CAST: Lon Chaney (Yen Sin), Marguerite De La Motte (Sympathy Gibbs), Harrison Ford (John Malden), John Sainpolis (Nate Snow), Walter Long (Daniel Gibbs), Buddy Messenger ("Mista Bad Boy"), Priscilla Bonner (Mary Brent), Frances Raymond (Emsy Nickerson)
Based on Wilbur Daniel Steele's novel Ching, Ching Chinaman.
Sympathy, a beautiful young girl, was forced into a marriage to the older, rough and abusive Daniel Gibbs, a fisherman who is liked by few people in the small fishing village of Urkey. Daniel is lost at sea in a storm. Only two survivors are rescued, one of the Urkey fishermen and a Chinaman named Yen Sing who was not a part of the Urkey fishing expedition. He is shunned and criticized for his refusal to worship the God of the villagers, but sets up a laundry business on a small, rickety, one-room scow at the wharf. The new minister, John Malden befriends him and tries to convert him to Christianity - with no success. Malden soon meets Sympathy, falls in love with her and marries her, much to the disappointment of the town's wealthiest citizen and leader in the church, Nate Snow, who wanted Sympathy for himself. Sympathy is pregnant when Snow and Malden go out of town on a church-related trip, and the baby is born while Malden is away. Before he leaves, though, Malden gets a letter at his rooming house from Daniel Gibbs. Although the accident at sea was a year ago, Gibbs says he only came to his senses in the past month. Not wanting to cause any trouble, he says he will leave Malden and Sympathy alone if Malden will leave some money in a specified place for him. Malden tells only Nate Snow who delivers the money for him - for the sake of his new baby. Upon his return, Malden is in deep depression, so badly that he resigns from the church. He makes excuses for not living in the house with Sympathy, although he is unable to stay away completely. Gibbs' demands for money continue, and Malden is forced to borrow from Snow. The most unlikely person in town is the one who finally comes to Malden's rescue - the "heathen," Yen Sing.
"Shadows" is of greatest interest today because of the star - Lon Chaney. But make no mistake, this film is well cast with some solid performers from top-notch silent era stars in addition to being a neatly packaged drama where all the pieces fit together nicely - as they should in any well-crafted story.
Without wasting any time, the story immediately grabs at our emotions. We are introduced to Sympathy Gibbs, beautifully played by the equally beautiful Marguerite De La Motte, and identified by an intertitle that says, "All the village agreed that a better woman never lived. . ." She waits on her husband, Daniel Gibbs, portrayed by Walter Long with his usual skill and "meanness" - who is sitting in their home at the table with some fellow fishermen - obviously dominating the conversation. Sympathy goes to pour water from a pitcher into his cup while he's talking. As he is wildly gesticulating, he swings his arm wide and knocks the pitcher from her hands to the floor. Enraged, he jumps up, grabs her arm, and is about to hit her until he remembers the people sitting at the table. One old man who viewed this display tells another that Sympathy's father would turn over in his grave if he knew how the marriage he had forced Sympathy into turned out. Although nothing more is said, this short sequence gives us a great deal of information. We can safely assume this type of treatment is typical in their household - very important because we feel no sympathy - actually a little delight - when Gibbs is lost at sea - opening the door for her marriage to John Malden, the new minister. But, let's keep in mind the intertitle that introduced Sympathy - "a better woman never lived." This is borne out when Sympathy comes to the shore that night to "watch and pray for Daniel." Not what we would expect knowing the abuse she received from Gibbs, but very much in keeping with the character that is being developed.
The next morning, two survivors are pulled ashore - one, the sole fisherman from Urkey to survive the storm, and the other, a Chinaman named Yen Sin who came from some other fishing boat. No one pays attention to Yen Sin, all crowding around the man from the village. Nate Snow, the town's wealthiest citizen and a "pillar" in the church, suggests, "Let us pray for the souls of the lost." Everyone kneels and prays except Yen Sin. When it is noticed that Yen Sin is not kneeling, Snow tells him to pray or get out - "We want no heathens in Urkey," he tells him.
