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Tod Browning

Outside the Law

Tod Browning's Outside the Law (1921) has been released on video, due to the presence of Lon Chaney in a dual supporting role. It is a rare chance to see a Browning film that is not a horror story. I tend to think of Browning entirely in terms of Dracula and Freaks. But this is a crime drama, dealing with a partly reformed lady jewel thief. The best scene in the movie shows her and her boyfriend robbing a mansion's safe during society soiree. Both are elegantly clad in evening clothes. This scene is quite light hearted escapism. The film as a whole is quite entertaining, and can be thoroughly recommended to film lovers everywhere as a nice movie, with good acting, visuals and storytelling.

Browning wrote the story for Outside the Law, as well as directing.

Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman

The majority of Browning's silent films seem to have been stories whose protagonists were criminals, often various schemers, con men, and thieves. In the early part of his career, these films often starred Priscilla Dean; after 1925, Lon Chaney.

The stars of Outside the Law were a married couple, Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman, who had previously appeared together in Browning's The Virgin of Stamboul (1920). Despite the numerous films each made, they are now among the least well known of all silent performers. Gilbert and Garbo they're not. There are no nostalgic celebrations of them in film history books, and even the scattered photographs of them published in the monumental A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen (1953) by Daniel Blum, make it hard to reconstruct their typical appearance in films.

Priscilla Dean does not correspond at all to the silent actress stereotype of the super sweet girl-like woman who simpered through the "Movies in the Age of Innocence". Instead, she comes across more like the super-tough feminist performers of the 1980's and 1990's. She is one tough cookie. Here she plays "Silky Moll", the jewel thief and daughter of an underworld master mind. She is good with using a gun, and can snarl at men who get in her way like a tigress. She is sarcastic, ferocious and determined. One has to think of Amy Madigan's mercenary soldier in Streets of Fire (1984) to find a good comparison. Dean was clearly a big star in this era. She has top billing in Outside the Law, and was apparently one of Universal's top money makers of the era, according to Blum. One wonders if she appealed to women's fantasies of ferocity, or whether men liked this sort of crime thriller - or both.

The still Blum reprints from The Virgin of Stamboul shows Dean throttling another woman, while a uniformed Wheeler Oakman looks on in amusement. Oakman plays the gentle and gentlemanly jewel thief "Dapper" Bill Ballard in Outside the Law. Oakman's "Dapper" character is in fact extremely well dressed. Even when hiding out he wears tailored three piece suits. And dressed in white tie and tails for his society crimes he looks very sophisticated. He has much to do with reforming the heroine, influencing her to give up a life of crime, and get married and raise a family instead. His character is much gentler here, in fact, than the more macho Dean's. He is child loving, and enjoys playing with the tiny kid who lives across the hall. "That Kid", as he is billed in the credits, plays a major role towards influencing both Bill and Moll to have a family.

Comparisons with Boston Blackie

Reforming crooks remind one of thief Boston Blackie, who appeared in a lot of prose short stories and early movies too. I've read some of the stories, which were collected in Jack Boyle's only book, Boston Blackie (1919), but have never had a chance to see any of the many silent Boston Blackie films. Priscilla Dean also appeared in one of the Boston Blackie movies, The Silk Lined Burglar (1919, not directed by Browning), playing another woman crook.

Boston Blackie shows many similarities to the character of "Dapper" Bill in Outside the Law.

There is another side to the Boston Blackie stories, one not reflected in Outside the Law. In "Boston Blackie's Mary" (1917), Blackie is in prison, leading a fight against a monstrous warden. This is apparently the subject matter of such silent Blackie films as Blackie's Redemption (1919) and Boston Blackie (1923). This material is grimmer and a lot less escapist than the tales of Blackie as a gentleman thief. It also shows considerable social consciousness. Blackie leads a prison strike which he strives to keep non-violent; this is one of the most sympathetic descriptions of a strike found anywhere in crime fiction, and it appeared at the start of a period of major labor unrest in the United States.

Browning's film technique in Outside the Law

Location filming?

Several of the scenes look as if they were shot on the streets of San Francisco. The heroine's Nob Hill apartment, with its rooms looking out on Frisco cityscapes, reminds one irresistibly of Erich von Stroheim's later Greed (1924), with its similar apartment with street scenes seen in the background through the windows. Stroheim, like Browning, was a Griffith protégé, one who also worked for Universal Pictures during this era, and one wonders if he saw Outside the Law.

Chinese settings and characters

It is hard to tell if the opening Chinatown scenes were actually shot in San Francisco's real Chinatown, or whether the streets are studio recreations.

The film is completely sympathetic to and respectful of its Chinese characters. In fact, they are shown using their advanced Confucian philosophy to reform and enlighten the white characters in the film. This builds on a rather similar approach Griffith used in his Broken Blossoms (1919).

David J. Skal and Elias Savada's excellent biography of Tod Browning, Dark Carnival (1995), has much information on Outside the Law. They report that Browning spoke Chinese, and included Chinese characters in other of his films.

Print Quality

Some of the later shots in the film have begun to disintegrate. Apparently the film's nitrate print was only partially preserved. Some scenes remind one of the disintegration shown at the end of Peter Delpeut's fascinating compilation film, Lyrical Nitrate (1991). But none of this really affects the audience's pleasure in this film. The photography is beautiful throughout, and one expects an audience will just get completely caught up in this film's visuals.

London After Midnight

A Stills Restoration

London After Midnight (1927) is apparently a lost film. But recently, a "stills restoration" has been put together, showing the numerous surviving production stills documenting the film, combined with titles taken from the surviving shooting script.

Even in stills, the performances come over here with great vividness. Everyone gets rich emotional expressions on their faces. These expressions show considerable variety throughout the course of the film. They allow real performances to emerge.

Stills for movies are usually made by professional photographers, who specialize in the subject. They are not made by the actual directors of the films. Often times, the actors are posed in arrangements much different from the films themselves. Still photographers love shots including all the actors in a scene, for instance, while in a movie the actors might often be seen in separate shots. These group pictures allow the still photographer to capture and summarize all the events of the scene at once. I have no information at all about how closely these stills reflect the actual movie directed by Browning.

Mystery-Comedies in Sinister Mansions

This restoration is surprisingly entertaining. The film is light hearted. It is a mystery thriller with comedy overtones, like such popular and much-filmed 1920's plays as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's The Bat (1920) and John Willard's The Cat and the Canary (1922). Both of those plays pitted a group of innocents against sinister goings on at night in a remote mansion. Their menaces were human, but very outré and bizarre. The menace in London After Midnight is seemingly a group of vampires, led by Lon Caney in one of his zaniest horror get ups. This gives the film a cross hybridization with the vampire film. However, there is little of the grim, brooding and genuinely disturbing sense of horror here, that one finds in traditional, pure vampire films as Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). Instead, the film's tone reflects the mixture of mystery, comedy and thrills, found in The Bat and its relatives. This is all to the good; Browning had a real flair for the mystery thriller.

Recommended Reading

David J. Skal and Elias Savada's excellent biography of Tod Browning, Dark Carnival (1995), is recommended.