By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the first independent producers in the film business was B. P. Schulberg. A liberal at a time when studio moguls were conservative, his Preferred Pictures company showed his independent approach to story content not unlike that of indie producers and directors today. In 1922, Schulberg greenlighted a picture with the not-very-liberal-sounding working title of “Ching Ching Chinaman.” Eventually, it became Shadows, a more fitting title for a work that allowed The Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, to work his humanizing magic on the “heathen” Yen Sin.
This melodrama, set in Maine, tells the story of a shipwreck survivor, Yen Sin, one of only two men to survive a horrible storm at sea that sunk several vessels, including the one carrying the brutal husband of Sympathy Gibbs (Marguerite de la Motte). Yen Sin, cold and exhausted from his ordeal, nonetheless is driven from the company of the anxious townspeople because he will not kneel with them on the beach to pray for the souls of the lost sailors. However, with nowhere else to go, he settles in the town, occupying the shanty of a scow in the harbor and setting up a laundry business.
His heathen ways make him the butt of insults and pranks by the local boys, but he eventually becomes more integrated into the community when a plump boy with a passion for sweets (Buddy Messinger) befriends him and, more importantly, when a new minister named John Malden (Harrison Ford) comes to town and chastises the boys for their unchristian attitude. Malden had hoped to be a missionary in Asia instead of a small-town preacher in New England, so he takes on the task of trying to convert Yen Sin. At the same time, he courts the widow Gibbs. When their engagement is announced, Nate Snow (John Sainpolis), who himself had his eye on Sympathy, is crestfallen. Nonetheless, as the lay deacon of Malden’s church and now a friend of Malden’s, he serves as best man at the wedding.
After a year of wedded bliss, the happy Maldens are separated for a week while John, accompanied by Snow, attends a church conference in a nearby town. While there, he receives a letter from a man claiming to be Daniel Gibbs, Sympathy’s supposedly dead husband. Gibbs demands money to keep his presence a secret. A distraught Malden agrees to Snow’s plan to deliver the money while Snow watches to see if the man really is Gibbs or just an impostor.
Unbeknownst to both men, Yen Sin’s friend, who has been handling their laundry while they attended the conference, has been keeping an eye on Gibbs and observes the transaction. He sends a message to Yen Sin on one of Gibbs’ collars about the problem. Malden, believing Daniel Gibbs lives, returns a broken man, abandoning his pulpit and refusing to live illegally with his wife, but keeping the secret of their invalid marriage to avoid ruining the life of their daughter Ruth, born while Malden was away. Yen Sin, of course, is the crucial link to ending the blackmail scheme and restoring order to the unhappy town.
I have read several reviews of this film that praise only Lon Chaney for his sensitive portrayal of a minority. My reactions are very mixed to Chaney’s performance. He adopts a very peculiar posture—hunchbacked with his elbows held high and back—to suggest that Yen Sin is elderly. This is not only a painful posture to watch, but also it seems very unnatural and stagy. Chaney’s face is similarly pinched, showing little of the endearing qualities of Yen Sin in his expressions. We feel a certain warmth toward the outsider Yen Sin that Chaney always is able to induce in audiences, but I’d venture to say that the reactions of others to him are also responsible for our sympathy. Chaney’s final scene is so overwrought that I was reduced to giggles.
The story, of course, is melodramatic, but not ridiculous. Harrison Ford, Marguerite de la Motte, and John Sainpolis play their parts naturally and realistically—convincing in an unconvincing scenario. Sainpolis was an utter revelation to me; I was not familiar with him before this film, but I shall be on the watch for him in others. I also will be on the look-out for more title cards drawn by Renaud. They are a delight and help to forward the story in a most pleasant way.
The film is shot in a very meat-and-potatoes fashion, with medium straight-on shots interspersed with straight-on close-ups; the beach scenes at the beginning of the film are probably the best and most dramatic of the film. There does seem to have been some care taken in trying to make the film look realistic, for example, showing an background behind a window in Yen Sin’s shanty moving as the boat supposedly rocks on the water. A kitten Yen Sin acquires at the beginning of the film is a cat by the end. However, there is one glaring continuity error that is a real doozy. Malden is supposed to have moved out of his house the week his daughter was born and stayed away for a year. (It might be hard to explain a year apart from a plot standpoint, but never mind that.) In the final scene, Sympathy goes to Yen Sin’s bedside carrying her infant daughter. Well, maybe she’s just small for her age…
Overall, this is an interesting movie that deals with race relations in a fairly realistic way for the time. It is not one of Chaney’s better efforts, but should be seen, at the very least, for the marvelous supporting performances. l
There are several versions of Shadows floating around on DVD, with run times varying from 68 minutes (the official time) to 90 minutes and some with color tinting. This is a reply to my inquiry about DVDs of this film from Carl Bennett, editor of the Silent Era website, that you should note:
“There were not established shooting or projection speeds for films in the silent era, so when home video producers create their editions, the running times can vary wildly depending on the running speed during video transfer. Since your [90-minute] edition was likely transferred from a 16mm reduction print, it is unlikely that your edition has additional footage in it; it is likely that is has been transferred at a slower speed. As to the color tinting, that is usually done electronically during the video transfer. Unless they are transferring from a 35mm print color-tinted or color-toned when the print was struck, the video producers are lying through their teeth about restored color tints. We would recommend (sight unseen) the 2000 edition from Image Entertainment