This first introduction to Chaney's character is a powerful one. Fans are most familiar with Chaney's make-up for such films as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), which are amazing to say the least. However, his extremely believable make-up as a Chinaman is no less amazing. But Chaney's performances were always much more than good make-up - he became the character he portrayed, throwing himself into it body and soul. Biographer Michael Blake said, "He gives a remarkably realistic portrayal of a Chinese man . . . What is most impressive is his complete absorption in the character. He literally appears to be a small, frail Chinese man, and it is hard to believe that this is the same actor who appeared in 'The Penalty' and 'Ace of Hearts.'" Blake went on to describe Chaney's performance as "far outdistancing that of any other Caucasian actor who played a similar role." (1)
Priscilla Bonner, who had a small role in the film, said in a 1992 interview, "He was not heavily made up. He did have his eyes taped a little, but the rest of it was in his mind. He thought Chinese. Even his gestures and everything, he became the character of a Chinese. . . He would even speak in an accent . . ." (2)
When Chaney first appears on the screen as the exhausted survivor of the previous night's storm, he is bent, cold, wet, shivering and very pitiable as he stands off to the side, rubbing his hands together - while at the same time several people are crowding around the survivor from Urkey providing him comfort, aid and sympathy. When he is berated by one of the townspeople for not kneeling in prayer, he walks away - slowly and weakly, taking small steps. Chaney has presented his character so successfully that we forget we are watching a Caucasian portraying an Oriental - and, in addition, we have been given our protagonist and are "rooting" for him against the intolerance of the townspeople.
When next we see Yen Sin, he has made him a home in an old scow on the wharf, and is supporting himself by doing laundry. Buddy Messenger plays one of a group of kids who apparently delight in taunting the little Chinaman on his boat. However, one day he catches "Mista Bad Boy" (played by Messenger) and offers him some lychee nuts. The boy reluctantly tries one, finds that he likes it and becomes a good friend to Yen Sin. Messenger has a minor role, but he does serve a purpose. As noted, this is a well crafted story, and all of the characters contribute to the narrative.
Later, on the day that Minister John Malden arrives in town, we see a more cruel aspect of the taunting of the Chinaman. As he carries a basket of clean laundry on his shoulder down the street, a boy shoots a rock from a slingshot that hits him and makes him drop the laundry onto the dirty street. As if this wasn't enough, the boys and several adult men begin throwing the laundry around as Yen Sin tries desperately to re-gather the clothes. Malden sees this and rushes to Yen Sin's aid. He chides the hooligans telling them Jesus died for such as he. A close up of Yen Sin shows us - with a turn of the head and a look of the eyes - that he has never experienced such kindness. Sympathy is also there to help, offering a first opportunity for the young couple to meet.
"Shadows" has much more going for it than eliciting our pity for an underdog. It's a revealing story of human nature - the true character that lives within us as opposed to what we profess, tolerance versus intolerance, and worldly desires in contradiction to spiritual values. This is played out in a very interesting subplot in which Malden visits Yen Sin on a regular basis to convince the Chinaman to "believe," that is, convert to Christianity by believing that Jesus is the Savior of the world through his death on the cross. The minister asks why Yen Sin refuses to believe. He responds, "Mista Yen Sin velly humble dog, but washee colla fine!" Yen Sin's evasive answer provides a humorous moment, but we will find later that the wise Chinaman is pondering all that he sees and hears as he lives among these westerners. After Yen Sin walks the minister to the door, he comes back in and lights a candle to Buddha, kneels and prays.
Nate Snow is a character who was introduced to us earlier in the story as one of many who felt Sympathy would be better off without Daniel Gibbs. When Malden and Sympathy announce their engagement at the town social, the hurt - and disturbed - look on Snow's face is obvious. However, he remains close to the minister and even serves as best man at the couple's wedding.
On the evening of the wedding, everyone is leaving Malden's and Sympathy's home when Yen Sin arrives with a gift. The crowd leaves, and Yen Sin ambles down the dark street, but turns to look back at the house. He sees something strange - Nate Snow standing on the path outside the fence, watching the shadows of Malden and Sympathy through the door glass with that same dejected look he had when the couple announced their engagement at the town social. This strikes Yen Sin as odd behavior, but, after giving a quizzical look, he moves on down the street. The viewer knows there is a conflict brewing, but we don't know how it will play out. Of course, the anticipation of the unknown is, after all, what grips our attention.
A year later, Sympathy and Malden must be parted for the first time - Malden is going to a church conference in Infield with Snow as a "lay" representative. As they prepare to leave, Yen Sin tells Malden to be sure and use his friend, Sam Low, in Infield for his laundry needs.
