Outside the Law

Directed by Tod Browning, USA, 1920
Priscilla Dean, Ralph Lewis, E.A. Warren, Lon Chaney, Wheeler Oakman, and Stanley Goethals Production Universal Film Manufacturing Company Print Source Universal Studios

Presented at SFSFF 2017
Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius
Essay by Eddie Muller

Outside the Law stars the legendary “Phantom of the Opera” and is written and directed by the creator of Dracula and Freaks—but don’t expect a horror film.

This movie has more in common with the pioneering crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, who became synonymous with stories set in the San Francisco underworld—the demimonde director Tod Browning brings to vivid life in this 1920 drama—released two years before Hammett’s first short story was published. In fact, so many elements of Outside the Law later appear in Hammett’s “Continental Op” stories, I wonder if the one-time Pinkerton detective didn’t see Browning’s film at a local movie house.

Oddly, the only thing missing from Outside the Law is a detective. And some competent cops. One of the most striking aspects of this film is, in fact, its lawlessness. Vestiges of the infamous Barbary Coast remain in streets and alleyways rife with Irish gangsters and prowling tongs. The local cops are gullible pawns in a scheme by Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney) to railroad gang boss Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) into jail, so Mike will get a crack at becoming the town’s new vice lord. Browning renders this nefarious terrain with the pungent exotica that was his specialty, from the sawdust-strewn saloons, to the mysterious maze-like corridors of Chinatown, to the opulence of a Pacific Heights society gala.

But this isn’t just standard underworld stuff. Browning has a few surprises up his sleeve. Before you cringe at white actors playing all the main Asian roles* (Chaney’s makeup as the omniscient Ah Wing is, of course, monstrously grotesque) consider that the story posits the Chinese as the stabilizing force in this wide-open seaport town. It’s the sagacious Chang Low (E. Alyn Warren, white as rice) who convinces Silent Madden to cease his criminal ways and go straight; it’s Chang Low from whom the police seek inside “dope” and guidance; it’s Ah Wing who susses out the motives of the crazy white men.

Most surprising of all, however, is that the story revolves around Madden’s daughter, Molly—known in the underworld as Silky Moll. As portrayed by Priscilla Dean, Moll is the feisty flipside to silent cinema’s many shrinking violets. She may swan around in a bustle skirt and favor flamboyantly feathered hats, but nothing shows off Moll to better advantage than a gun gripped in her fist. Once her father gets sent up, she scuttles all talk of reform and leaps at a plan to steal jewels from some high society swells. Her partner in this daring caper, Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman), has one-tenth her tenacity—and once they’re on the lam, Moll proves herself the brains and the brawn of this chaste (chased?) pair. Moll’s disdain toward Bill’s attempts at intimacy is even more amusing when you know Dean and Oakman were married in real life, a union that only lasted the few years they were atop the movie business. At times, Oakman flashes the buoyant charm of Jimmy Cagney, minus the piss-and-vinegar panache. By the late ’30s, however, the once debonair actor was dissipated, reduced to playing lechers in “Adults Only” sleaze like Gambling with Souls (1936), Slaves in Bondage (1937), and Escort Girl (1941).

Hiding out in a “Knob” Hill walk-up (a glaring goof by title writer Gardner Bradford), Bill fights off cabin fever while Moll staves off Bill’s growing ardor. A scene-stealing little boy (Stanley Goethals, credited merely as “The Kid Across the Hall”) makes a habit of barging into the apartment and trying, with all his mini-might, to melt Moll’s hardened heart. Dean plays it so frostily you expect her to pitch him out a second-story window.

For modern viewers the most shocking (and suspenseful) aspect of Outside the Law may be the uproariously unsafe ways “the kid” amuses himself—with axes and loaded guns. Interestingly, all this cutesy domestic stuff was retained in Browning’s 1930 sound version of Outside the Law, in which Mary Nolan took the Moll role and Edward G. Robinson—warming up for Little Caesar—filled Lon Chaney’s shoes. In 1946 Universal realized it still owned Browning’s original story and remade it again as Inside Job, a goofy B-movie that again got good mileage from the pesky punk across the hall.

So what of Lon Chaney? As Black Mike he’s a sinister presence, but the role is tame compared to the physically deformed and psychically scarred characters that soon made him a legend. Some accounts contend there was more of Chaney as Ah Wing in the film’s initial release but that parts of the Chinatown subplot were reportedly cut for the film’s 1926 reissue. Fortuitously, a nitrate print of the original release was discovered in a Minnesota barn in the 1970s, left there sometime in the ’20s by a traveling roadshowman. The Library of Congress transferred it to safety stock, which is what the restoration team at Universal used to reclaim the film. Although sections had degraded beyond repair, these patches fortunately occur when it’s easy to imagine the characters being licked by the flames of eternal damnation, not just nitrate decomposition.

Priscilla Dean is virtually forgotten today, which is shameful—she was a feminist icon before such a label ever existed. After appearing in a slew of one-reel comedies in her teen years, she broke out in 1917 as “Morn Light,” a comic opera star battling male villains in the sixteen-chapter crime serial The Gray Ghost (now lost). She starred the same year in the extraordinary Lois Weber-directed The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a pro-birth control tale in which she played Mrs. Graham, “a young wife whose frail strength is overtaxed by a repetition of motherhood.” Dean, it seems, took the film’s message to heart; she never had children.

The actress developed her mature screen persona for Universal-Jewel, the studio’s premier production unit. In the late 1910s, Dean radiated from American screens as a beautiful, formidable, and undomesticated woman who proved herself equal, if not superior, to men. She would ride, shoot, and even brawl with her male costars. Studio publicity mavens bolstered her indomitable image by dutifully reporting that the actress performed all her own stunts. Grace Kingsley, film editor of the Los Angeles Times, called Dean “The wild girl of the films, 1920 model,” and more than one reviewer noted her propensity for portraying “dominating females.” The public loved the power she wielded on-screen; especially the skeptical sneer that became the actress’s trademark, alerting audiences that there soon would be hell to pay and Miss Dean would be cashing the checks.

Kiss or Kill (1918), The Wildcat of Paris (1918), The Silk-Lined Burglar (1919), Pretty Smooth (1919) were all Priscilla Dean crime pictures, but it was her flinty performances for Tod Browning that earned her the title “The Queen of Crookdom.” Between 1918 and 1923 they made nine pictures together: The Brazen Beauty (1918), Which Woman? (1918), The Wicked Darling (1919), The Exquisite Thief (1919), Outside the Law (1920), The Virgin of Stamboul (1920), Under Two Flags (1922), White Tiger (1923), and Drifting (1923).

In all these films Dean demonstrated what contemporary critics call “female agency.” Her talent agency also had great savvy: with the expiration of her Universal contract in 1924 Dean became the prize in a bidding war between the major studios. Eventually signing an exclusive pact with producer Hunt Stromberg worth $3 million, she never worked with Tod Browning again. He found his next muse in the twisted and maniacal persona of Lon Chaney, with whom he went on to make the string of perverse and memorable melodramas for which they are both remembered.

But this is Priscilla Dean’s picture, and what a pleasure it is to see her back on a movie screen. One hopes that her other films will be rediscovered and that her underappreciated role in Hollywood history will be redeemed.