In his “Great Movie” review of D.W. Griffith’s 1919 film, Broken Blossoms, Roger Ebert called attention to a capsule written by Pauline Kael (included in the collection 5001 Nights at the Movies) that cites the film as an influence on Federico Fellini’s La Strada from 1954. Ebert writes, “[Kael] finds many of Fellini’s inspirations in ‘Broken Blossoms,’ including Zampano the strongman (Anthony Quinn), whose costume even resembles Battling Burrows’. Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), his much-abused companion, is obviously drawn from Lucy, and Richard Basehart’s Matto, who gives her shelter from the brute, fills the same function as the Yellow Man.” One cogent example of just how far a young writer can have to go might be found in the fact that I’ve loved both these movies for years but never thought of that comparison before. In fact, I called another audible on this post. The companion for Broken Blossoms was going to be John Ford’s The Quiet Man, but that connection always seemed tenuous to me (boxing, mostly). In the midst of my preparations, I happened upon this eureka moment with La Strada. These two romantic tragedies emerged from profoundly different places and times, but the triangle of archetypes that makes up the beating heart of each is essentially the same. Griffith and Fellini find unique ways to complicate their primary narrative, which can be summed up as “This is what a good man looks like, and this is what a bad man looks like.”
At the apex of the triangle is the female character, Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) in Broken Blossoms and Gelsomina in La Strada. These innocent, threatened young women quiver in the space between girlhood and womanhood. One of the men in their lives is an abusive father figure, while the other is a tender, understanding (potential) lover. The films take different approaches to try to keep the women’s dual natures in tension, in each case arguably resorting to infantilization. Griffith shows great sympathy for Lucy, illustrating her lack of options with an early juxtaposition: both the married women and the prostitutes in her poverty-stricken neighborhood tell her how miserable they are. The virginal purity of the young white woman was a Victorian conceit very close to Griffith’s heart. (This was, of course, one of the driving forces in The Birth of a Nation, so don’t try to tell me that the interracial romance in Broken Blossoms was meant to be some kind of “apology” for that film. Griffith regretted nothing.) But for all the emotional precision of Gish’s performance, there’s a childlike passivity to the character that never goes away. Gelsomina, meanwhile, seems to be living with a developmental disability of some kind. At the outset, when circus strongman Zampano arrives at her home to take her on as his assistant, she alternates between excitement at the adventure and sadness for leaving her family, as though she can’t keep the two thoughts in her head at once. Gelsomina’s actions and facial expressions are thoroughly childlike, but Masina’s voice betrays the character’s true age. These characters are idealized creations, but the performers imbue them with stunning pathos and range of feeling.
The boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is a womanizer and alcoholic with a violent temper. Her mother having disappeared years before, Lucy is left alone to bear the brunt of his frustrations. His job, like Zampano’s, though intended to lift the family out of poverty, only serves to make him angrier while it takes a toll on his body. (The risks of boxing are obvious. Zampano, while priming his audience, goes into uncomfortable detail in describing the accidents that could happen during his chain-breaking routine.) Zampano is not related to Gelsomina, and they pose as husband and wife while on the road, but there’s no romance whatsoever between them. The triangle is a little more complicated here, with Gelsomina seeing each man as either a teacher or a partner from moment to moment. In both films, the arrival of this other man is what drives Burrows/Zampano to a final desperate act of violence.
Those first two characters map onto each other very well, but the comparison between “the Yellow Man” (Richard Barthelmess, a white actor in yellowface makeup) and Il Matto (meaning “the Fool”) is less fruitful. One is a sensitive pacifist, the other a quick-witted jester. What makes the never-consummated romance in Broken Blossoms work is that the man and the woman are equally trapped and lonely, surrounded by people who don’t value them. Gelsomina and Il Matto are both clowns of a sort, but their relationship doesn’t go quite as far. He just tries to convince her that she’s free to do what she wants, while he is trapped by his own nature. His repeated gibes at the insecure Zampano are a compulsion, like continuing to poke a hornet’s nest until something happens. He knows he’s doomed, but he doesn’t seem to reckon with the collateral damage that will be inflicted on Gelsomina. The Yellow Man, gentle and protective, can’t help but do some harm as well. Griffith expresses complicated feelings about his Chinese character’s open desire for a white woman. Battling Burrows and the Yellow Man are each given a lurid close-up in which the looming character moves toward the camera. Both men, this seems to say, are potentially dangerous if they get too close. Burrows has a proto-Jack Torrance moment taking an ax to a closet door, but when the Yellow Man climbs a flight of stairs to reach Lucy, he looks more than a little like a certain nosferatu. The racist casting and makeup have something to do with this, but Griffith explicitly requires the character to hold back his desires. Whether this is due to the miscegenation taboo or a simple aversion to premarital sex is conveniently muddled.
In the thirty-five years that separate these two films, the art of filmmaking was transformed many times over. Broken Blossoms, of course, is a silent pantomime, lending the archetypal nature of the characters a unique purity. For all his reputation as a technical innovator, Griffith shows an indebtedness to the tableau style of the early cinema with a lot of straight-on, boxed-in shots. The camera scarcely enters the ring during the two bouts portrayed in the film. For the most part, master shots are used for action, and close-ups are used for emotion. Within these constraints, few artists could conjure such full-bodied drama. Fellini had more freedom — La Strada was shot on location rather than on sets — and his camera is impressively agile. It weaves through crowds with Gelsomina and circles with Zampano as he goes into his act. As it happens, La Strada was made like a silent film as well. Fellini always had the dialogue dubbed later, which was a necessity for the two characters played by American actors. He often shouted instructions while the cameras rolled. In the film, continual attention is paid to physical expression. I hadn’t seen this movie in eight years, but many of the gestures in it have become intensely familiar to me.
With Griffith at the height of his powers and Fellini ready to pivot from neorealism to the phantasmagoria of his mature period, these are films of simple but eternal beauty. They both contain moments of ecstatic tenderness — almost any review of Broken Blossoms or Lillian Gish’s performance will use words like “diaphanous, “gossamer,” or “ethereal.” There is intimate craft and ineffable spirit in cinema like this. La Strada ultimately has more mystery, more strangeness to it, while Broken Blossoms occasionally struggles to enliven its mewling idealism. But between the Yellow Man stealing rays from the “lyric moon” and Il Matto explaining how every pebble on Earth has a purpose, these films reach poetic heights that are rare indeed.