One average feature, one very good one
Anyechka | Rensselaer, NY United States | 01/16/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"'Outside the Law' (1920), which was directed by Lon Chaney's favorite director, Tod Browning, is rather typical of the features Lon made pre-1923, when he became a big star in his own right. Though he had achieved fame in 1919, it was as a character actor, not really so much a starring actor just yet. Here he plays a dual role as secondary characters Ah Wing, a good guy, and Black Mike Sylva, a really nasty crime lord of the San Francisco underworld. The true main characters of this film are Priscilla Dean (at the time Universal's top female star) and Wheeler Oakman as Molly Madden and her boyfriend Bill Ballard. Black Mike frames Molly's father for murder, and while he's in jail, Molly is tipped off by Bill that Mike is planning to double-cross her in another crime he's plotting. She and Bill in turn double-cross Mike, and hide out in an apartment with the jewels they stole, constantly afraid the police (or, worse yet, Mike and his cronies) are going to discover their whereabouts. Meanwhile Chang Lo, a wise Confucian friend of Mr. Madden's, warns the police that even though he's innocent, he's going to emerge from jail with murder in his heart because of the injustice that was done to him (in line with how the film opens with a quote from Confucius, "If a country had none but good rulers for a hundred years, crime might be stamped out and the death penalty abolished"). He also predicts that Molly and Bill will voluntarily turn themselves in and hand over the jewels to the police, so there will be no need to hunt them down like animals and arrest them. Most of the film centers on Bill and Molly's increasingly cramped existence in hiding and their attempts to go straight, influenced by a little boy who lives across the way. Things don't really start getting exciting and fast-paced till Lon's evil character shows up again, culminating in a lot of great fight scenes. Unfortunately, these last two reels or so show a lot of deterioration in some of the frames, but not so much so that we ever miss anything really exciting.
'Shadows' (1922) is the superior of the two films. Lon plays Yen Sin, a Chinese laundryman who is one of a handful of survivors of a shipwreck that lands in the small fishing village of Urkey. Although the Chinese characters in the average film of this era were routinely portrayed even more offensively than African-American characters, Yen Sin is a very sympathetic character, a good guy, with none of the usual Sinophobia typical of this period. Though most of the locals don't want anything to do with him because he's not only foreign but not a Christian, he does find love and friendship with one of the local boys, and with Sympathy Gibbs and the young new minister John Malden (the original Harrison Ford), who quickly get married. They don't treat him like he's a "heathen" who should be avoided and feared, but as a human being who deserves respect and humane treatment as much as any other person in the town. (Although why did his character have to walk around hunched over like that, the way Richard Barthelmess also does in 'Broken Blossoms'? Was this some sort of convention used by white actors playing Chinese characters in this era?) Trouble in paradise emerges when Rev. Malden is away on business and receives a letter purporting to be from Daniel Griggs (the excellent character actor Walter Long), Sympathy's first husband (whom she despised), whom everyone had believed to have perished in the shipwreck. With the help of his fellow-reverend Nate Snow, Rev. Malden starts paying off Griggs, all while unaware that Snow is the one really blackmailing him because he's always had feelings for Sympathy. Ultimately, it is Yen Sin who teaches all of the townspeople a very valuable lesson about the true nature of faith, tolerance, and forgiveness. While ordinarily I find the premise that everyone needs to be converted to Christianity and that people are better off that way morally offensive and severely outdated, that theme is handled a bit more sensitively here than it usually is. It's certainly a more enlightened and progressive approach to the subject than in, say, a story from the Middle Ages. At least here Rev. Malden is trying to convert Yen Sin through love and setting a good example, not through telling him he's doomed and that his own religion is wicked, diabolical, and wrong.
Overall, this is ultimately a pretty good disc, in spite of the uneven first feature on it. Even in Lon's earlier films, he always had a commanding presence and played all of these characters so well, be they good or evil characters. While it might not be something I'd highly recommend to someone just getting into silents or Lon's films in general, it is a real treat for people who are more than just casual fans."
Yen Sin and other sins
Annie Van Auken | Planet Earth | 08/25/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Born Leonidas Frank Chaney in 1883, Lon Chaney was one of the genuine superstars of silent cinema.