As noted earlier, the story is very neatly packaged - everything works together for a purpose, although we may see a scene as insignificant at first. One of those scenes took place earlier in the story when "Mista Bad Boy" visited Yen Sin to get more lychee nuts. He sees Yen Sin write something in Chinese on each stiff collar that he has laundered and asks him what it is. The Chinaman said he doesn't know everyone's name who brings him laundry, so he makes up a name and writes it on the collar. The collar writing proves to be significant later in the story when Sam Low and Yen Sin use it as a "secret" means of communicating with one another.
Up to this point, all seems well. Sympathy and Malden have a storybook marriage free of the abusive Daniel Gibbs. Malden is receiving high praise and congratulations for his speech on foreign missions at the conference, and, best of all, he receives a telegram that he has a new baby daughter. Life couldn't be sweeter! However, this euphoria only helps to increase the impact of the bad news Malden is about to receive.
With his life at the peak of perfection, he receives a letter in the mail - written by Daniel Gibbs. Gibbs says he is alive having been picked up tramp steamer the night of the storm and only came to his senses a month ago. Not wanting to cause trouble, he tells Malden to leave $500 for him at a specified location and "things will be OK." Malden panics and runs up to his room staring at the letter. Then he pulls out the telegram again and reads about his daughter being born. Not knowing what to do, he impulsively burns Gibbs' letter.
Next we see Sam Low come to Malden's room, pick up the laundry, and leave.
Later in the room, Malden confides in Snow telling him about the letter. Snow tells Malden it may be some imposter. Snow suggests that after he leaves the money at the appointed place, he will stand by to see if Daniel Gibbs really does come to pick it up. Sam Low stands outside the door and hears the conversation. Later that evening, Snow returns to tell Malden that he saw Daniel Gibbs, and he really is alive.
Malden's return home is an excellent study in the impact of guilt, the effect on a person of dreams having disappeared, the strong conviction to beliefs, and the nobility of suffering for the sake of others. Sad, depressed and forlorn, Malden returns home to see his baby for the first time. As he sits on Sympathy's bed and admires the baby, it is not the joyous occasion it should be. Malden tells Sympathy he has work to do from the conference and will stay in a room over Snow's drugstore for awhile to give her time to recuperate. He leaves the bedroom and goes into the front room of the house. Director Tom Forman emphasizes the misery Malden is enduring in a gripping and powerful visual. The welcoming committee who greeted Malden when he arrived home are still standing outside in the darkened street. As they look at the house, they see Malden's shadow behind the window shade - raising his hands to heaven, clenching his fists and then bowing in agony (the second time "shadows" have been used to enhance an emotion moment in the story). The people outside sing a hymn to comfort him while Yen Sin takes out a charm, kisses it and looks sympathetically at the house. Malden comes out with a small bag of his belongings. He is weak and despondent. Snow puts him arm around his shoulders and helps him away.
The stories that really hold our attention are those that bring us to a point where all seems lost, and there is no obvious turn of events that we can imagine that will bring about a solution to these problems. However, the clever writers will then bring to play all of those seemingly insignificant vignettes from throughout the movie into a logical denouement that satisfies our longing for a happy ending. However - without giving away the ending - not all ends happily. There is some pathos involved in the fate of Yen Sin, but, the ending is a satisfying one, nevertheless.
As noted, Chaney's performance is superb. The loose fitting clothing, his bent body, the elbows always pushed behind the back, and the short, deliberate steps give the appearance of a small, frail body. Late in the story when Yen Sin is lying on his bed sick, Chaney does an amazing job of making us believe he is deathly sick - pointing with a shaking, bent hand and using all of his strength just to talk and form his words. In Blake's opinion, Chaney's Oriental depiction in "Shadows" is far superior to his earlier portrayal of an Oriental in "Outside the Law" (1921) (3), which was still a superb performance itself.
