Outside the Law (1920 film)

Outside the Law is a 1920 American crime film produced, directed and co-written by Tod Browning and starring Priscilla Dean, Lon Chaney and Wheeler Oakman.[1][2]

Outside the Law
Outside the Law (1920) poster.jpg
Film poster
Directed byTod Browning
Written byGardner Bradford
Tod Browning
Lucien Hubbard
Produced byTod Browning
StarringPriscilla Dean
Wheeler Oakman
Lon Chaney
CinematographyWilliam Fildew
Distributed byUniversal Film Manufacturing Company
Release date
  • December 26, 1920 (1920-12-26)
Running time
75 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)

One of a series of Universal Pictures vehicles produced for Priscilla Dean, Outside the Law features Lon Chaney in dual supporting roles and his second pairing with director Tod Browning.[3][4][5]

Browning would remake the film in 1930 with a pre-Little Caesar Edward G. Robinson in Chaney's 1920 role as a gang leader.[6]


Silent Madden, a criminal leader in San Francisco, and his gangster daughter Molly (Priscilla Dean) have forsaken a life of crime after receiving counsel from Chang Lo, a Confucianist philosopher living in Chinatown. A despicable gangster named Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney) frames Molly's father for murder, causing Molly to lose faith in abiding the law and prompting her return to a life of crime. Black Mike plots to double-cross Molly as well during a jewelry theft, but Molly gets word from her gangster lover and foils Black Mike's plans. While hiding out from the law, Molly's hard heart is slowly melted by her gangster lover. The film ends with a climactic shootout.


The original print of Outside the Law was considerably longer in its original 1920 release. It was thought lost for some 50 years until a print was located in 1975. The newly found print was a 1926 re-release of the film by Universal after Chaney and Browning had moved over to MGM and achieved greater stardom. The only scenes from the original release that appear to be trimmed or whittled down are certain plot motivations by Chaney's Ah Wing character who originally had a bigger role in the story.[citation needed] The print exists in the Film Preservation Associates film collection and is available on DVD.[7]



Outside the Law is considered to be one of the first psychologically driven films in the gangster genre.[8] The picture was the second film on which Browning worked with Lon Chaney. The contrasting dual roles Browning wrote for Chaney as a heroic Chinese servant and an evil gangster are considered to have solidified the long-lasting collaboration between the two.[9] Outside the Law is one of only a handful of Browning's films that is not a horror film. The film has been commended for its strong female lead, saying actress "Priscilla Dean in this picture is a film revelation... [she] goes to the fore and remains there..."[10] In contrast to many films of the period, it generally depicts its Chinese characters favorably, most notably by having characters invested in the Confucian teachings of the teacher character, Chang Lo.

Browning, a Freemason, frequently used religious themes in his pictures.[11] Film historian Alfred Eaker describes Browning’s cinematic handling of Silky Moll’s redemptive epiphany:

"It is not until Silky sees the shadow of the cross in her apartment that her tough facade gives way. Browning is not one to allow for a genuinely supernatural mode of transformation and reveals that the cross shadow is merely a broken kite, but its psychological effect is manifested in her actions, and her beauty... as Silky begins to drift away from a life of bitterness and crime, towards redemption, she physically grows more beautiful (a transformation achieved through soft lighting and composition). It is not the inspired symbology of the cross alone, but the prophecy of Chang Lo that frames the outcome.”[12][13]

Film critic Alec Charles remarks upon the significance of the “cross-kite” imagery that may foreshadow Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s use of crucifix configurations in Battleship Potemkin (1925) where two condemned sailors hang from the yardarms:

“Five years earlier than Eisenstein, Browning had employed a similar piece of [Christian] symbolism (in the form of a shattered kite) suggesting that the film’s two thieves [Dapper Bill and Silky Molly] might, in a squalid, broken and unglamorous way, find their own salvation...and escape the fate of [crucifixion]...the possibility of advancing an athletic comparison...authorizes a reading of Browning’s discontinuities as intentional [and] anticipating Eisenstein…”[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Sobchack, 2006 p. 35: “The first major star with whom Browning worked regularly was Priscilla Dean, Universal’s leading lady known for playing ‘tough girls’...She starred in nine Browning films" including Outside the Law.
  2. ^ "Progressive Silent Film List: Outside the Law". silentera.com. Retrieved May 5, 2008.
  3. ^ Towlson, 2012: “...Carl Laemmle and Irving Thalberg paired [Browning] up with Lon Chaney for Outside the Law (1921). Thereafter he developed a reputation for the macabre, working with Chaney on a number of silent horror films that have become regarded as classics…”
  4. ^ Charles, 2006 p. 85: “Browning cast Lon Chaney in the dual roles of the villainous Black Mike and the mild-mannered Chinaman Ah Wing.”
  5. ^ Eaker, 2016: “Chaney’s small bit as Ah Wing is so subtle and effective as to almost be unnoticeable.”
  6. ^ Eaker, 2016: “Browning remade Outside the Law in 1930. The remake starred Edward G. Robinson and received comparatively poor reviews.”
    Rosenthal, 1973 p. 65: See filmography, "1930 remake."
  7. ^ http://silentera.com/PSFL/data/O/OutsideTheLaw1920.html
  8. ^ Cinemaweb review of Outside the Law (retrieved September 14, 2009)
  9. ^ Bernard F. Dick, City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures, p. 55
  10. ^ Silentsaregolden.com reprint of Variety review
  11. ^ Eaker, 2016: “Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious imagery and themes: Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment and the time spent in such a claustrophobic setting is awash with religious symbolism, which points to transformation….in West of Zanzibar (1928)...The Show (1927)...East is East (1929)...The Unholy Three (1925)... Road to Mandalay (1926)...Dracula (1931)...and Mark of the Vampire (1935).”
  12. ^ Eaker, 2016: Eaker notes that Browning has Silky’s lover Bill conceal the origin of the “[holy] cross” so as not to disabuse her of her “naivete... He draws the blind so she cannot see the actual [non-supernatural] source of her inspiration.”
  13. ^ Charles, 2006 p. 85: “...symbolism in Outside the Law. The heroine chooses to renounce her life of crime when she see a shadow of a cross on the floor of her apartment...”
  14. ^ Charles, 2006 p. 84-85: See here for Charles’ “athletic comparison between these two fundamentally different filmmakers...”


External linksEdit