Directed by Tod Browning and starring Priscilla Dean as Molly Madden, Wheeler Oakman as Bill Ballard, and Lon Chaney as both Black Mike Sylva and Ah Wing, Outside The Law is a silent crime drama set in the shadowy San Francisco underworld.
The film opens in the Chinatown parlour of Chang Lo (Edward Alyn Warren), a Confucian philosopher who has been reforming local crime boss Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) and his daughter Molly, also known as Silky Moll. Meanwhile Black Mike ‘Blackie’ Sylva is plotting to frame Silent Madden for murder, and in the process draw Molly back into a life of crime. Her father is imprisoned, causing Molly to lose her faith in the justice system and renege on her commitment to reforming her criminal ways, and she agrees to assist Blackie and his gang with a jewellery heist. However, as the intertitles say, Blackie does not account for the workings of the human heart; Bill Ballard, a member of Blackie’s gang, falls in love with Molly, and reveals to her Blackie’s plan to double cross her, leaving her to be caught by the police whilst he and the gang make off with the bulk of the jewels.
An outraged Molly schemes with Bill to foil Blackie’s plan, and the pair successfully pull off the robbery before absconding to an apartment, rented especially for the purpose, in which they can hide out until the heat is off. The unpredictable machinations of the human heart again come into play, as Bill feels the strings of his being pulled by the small boy who lives across the hall (credited as The Kid Across The Hall and played by Stanley Goethals), who is very fond of Bill and often comes over to play with his kite and his innumerable dogs. Molly is wary of this friendship, fearing it will get them caught – particularly after she learns from the boy’s mother that his father is a detective. Bill admits to her that the boy – in all his innocence and fun-loving spirit – has inspired him to give up his life as a a gangster and go straight, and that he feels they need to return the stolen jewels in order to start afresh. Molly is highly skeptical, insistent that they need the money from selling their ill-gotten gains in order to have the means to make that fresh start. However, she soon finds that despite her protestations her iciness is melted by the boy, and she concedes that – providing Chang Lo can fix it with the law so that they won’t go to prison – she and Bill should return the jewels and live a happy, crime-free life.
Blackie – incensed at having been tricked by Bill and Molly – has other ideas, determined to reclaim the jewels at all costs. Molly’s father has been released from prison, and as Chang Lo had predicted in an earlier conversation with the police chief, he has murder in his heart. Silent Madden is furious that his daughter and her beau – who have returned to Chang Lo’s – want to give back the jewels and for him not to seek revenge on Blackie for framing him. Whilst Molly, Bill and Chang Lo argue with him, Blackie and his goons sneak into the building, guns drawn. This leads to the climactic shoot-out scene, in which Blackie is killed, and when the police arrive Chang Lo ensures immunity for Bill and Molly. The film ends with a message that ‘the path to true happiness lies only through the valley of suffering and sacrifice’; Bill and Molly, who suffered together on their journey to sacrificing their stolen riches, are now able to be together free of guilt and the fear of imprisonment.
The scenario was written by Tod Browning and Lucien Hubbard (who would go on to produce Wings in 1927), with titles by Gardner Bradford and art direction by E.E. Sheeley. Browning had previously worked with Metro Pictures before signing with Universal in 1918, and had first directed Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman on Which Woman? (1918) and Revenge (1918), respectively, and worked with them both on The Virgin of Stamboul (1920). He would make nine films in total with Dean, before becoming better known in later years for his horror pictures – including the notorious Freaks (1932).
A contemporary ad for the film stated:
“This is a story so startling and a picture so marvellously acted and photographed as to make you forget you are in a theatre. What grips your interest right at the start is its revelation of the perfectly desperate work which is always going on below the surface of society – drama so flamingly passionate in its loves and hates and merciless revenge as to seem to you impossible – until you realise that only your sheltered life has made these things seem unreal – that people today are undergoing just such terrific moments right now, today – while you read this page – and that some few will live to tell the tale. And this, as you well know, is just the kind of picture that Priscilla Dean can play better than any other actress in the whole world.”
Priscilla Dean, who had been appearing in one-reel comedies since she was sixteen years old, was propelled to stardom by her role as the comic opera star Morn Light in the crime serial The Gray Ghost (1917). Over 16 (now sadly lost) chapters, Morn Light daringly faced off against a series of male villains. She made her feature-length debut in the Lois Weber-directed Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1917), and continued her success in a number of silent dramas, including those directed by Tod Browning. Despite her prolificacy and immense talent she is little remembered today, due in part to the fact that almost all of her work is considered lost. This is a tremendous shame, as she is utterly fantastic in Outside The Law, with a a scowl that means business and a demeanour so icy you can feel the chill, yet one with a distinct softness beneath; a contemporary review in Photoplay magazine says that she portrays “a convincingly human sort of crook”.
The scenes between Molly and Bill are lent an extra charm by the fact that during shooting the two actors were married. Dean and Oakman – also her co-star in Virgin of Stamboul, released earlier the same year – wed in 1920, but ultimately divorced in 1926. In October 1928 Dean married aviator Lieutenant Leslie P. Arnold in Mexico; Arnold had become famous in 1924 when he completed the first round-the-world flight alongside Lt. Lowell Smith. Dean made a handful of pre-code talkies for independent studios, retiring from the screen after Klondike (1932).
Outside The Law was itself considered lost until 1976, when a nitrate print was unearthed in a barn in Minnesota, having been left there in the 1920s by a travelling roadshow which never returned to collect it. The print had some scenes with major degradation which were unable to be repaired, but most of it was in remarkable condition given how it had been stored. It was transferred to safety stock by the Library of Congress, and this was then worked on by the restoration team at Universal. They did a remarkable job restoring Priscilla Dean to her formidable best, and one can only hope that more of her pictures come to light before the prints are degraded beyond rescue.