This is a tale of chance encounters.
1) René Clair is in London, making The Ghost Goes West (1935). Something of a flaneur, he has strolled down to the East End, and his noctivagation leads him to a Limehouse pub which strikes him with an intense but mysterious feeling of déjà vu.
"Of course!" he suddenly thinks. "D.W. Griffith: Broken Blossoms!" The pub is the very image of Griffith's Hollywood recreation of Victorian London from his 1919 film.
And there, at the bar, sits D.W. Griffith himself. Clair approaches this mirage and learns that Griffith is in London to direct a remake of Broken Blossoms at Twickenham Studios. Drink is taken.
2) All this comes from screenwriter Rodney Ackland's bittersweet memoir of his work in British cinema, The Celluloid Mistress, co-written with Elspeth Grant. He further explains that his idolisation of Griffith prompted him to volunteer his services in any capacity as soon as he learned that Griffith was preparing a British picture. Secretly, his hope was that Griffith the great talent scout would cast him as Chen, the story's Chinese protagonist, a role previously taken by Richard Barthelmess. Clearly, nobody expected an actual Chinese actor to take the part (although 1929's Piccadilly feature two actors of Chinese descent in leading roles, Anna May Wong and King Hou Chang).
Imagine Ackland's distress when Griffith met his screenwriter, Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams, Ackland's best friend, and gave him the plum part. But this was merely the first of a series of disappointments.
3) Griffith, known to his enemies as "Hook-Nose Dave," was no longer the artist whose reputation was still celebrated in Britain (where the controversy over Birth of a Nation seems to have gone right over the cinephiles' heads). A susceptibility to drink was accompanied by a susceptibility to female beauty, which had already caused him to cast girlfriend Carol Dempster in several pictures.
When aspiring starlet Ariane Borg turned up at Griffith's hotel, penniless, praying for a part, Griffith decided abruptly that she and no other must play the Lillian Gish role in his remake. Since the production was funded on the basis of German singing star Dolly Haas' iron-clad contract, the result was that Griffith was abruptly off his own picture, and emigré novice Hans Brahm is thrust into the directing chair, with the talented quota quickie guru Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus assisting.
The resulting film's failure would propel Brahm to Hollywood as he tried to outrun its stench, where he would becomes John Brahm, the reliable and often brilliant maker of Gothic noirs.
Now for the film itself. A Germanic style suffuses it. Karol Rathaus, whose music for 1931's Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff was described by no less than Bernard Herrmann as the first full film score, provides the faux-Chinese melodies and, more effectively, the tinkly London airs.
Curt Courant, who had just shot The Man Who Knew Too Much, collaborates with The Lodger's Hal Young on cinematography, creating a misty, murky studio Limehouse bulging with the kind of dramatically composed close-ups Brahm always loved.
But the most Teutonic element is the production design of Englishman James A. Carter, another collaborator from The Lodger. He creates a miniature China which wouldn't look out of place in Murnau's magic carpet ride from Faust, and a louring London of sweaty, crumbling walls which all seem hewn from Catherine Deneuve's silly-putty apartment in Repulsion. Like drunken pugilist Arthur Margetson in the Donald Crisp role, they seem to lack the moral fortitude to remain upright.
Dolly Haas, the element of the film Griffith objected to, turns out to be its strongest human element. Margetsen over-growls his lines, and perhaps lacking confidence in his ability to play "yellowface," Emlyn Williams the screenwriter keeps Emlyn Williams the actor mute as much as possible, which is all to the good.
Haas' adorable attempt at a cockney accent, which she crams through her own German accent like garlic through a press, is inexplicable in plot terms but oddly charming to listen to. The sentimental yarn pours the treacle and tragedy on so liberally that everyone else drowns in it, but Haas, whose pitiful waif ought to be the most unplayable part, somehow rises above it all, and like Gish before her is convincingly childish in a role she's more than ten years too old for.
Brahm provides numerous expressionist moments, notably in depicting the film's own chance encounter. Williams' character has lost all his Buddhist faith in the beauty of the world, when he stops in the street, thunderstruck. And Brahm jolts the camera from his astonished face and whirls it at accelerated motion to a basement window where Haas' sleeping visage can be glimpsed through the grime.
In fact, everything about Broken Blossoms is state-of-the-art for 1936, building on Hitchcock's rediscovery of visual storytelling and his adaptation of German expressionism and Russian montage to create a new, heightened film language. The only antiquated element is the story. It still plays fine in the Griffith original, but by the mid-thirties it's questionable if anybody could really believe in it anymore. Certainly nobody in this film can quite bring themselves to it, so the result is a kind of attenuated fairy tale, only far grimmer than Grimm.
4) It took some time for Ackland to get over the pain of rejection, and he still hadn't made things up with Williams when he crept in to see the film upon its release. Williams, he noted, was as bad as could be expected, and he began to suspect that maybe he'd had a lucky escape from getting cast in this turkey. But his ability to concentrate was being spoiled by a noisome heckler in the row behind him.
As Dolly Haas parted her lips to address the "Chink," the voice behind Ackland piped up with the sublimely inappropriate "Kiss me, sergeant!" Ackland turned to see who the hell it was, and found Emlyn William himself, mercilessly ripping the piss from his own movie and his own performance. The two friends, happily reunited by the film that had driven them apart, departed the cinema, giggling into the London night.