Tod Browning | Outside the Law
| London After Midnight | Recommended Reading
Classic Film and Television Home Page
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
Browning wrote the story for Outside the Law, as well as
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.
- Both characters live in apartments in San Francisco.
- Blackie loves little children, just like Bill. Blackie is very impressed by
the 4 year old boy he meets in "The Baby and the Burglar";
(1918), a prose story that was turned into what was apparently
the first of all the Boston Blackie movies, Boston Blackie's
Little Pal (1918). This boy is very similar to "That
Kid" in Outside the Law.
- Blackie also loves and is
very respectful of women. His wife Mary is "his best loved
pal", and his collaborator on all his capers. Similarly,
Bill and Silky Moll form a complete partnership in Outside
the Law, a partnership of total equality and respect.
- Boston Blackie is well educated, gentle, and loves women and children.
Clearly such a character had great appeal to the audiences of
his day. Like the Boston Blackie stories, Outside the Law mixes
crime thrills with romantic, sentimental drama.
- The relationship to the Boston Blackie stories also helps explain
some puzzling features of the construction of Outside the Law.
The first twenty minutes or so of Outside the Law focus
on the heroine's father, a reforming underworld mastermind. Only
then do the heroine and hero take over, and become the center
of the drama. At this point, the heroine's father drops out of
the picture, and plays little role in the rest of the film. One
wonders why his story is included at all. It seems unmotivated.
Well, one reason could be that Mary in the Boston Blackie stories
also has an underworld crook for a father. The director could
be simply trying to squeeze in a popular part of the Boston Blackie
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
- Browning's film technique makes much use of cross cutting. Browning
was a student and protégé of D.W.Griffith's, who
perfected this technique. Several episodes of the film involve
two scenes being intercut. Even within a single scene, Browning
often cuts back and forth between the heroine and hero, on the
one hand, and various bad guys on the trail, on the other. Even
his dialogue scenes often cut back and forth between two points
of view, focusing on each individual character. Browning's use
of rhythm is these cross cutting scenes is superb. Each cut to
another scene comes on exactly the right "beat" to add
a sense of rhythmic propulsion to the film. The whole film subtly
throbs to a continuous beat of action and cutting.
- Outside the Law uses almost no camera movement.
- Browning favors three quarter length shots. These show nearly
the whole body of his actors, except their lower legs and feet.
- The shots also show a great deal of the background in which the characters
are standing. The background is carefully composed. The point
of the composition is to give a clear, gracefully shot look at
the environment in which the characters find themselves, whether
it be their Nob Hill apartment, a society mansion, or a Chinese
his shots of the characters explore their locations with great
- Browning especially likes to frame his characters
against doors and windows, as well as wall hangings and pictures.
The vertical lines of these doors and windows dominate his compositions.
Usually the vertical lines extend from nearly the top to bottom
of his composition frames.
- Most of the sets of the picture look
spacious - one feels there is always a lot of space for the characters
to move in. No one ever looks hemmed in.
- Browning includes two action scenes in the film, one toward the
beginning, and one at the end. Perhaps it is just me, but I found
them hard to follow. In the final melee, for example, I couldn't
tell who was battling whom among the various fighting pairs. The
scenes are very effective at conveying a "Hellzapoppin",
furious kind of action, but it was difficult to follow any story
progression through them.
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.
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
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.
David J. Skal and Elias Savada's excellent biography of Tod Browning,
Dark Carnival (1995), is recommended.