Born Crooks: Innocence and Crime in Outside the Law (1920)

Lon Chaney Blogathon Banner

***This post is part of The Lon Chaney Sr. Blogathon, hosted by the Maddy Loves Her Classic Films blog. ***

***Some spoilers***

Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman): “What I was going to say – we weren’t born crooks, were we?”

After a month off from my blog for Camp NaNoWriMo, it’s great to be back! And nothing makes me happier than to be back with a blogathon post, since, if you’ve been following my blog, you know I love classic films :-).

Lon Chaney Sr, is, of course, the legendary Man of a Thousand Faces. This is the father Chaney, not to be confused with the son, Lon Chaney Jr., the original Wolfman and a legendary and well-respected actor in his own right. Chaney Sr was known for his amazing make-up artistry, frequently playing entire different characters in the same film and looking totally different as all of them. He was one of the greats of the silent film era, having made only a handful of sound films before he died in 1930.

Chaney made several films with director Tod Browning who, like producer Val Lewton, was able to take small budget films and turn it into stories and characters with more psychological depth and fascination. The 1920 film Outside The Law was one Chaney Sr./Browning collaboration. It’s a combination crime and romance film set in my favorite city in the world — San Francisco. The film has some interesting psychological perspectives on crime and innocence.

Chaney, in his usual Man of a Thousand Faces way, plays two characters here and, just as the legend has it, both are entirely different in their appearance and behavior. One of these characters is a rather unsavory criminal named Black Mike Sylva. Here’s a prominent figure in the San Francisco underworld though a pretty barbaric one, what we would call today, a sociopath. In typical 1920’s melodramatic fashion, Sylva is all bad. He pretty much hates the world and has no interest in anyone but himself. He can turn a gun on anyone or betray anyone without a moment’s hesitation or a moment’s feeling of remorse. The film, in fact, is driven by his hates which end up having a domino effect on the behavior of the other characters. He tries to set up crime boss Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), who is trying to go straight for the murder of a policeman and, although he fails, gets Madden sent to jail, ending the good intentions of not only him but his daughter Molly (Priscilla Dean) to reform. Molly’s bitterness makes her take crime right back up and, here too, Sylva tries to do his utmost evil by setting her up to take the fall for a jewel robbery. But the intervention of his friend and the third party to the heist, Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) succeeds in turning the tables on Sylva and the two escape the law with the jewels. Of course, Sylva, in his never-ending quest for vengeance, hunts them down and makes them squirm for a while with his delightfully evil smile before he demands the jewels and their lives. Of course, like all good villains in the melodramas, he gets his just desserts at the end of the film. But he is, from beginning to end, the unredeemable character, the one for whom innocence has no place.

Chaney Outside The Law

Photo Credit: Still from Outside The Law with Wheeler Oakman, Lon Chaney, and Priscilla Dean, Exhibitors Herald, page 62, December 18, 1920, Universal Film Manufacturing Company: Deanlaw/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

The other character Chaney plays is Ah Wing, a Chinese servant to a wise and virtuous man named Chang Low (E. Alyn Warren). Although not well developed, Wing’s character is the other side of the coin to Sylva. He is humble, good-hearted, and loyal to his master. Low has his doubts about the justice system but nonetheless, he is out to stop crime in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where much of the story takes place, through peaceful means. He helps criminals reform so it’s no surprise that the film opens in Low’s living room with a smiling Madden and his daughter asking for his aid in going straight. Madden then leaves to attend to his business and Wing shows him out like the good servant he is but hangs around outside. It’s then he sees suspicious characters lurking about and keeps an eye out so that when Madden is called out into the street under false pretenses and the shooting starts, Wing is there to save his life twice — once from a bullet and once from a guilty conviction when an officer dies in the gunfire. At the end of the film, Wing serves as an ally to the Maddens when Molly and Dapper Bill come to ask for Low’s aid in their own reform.

Innocence and crime are pitted against one another in the two main characters of this film – Molly and Dapper Bill. Both embody the duality that exists in many of us, the desire to see things with rose-colored glasses (innocence) while at the same time being aware that not all is rosy (crime). Symbolism plays a role in many of Browning’s films (like the loving cup in the wedding scene of one of Browning’s most famous films, the cult classic, 1932’s Freaks) and this film is no exception. It comes in the form of the character referred to only as That Kid (Stanley Goethals). The child belongs to Molly’s and Dapper Bills’ neighbor (whom, they find out later is, ironically, a police detective) in a seedy San Francisco apartment where they hide out after the jewel heist. Dapper Bill takes a liking to this child who is always smiling, always playful, and always accepting of anyone who is willing to give him a hug. He is, in essence, the personification of innocence. There is a chilling scene where innocence and crime come together in That Kid. He gets hold of the gun Molly keeps around the apartment for protection, and, with a giggle, aims it at Molly, clearly mistaking it for a toy.

Molly’s hard-heartedness and cynicism are at first at odds with this playful child. When Dapper Bill hints that it might be nice for them to get married someday and have a child just like him, she snorts, “What for? Aren’t there enough crooks in this world?” Clearly, her bitterness has made her disbelieve that anything but a crooked life is possible for not only herself but anyone with whom she comes into contact with. Naturally, That Kid wins her over in the end and it’s his warmth and unconditional love that makes her see a life of constantly hiding out from the law is not her only option.

This is by far not one of Chaney’s masterpieces but it’s an entertaining film with a lot to offer in the undercurrents and a message that goes beyond the standard morality of “crime doesn’t pay”.

7 thoughts on “Born Crooks: Innocence and Crime in Outside the Law (1920)

    1. Hi Maddy! Thank you for your comment. I totally agree. I always find both Chaney Sr. and Chaney Jr. fascinating to watch. I think Chaney Sr. really understood the medium of silent film and how expression and gesture contributed to the emotion of the character. It’s kind of a shame that the criminal he plays here is so black-and-white but that was more about the script, I think.


      Liked by 1 person

  1. Some great names in this film: Silent Madden, Black Mike, Dapper Bill…

    I was struck by your description of the scene where That Kid finds a gun and, thinking it’s a toy, points it at Molly. I bet audiences gasped back in the day – I bet they still gasp today. It sounds like one of those scenes you never forget.

    As for Chaney’s ability to play two very different characters, well, of course he does, and he likely makes it look easy.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for sharing your thoughts on “Outside the Law”.


    1. Thanks, Patricia! I totally agree and I think this is one of Tod Browning’s strongest points – he does an amazing job of setting up atmosphere in all of his films. That’s why he’s one of my favorite directors of psychological horror/crime films :-).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s