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October 06, 2020

Outside the Law


Tod Browning - 1920
Kino Classics BD Region A

Outside the Law marked the second time Lon Chaney worked with Tod Browning. While Chaney's name is the one still recognizable for contemporary viewers, he is not the star here. It was Priscilla Dean who initially had here name dominating the posters at the time of the initial release. When the film was re-released about five years later, Chaney had become the main attraction. Here he has a supporting role, actually two, a demonstration primarily of his ability with make-up.

Taking place in San Francisco, a prominent former gangster, Madden, is mentored in Confucian studies as a way of going straight. He is accompanied by his daughter, Molly. The hoodlum, "Black Mike" Sylva has a plan to pin a cop killing on Madden and convince Molly to go back to the criminal life. Along with Molly's boyfriend, "Dapper Bill", they steal the jewels from a society woman. Molly and Bill first plan to double-cross Mike for the jewels but eventually have a change of heart and plan to go straight. Mike has his own plans.

Chaney appears through most of the film as "Black Mike". He was 37 at the time but looks much older here. There is no special make-up or physical defects. Chaney also takes on the role of Ah Wing, a student of the Confucian teacher. It's really more of a caricature with what I have to reluctantly describe as "chink eyes". As film historian Anthony Slide points out in his commentary track, it is a small role that Chaney did not have to play. According to IMDb, it was actually some of the footage of Chaney as Ah Wing that was trimmed prior to the re-release. Slide provides no additional information but it could well be that Chaney took on this second role simply to display his talent for disguise.

Why Browning's films remain of interest is because of his interest in outsiders, people living in the margins be they circus performers or criminals. Adding color here is a character named "Humpy", with the uncredited four foot, two inch, John George. Also uncredited are three young Chinese-American actresses, sisters, with Anna May Wong just a few years from her own stardom. While most of the film was shot on a studio set Chinatown in addition to the interiors, there is some footage taken in San Francisco. While one can charitably discount some aspects of Outside the Law as being part of the time when the film was produced, the sub-plot involving a little boy who makes friends with "Dapper Bill" and Molly is overly sentimental. When Molly sees the shadow of a kite's crossbar which resembles a basic crucifix, Browning overly underlines that image with multiple shots.

Anthony Slide points out that the final confrontation between "Black Mike" and his gang against "Dapper Bill and Molly was considered one of the most violent set pieces of its time. According to IMDb, it took two weeks to film. Chaney appears in both of his roles although his character are placed in different spaces. "Dapper Bill" looks the worse for wear with torn clothing and a bloodied face.

The blu-ray was sourced from a 4K restoration of the re-release print although there is visible deterioration in some scenes. Slide mentions that the original version was tinted. The blu-ray also includes the alternate ending which deletes that final fight. There is also comparison footage with the 16mm version of the film. While Slide speaks glowingly of Priscilla Dean, I don't share his enthusiasm. She strikes me as being dowdy in comparison to the three year younger Gloria Swanson, Cecil B. DeMille's star at that time. Dean, like her co-star and husband at the time, Wheeler Oakman, both professionally saw their fortunes fade when Hollywood transitioned to sound. Oakman was able to continue with bit parts through 1948. Dean was in a handful of poverty row talkies before retiring from acting at 36.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 6, 2020 07:46 AM