Tod Browning is best known today for directing the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (1931) and the cult film Freaks (1932), but he had a long career as a director of silent film as well, dating all the way back to 1915. In fact, some say he did his best work in the silent and never really adapted to the sound era in Hollywood, and that the “Gooble-Gobble Gooble-Gobble” scene in Freaks expresses his disdain for movie dialogue. Be that as it may, the release of three of Browning’s silent films, in restored versions, from Kino Lorber offers the opportunity to see what Browning could do in his preferred medium. They also offer an interesting look at racial attitudes of the time, which can be a bit hard to take for the modern viewer.
Outside the Law (1920) is a melodramatic crime drama set in San Francisco and starring Priscilla Dean as jewel thief Molly Madden, a.k.a. “Silky Moll,” Ralph Lewis as her gangster father Silent Madden, and Lon Chaney in a dual role as the vicious gangster Black Mike Sylva and Ah Wing, servant to the Chinese philosopher Chang Lo (E Alyn Warren). Word of warning: you have to overlook a lot of yellow face casting and ethnic stereotypes (what is it with the teeth?) to watch this movie, although it has nothing but praise for Confucian philosophy. When we first meet Molly and Silent, they’re consulting with Chang Lo, whose guidance is turning them from a life of crime. Then Black Mike and his gang frames Silent for shooting a policeman, tempting Molly to return to her former profession. There’s also a romantic subplot and a whole lot of scene stealer Stanley Goethals, then four years old, as the kid next door.
Visuals are the strongest aspect of Outside the Law, or at least the aspect most pleasing to the modern eye, as is often the case with silent films. The title cards often carry appropriate illustrations, and the elaborate, stylized sets used to represent San Francisco’s Chinatown are a delight as is the palatial “Spencer home” where a key scene takes place. The lighting perfectly complements the melodramatic acting style then popular (the cinematographer is William Fildew; no one is credited for lighting). Fun fact: Anna May Wong, who would go on to become the first Chinese American movie star, has a bit part as “Chinese Girl.”
Orientalism, or perhaps I should say Chinoiserie, is also prevalent in Drifting (1923), which opens with a yellow-tinted (!) screen card informing us we’re going to “The Chinese City of Shanghai, the gateway to the land of the lotus and the poppy – the secret of the East which attracts white men like the yellow flame of a lamp attracts moths with its light –”. Cassie Cook (Priscilla Dean) and Jules Repin (Wallace Beery) are partners in the opium trade, until Cassie decides she wants to get out—and also rescue her pal Molly Morton (Edna Tichenor) before she becomes hopelessly hooked on Cassie’s product. Much drama and many set pieces ensue (Drifting runs just over two hours), and there are many elaborate sets and “locations” to enjoy, and tinted film stock heightens the viewing experience. Of course there’s another adorable child (Bruce Guerin, who enjoyed an adult career as a musician), and Anna May Wong has a larger role in this one, as the lovestruck daughter of the local opium supplier.
White Tiger (1923) takes place in London, where siblings Roy (Raymond Griffith) and Sylvia (Priscilla Dean) are both career criminals—he’s the brains running a “mechanical” chess-player scam within a wax museum, while she’s a pickpocket working the same territory. The chess dummy does wear a turban, and such figures were referred to as a “mechanical Turk,” so there’s some Orientalism even in this film.
Roy and Sylvia don’t know they are siblings, having been separated at a young age, due in part to the machinations of a big bad played by Wallace Beery. The three decide to join forces to pull a really big scam, and of course the mechanical chess player is involved. Some inappropriate emotions also transpire between Roy and Sylvia, although of course they don’t know that they are inappropriate, but nothing transpires that would frighten the horses. White Tiger is a straight-up programmer, the kind of bread and butter flick that reliably pleased audiences in its day (lots of plot! lots of elaborate sets!) but is interesting today mostly as an example of the way films used to be made, and of themes (redemption!) Browning returned to again and again. In particular, it’s fortunate that Griffith’s performance is preserved in this film, since he was quite popular in his day, but few of his movies survive. | Sarah Boslaugh
Outside the Law, Drifting, and White Tiger are distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (Drifting and White Tigerare on the same disc). The visuals for each film vary—Drifting is the cleanest overall, White Tiger shows the most wear, and Outside the Law looks sharp and clear except for some sections where the film is badly damaged. Extras for Outside the Law include an audio commentary by film historian Anthony Slide, a musical score by Anton Sanko, an alternate ending, and a footage comparison. Extras for Drifting/White Tiger include an audio commentary by Anthony Slide and a musical score by Philip Carli (for Drifting), an audio commentary by film historian Bret Wood and a musical score by Andrew Earle Simpson (for White Tiger), and the only known remaining fragment of the 1919 Tod Browning film The Exquisite Thief.