the bed and wraps the shreds of the robe (ripped off by Battling) around her, and places her doll in her arms. He then builds a small Buddhist shrine, and stabs himself in the chest.
MY TAKE: This is a D.W. Griffith movie, but in my opinion it’s not one of his better attempts. First of all, Griffith’s prejudices are rather notorious (Birth of a Nation is pretty much KKK propaganda), so I was rather skeptical of all the equality and gentleness talk of this film. I was also offended, though not overly surprised, by the way Cheng Huan is depicted. The movie is based on a short story that actually has the word “Chink” in the title, and the subtitle of this movie is “The Yellow Man and the Girl”. Several times during the movie Cheng Huan is referred to as “Chink” or “Chinky”, even by Lucy, and the intertitles always call him the “Yellow Man”. Obviously, political correctness was pretty non-existent at the time, but as someone raised in a totally different time period, I can’t help but be offended by this (and Richard Barthelmess is very clearly not Chinese — heaven forbid you should put a Chinese person in a leading role). It also doesn’t really mesh with the equality theme of the film. Aside from the offensive aspects, it’s just a pretty lame movie. The action is not used to tell the story, but rather as moving illustrations of the intertitles. It becomes almost comical after a while, because there is literally an intertitle, then a shot of the actors doing exactly what was just described. One of them says something about Cheng Huan weeping, and is followed by about ten seconds of Richard Barthelmess crying, before going to the next intertitle. You can pretty much skip the acting and just read the intertitles, and get the whole story. As for the acting, it really plays into stereotypes, particularly with Battling Burrows and Cheng Huan. Battling, who is a boxer, has a folded ear, talks out of one side of his mouth, swaggers, beats his daughter, and uses the word “yer” instead of “you” in the intertitles. It’s a caricature, because there is absolutely no depth to him. Cheng Huan is frequently shown smoking a long pipe, walks with a stoop, and is meek and rather subservient. There’s a little more depth to him, because you get some background, but the background doesn’t really mesh with what he turns into. Lillian Gish is alright, and is the only one of the three main characters who does not routinely over-emote. Griffith may have been a film pioneer, but you wouldn’t guess it from this film.