Harrison Ford, as always, does a capable job as the minister, John Malden. He underplays the role to convey the kindliness and sensitivity of the man of God. He is also very convincing later in the story when he attempts to carry the burden of his secret alone and endure the pain of separation from his wife and child. A particularly touching scene comes when Malden must leave the house one evening. Sympathy stands in the dark front yard, watching him walk away. She looks into the bushes and imagines she sees a "shadowy" figure of Daniel Gibbs, and she faints. Malden turns and runs to her. He carries her in the house and lays her on the sofa. The camera is placed from Sympathy's angle looking up at Malden. We see her arms come into view and encircle his neck. Then we see Sympathy pleading for his love. He is unable to continue this torture of his wife and takes her in his arms kissing her all over her face - a very emotional and moving moment handled expertly by Ford and De La Motte.
Ford is a much underrated actor who performed very capably in a variety of roles during the silent era. It is fortunate that we have several of his films available for viewing today. He handled drama and comedy with equal ease. In "The Primitive Lover" (1922), one of over a dozen films he made with Constance Talmadge, he plays the not so virile husband of Talmadge and must prove his virility (that's the "primitive lover" part) in order to keep her. He was a popular foil for comediennes providing an excellent counterpart for Marie Prevost in "Up in Mabel's Room" (1926) and Bessie Love in "Rubber Tires" (1927). He made 86 films between 1915 and 1929, and after one more film in 1932, called it quits.
Marguerite De La Motte is perfectly suited for the role of Sympathy Gibbs. She is a delicate beauty - not the glamorous type which would be totally unsuited for the little village's favorite daughter - but one who can elicit, as her name in the story indicates, sympathy. She is at her best when the character of Sympathy is unable to understand why her husband won't come home to her and their baby - puzzled, hurt, and heartbroken that the man she loves shuns her. When she faints in the front yard and he takes her inside, her pleas (with no intertitles) for him to hold her and love her are heart-rending.
Probably De La Motte's best-known role is of Lolita Pulido in Douglas Fairbanks' "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), his first venture into the type of swashbuckler role he would personify throughout the twenties. De La Motte deserves some of the credit for the success of Fairbanks' role risk-taking for she proved to be a perfect heroine for the dashing Zorro - one moment haughty and distant, and then demure yet coquettish - and always lovely and natural on the screen. Her life had its share of tragedies. She lost her parents in a car accident at 16, had a failed marriage to the tragic John Bowers, and died at only 48 years of age of cerebral thrombosis. Although she made about 60 films during the silent era, the sound era did not treat her as well. She only made a handful of sound films, all with minor or bit roles.
Harrison's Reports (November 11, 1922) called it "a picture that stands out above all others," adding that it was "masterfully directed and artistically acted." The acting came in for praise, too, as the reviewer called Chaney's impersonation "remarkable," going on to say, "Better acting he has never done in his life." Of the rest of the cast, the reviewer said, "Every one of the other players, too, acts well."
Variety (November 10, 1922) took the opposing view. "A decidedly grim and morbid tale, directed and presented without any lighter relieving moments." He noted the film "hardly an attraction that will draw big money or prove entertaining to the average picture theatre audience." As a side note, respected movie critic Robert Sherwood chose "Shadows" for his "Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23" list.
Motion Picture Magazine (February, 1923) called it "a picture which is certain to be accepted as one of the better things . . ." adding that it is "worth seeing. Don't be ashamed of your tears." Again, reviewers were unable to agree. Picture Play magazine called the picture "dull. It pains me to say this in view of the fact that in this picture Lon Chaney gives a wonderful characterization of a Chinaman. But there is nothing to back him up."
Director Tom Forman, another tragic figure in cinema history, must be given credit for the sensitive handling of a film with delicate subject matter so as not to offend different races or religious beliefs. He made his first film for Lasky in 1914. With the exception of service at the front during World War I, he had a successful career as both an actor and director until 1926 when he committed suicide at age 33.
"Shadows" is a film that may not hold up as well together as some other Chaneys because it is a more delicate story that must be viewed in the context of small town sensibilities and mores in the early part of the 20th century. However, one could see the subject matter of this film being a lively topic of discussion in a university film class.
No doubt Chaney's performance alone makes it a "must see," but the first-time viewer will find there is more to enjoy and like about this film, and the other actors have much to offer, as well. Not one of Chaney's most popular films, but still one that shouldn't be missed.
(1) Blake, Michael. A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures. Vestal, New York: Vestal Press, Ltd., 1995.
(2) Blake, Michael. Lon Chaney: The Man Behind he Thousand Faces. Lanham, Maryland: The Vestal Press, 1993.
(3) Blake. A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures.
Copyright 2008 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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