erik lundegaard

Saturday October 22, 2022

Movie Review: Outside the Law (1920)


Tod Browning’s “Outside the Law” starts convoluted, becomes interminable, then does what movies do best: wraps up with gunfire. 

It both honors Chinese culture (Confucianism) and doesn’t (yellowface). It’s got an early dual role for Lon Chaney and one of the first screen appearances by Anna May Wong, but it’s mostly a vehicle for a little-remembered actress, Priscilla Dean, who was a star during silents but didn’t handle the jump to talkies well—though I can’t find out why. Did she sound like a truck driver? Did she lisp? Maybe she aged out? She’s 24 here but looks about 40. 

Good with the glower
It opens with a book, “The Sayings of Confucius,” and this plot device: a Chinese wise man in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, Chang Low (E. Alyn Warren), is helping reform notorious gangster “Silent” Madden (Ralph Lewis) and his daughter, Molly, aka “Silky Moll” (Dean), by using Confucianism. Right, that old gag.

A rival gangster, “Black Mike” Sylva, aka “Blackie” (Chaney), doesn’t see this as the opportunity it is—to take over his territory without a fight. Instead, like an idiot, he decides to set up Madden in convoluted fashion: He starts a gun battle, kills a cop, plants the offending weapon, and has his stooge, Humpy (John George, a successful little-person actor of the era), point it out to the cops and say he saw Madden hide it there. An intertitle lets us know the results:

Lack of evidence saved Madden a life term — Yet, “because he was there,” he must serve eight months — and the prophecy of “Black Mike” came true.

Wait, the only evidence against him is Humpy’s say-so? Who was the guy that told Madden to head toward the shooting? And is part of Black Mike’s gang? Silent Madden needed a better lawyer.

Anyway, now Black Mike can take over Madden’s territory. Done and done.

Nope, not yet. Now Blackie plots a jewel heist with Molly and “Dapper” Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman), but the real plot is to betray Molly—to have the cops catch her with the jewels. Why? Apparently Black Mike just doesn’t like this family. He's the anti-Corleone: It’s not business, it's personal.

Except Dapper Bill betrays Blackie. He lets Molly in on the plot, and together they steal the jewels from the safe in the mansion and make their getaway together. Why does Dapper Bill—who’s not that dapper—do this? He loves her. There’s just not much onscreen heat. We hardly see them embrace, and Molly glowers a lot. It’s like they skipped the fun stuff and went right to “married for 20 years.”

Molly uses that glower to good effect during the interminable middle of the movie, when the two are hiding out in an apartment on Knob [sic] Hill. She’s trying to play it cool but he’s champing at the bit. He wants out.

But guess what he does to amuse himself? No, not that. He helps the boy across the hallway (Stanley Goethals) build a kite—as mobstsers are wont to do. He really really really loves this kid, who has a Dutch boy haircut and an overly cute way of talking via intertitles: “Oo don’t love me like him do, does oo?” (No, kid, she doesn’t.) The kid so warms his heart that Dapper Bill wants to become a dad, too. This leads to more scowls from Molly, of course, until finally Bill can’t take it anymore. He goes for a walk around Nob Hill, damnit.

Two things happen as a result. 

One, he’s spotted by Humpy, who, yes, seems to be everywhere.

And two, the fucking kid comes over again, this time with puppies, and hangs around despite Molly’s scowl. At one point, he finds Molly’s gun between the chair cushions and points it at her. She grabs it and yells and he cries. (At this point I’m like: Where are this kid’s parents?) Then he demands to be hugged. Then he hugs Molly. And that’s the thing that finally turns her frown upside-down. She melts. And when Bill returns from his walk, she says, yes, she’s ready to have kids, too. Done and done.

Except, whoops, that's right, they're jewel thieves. What to do with the jewels? She wants to keep them as their nest egg, he wants to give them back so they don’t spend their lives looking over their shoulders. He also seems to think if they just give them back they won’t be charged. So obviously not a law school grad.

What finally convinces the scowling Molly to see it Bill’s way? Sitting in her chair, brooding, she notices the shadow of a cross along the floor of their living room. Turns out it’s what’s left of the tattered kite, which is stuck to something outside their building. But that’s what does it. The shadow of the cross. Done and done. 

Actually, we have a half hour left of this 75-minute movie. I didn’t lie when I said it was interminable.

Humpy spotted Bill, remember, so when the two go to leave the apartment, with a blast of quite-effective music, they find Black Mike hanging in the hallway.

Bill tries the triple-cross, saying he was just waiting to find out where Molly hid the jewels so he could bring them back to Black Mike. At this point it gets a little confusing, partly because there's missing and damaged footage. Suffice to say, Bill and Molly get away with the jewels and return to Chang Low’s place. And guess who’s there? “Silent” Madden, who’s out after eight months with bitterness in his heart. He wants the jewels as a kind of payment, Chang Low says no, Blackie and his men show up outside, and we get a big gun battle.

In the end, Blackie and most of his men die, and Chang Low convinces the cops not to prosecute. The chief: “You’ve won, Chang Low — you’ve got the right dope. Keep up the good work.” 

So obviously not a law school grad.

Cagney connects
A few things of interest to gangster movie fans—or maybe just James Cagney movie fans. Humpy seems a forerunner to Snitz Edwards’ Miller from “The Public Enemy”: height-challenged, loyal to the gangster we don’t like, third-reel snitch of the protagonists’ hideout.

Then there’s the “Public Enemy” publicity photos of Cagney that look a lot like Chaney here.

And finally, this intertitle card from Blackie:

Chaney is good here—I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Chaney and not been impressed—but it’s an unnecessarily dual role. Besides Black Mike, he plays Ah Wing, Chang Low’s servant. Still trying to sort out the yellowface thing. It seemed to lean toward leading men and heroic portrayals. If they were comic relief, sure, give it to the real Chinese guy. It also feels like Asian women were more often cast as Asian women. Anna May Wong’s career was stunted, but she actually had one.

Priscilla Dean, meanwhile, made her last movie in 1932, “Klondike,” fifth-billed to Thelma Todd and Lyle Talbot, then she got out of Dodge. She died in 1987 in Leonia, New Jersey. I know people who lived there then. They never heard of her.


  • OUTSIDE THE LAW: The movie opens with a book—and Confucius, that ol' troublemaker.

  • I like the exteriors of Chinatown. I assume this is the real thing and not the Universal Studios backlot. The film shot in both places.

  • Chaney as Black Mike. Always impressive. 

  • And in his dual and unnecessary role as Ah Wing. And did they really have to gunk up his teeth so much? C'mon.

  • I love this silent film convention when introducing characters, nudging us, “Hey, by the way, this is the star.”

  • And here she is, a matronly 24.

  • During the jewel heist. 

  • And displaying her trademark scowl. She looks like this for half the film. 

  • I like the gender-role reversal. His paternal instinct is huge, her maternal instinct is nonexistent.

  • Until it isn't.

  • A brief, uncredited scene with future star Anna May Wong. She was 15.

  • Blackie's gang plots the final gun battle. 

  • Most of the final battle takes place in this apothecary shop. Can you imagine what Jackie Chan could've done with this?  

  • Leaving Leonia. *FIN*
Posted at 09:03 AM on Saturday October 22, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - Silent  
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