Both of his parents were deaf, so Chaney learned early on how to pantomime-- it was a skill that served him well in the pre-sound movie era. He went on the stage in 1902, toured vaudeville beginning in 1905 and acted in his first film in 1912. Chaney was a master of disguise, as so many of his movies illustrate. He appeared in 162 photoplays; the last of these, THE UNHOLY THREE (his only talkie), was released the year of Chaney's death, 1930.
In SHADOWS (1922), "The Man of a Thousand Faces" portrays Yen Sin, a Chinese cook who washes ashore at the New England fishing village of Urkey after his ship sinks. The locals consider him an undesirable heathen, but Yen Sin chooses to stay among them despite their rejection. He lives on a houseboat and becomes a laundryman.
A minister named John Malden comes to town, befriends Yen Sin and tries to convert him to Christianity. Malden marries a widow (Sympathy), which earns him the wrath of the wealthiest man in town, Nate Snow who also loves the lady. Snow interferes in their marriage by sending anonymous letters to the preacher claiming Mrs. Malden's first husband is still alive. Yen Sin is able to help the couple.
TCM ARCHIVES - THE LON CHANEY COLLECTION contains three of his silent features: "The Ace of Hearts" (1921), "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" (1928) and "The Unknown (1927).
Parenthetical number preceding title is a 1 to 10 viewer poll rating found at a film resource website.
(6.3) Shadows (silent-1922) - Lon Chaney/Marguerite De La Motte/Harrison Ford/John St. Polis/Walter Long/Buddy Messenger/Priscilla Bonner/Frances Raymond"
A very satisfying double feature DVD
Barbara (Burkowsky) Underwood | Manly, NSW Australia | 03/07/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Although both these silent films feature the legendary Lon Chaney, they both stand up on their own as interesting stories with an ethical point or message to make, and both are nicely presented on this DVD with good musical accompaniment. Lon Chaney fans might be a bit disappointed by "Outside the Law" because he only plays a supporting role, albeit a dual one - as a rough gangster and as a mild-mannered Chinese man - while Priscilla Dean actually has the starring role. There is also some deterioration at the end of the film, but otherwise both films have nice, clear picture quality. "Shadows" stands out as one of Chaney's typical best characterizations as he convincingly plays the part of Yen Sin, an elderly Chinese man washed up in a small fishing village after a storm. Being "the man of a thousand faces", Chaney is surely one of the screen's most fascinating characters of all time, being able to not only use make-up (which he applied himself) to create dozens of different faces, but he also played double amputees in films like "The Penalty" and "The Unknown". He had great physical strength and agility, which is evident especially in "The Unknown", but here in "Shadows" he convinces the audience with mostly body language that he is a feeble, hunchbacked hard-working laundry "Chink", as they were called in those days. In fact, when the film was released in 1922-23, producers wondered how audiences would take to a Chinaman playing a good, even the pivotal heroic role, because unfortunately up to that time the Chinese had usually been cast in a bad light, playing villains! Some of this racial prejudice and typecasting is still evident in the intertitles which give Chaney's character an exaggerated Chinese accent. But this aside, Chaney himself plays the part with great compassion, conviction and humanity, and the story of "Shadows" also has lessons in compassion and humanity, as well as teaching a lesson on religious hypocrisy. Quite a surprising combination, when you think about it!
Last but definitely not least, "Outside the Law" also has a few unusual and surprising elements. It also features Chinese characters in a good light, giving out some Confucian words of wisdom to Molly (Priscilla Dean) and her father, who had been drawn into the crime world but find their way out of it in the end. Chaney plays two smaller and totally opposing parts: a good Chinese follower of Confucius and the outright mean and tough underworld gangster "Black Mike", who schemes a trap for Molly and her father. But he overlooks the element of love, which comes to Molly not only in a fellow petty thief who tells her of Black Mike's plot, but also in the form of a cute little boy who slowly melts her heart. The story's message is about reform and `going straight', done in a nice, effective manner, balancing some melodrama with hard action scenes. Priscilla Dean comes across well in her role in this film written and directed by Tod Browning, and an unusual orchestral score with sound effects suits this type of crime drama well, too. For Chaney fans or anyone who appreciates silent films of the early 1920s with interesting stories, this DVD shouldn't disappoint.