‘Again the cunning signal – one, two, three!’
After fifteen years behind bars, a convict breaks jail so he can see his dying wife. Rushing to her side, he is too late, so he attempts to reconnect with his daughter, who believes him to be dead. Meanwhile, the detective who arrested him before is hot on his trail…
Lon Chaney finds himself on the wrong side of the law again in this crime melodrama directed by independent producer Irving Cummings. Between major studio assignments and as a free agent, the horror icon in waiting kept busy with such projects, little knowing that international superstardom was just around the corner.
Ex-lawyer David Webster has been serving a decade and a half stretch in the local hoosegow when he hears that his wife is seriously ill. She may have disowned him, changed her name and told her daughter that he was dead, but he’ll still move heaven and earth just to see her. During his time at the bar, he saved Chinatown kingpin Li Fang (Noah Beery) from incarceration and the debt is repaid when the big wheel arranges his escape and subsequent sanctuary. But Chaney’s journey across the city’s rooftops to see his wife ends in tears. His long lost daughter Marjorie (Edith Roberts) stands distraught on the sidewalk, decked out in mourning clothes.
Determined to prove his innocence and find his daughter, who has moved away, Chaney adopts a disguise by walking around on crutches and pretending to be a crippled beggar. By chance, he encounters Roberts again at the local mission house, where the clientele calls her the ‘Angel-lady.’ Still guilty in the eyes of the world, Chaney determines that she never know his true identity and charms her instead by playing her mother’s favourite songs on the violin. He’s surprised to discover that not only is the mission moving to a new settlement house donated by businessman Fletcher Burton (Ralph Lewis) but that Roberts and the man’s idealistic young son, Ted (Jack Mulhall), are in love. The problem is that Lewis is the man who framed him all those years ago and the target of Chaney’s plans for revenge.
This project has all the hallmarks of warmed-over, second-hand ingredients assembled with little imagination or conviction. For a start, Chaney’s disguise seems nothing more than a deliberate call back to his successes in earlier productions ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919) and ‘The Penalty’ (1920). It only consists of him walking with crutches; there is no effort to hide his distinctive facial features. Whereas it’s reasonable that Roberts doesn’t recognise him after fifteen years, the fact that it prevents identification at the hands of Detective Doyle (DeWitt Jennings) and the rest of the local force is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. And it serves little to no purpose in the unfolding narrative, other than allowing for a tame ‘unmasking’ scene at the climax.
To Cumming’s credit, the film doesn’t lean too heavily on the sentimental aspects of the tale, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Roberts is cast as the typical ‘female martyr’ of cinema’s silent era, and one of the mission’s customers is a lame young boy with a ‘can do’ attitude and a cheery grin. There are also a few nice touches in Louis D. Lighton’s screenplay. Chaney doesn’t object to his daughter hooking up with the son of his old enemy so long as he’s satisfied that the lad has good intentions and he’s what Roberts wants. He’s even prepared to abandon his plans to have Lewis confess to his old crime, but, of course, Lewis objects to the match because he wants Mulhall to marry more advantageously. So, the story does develop on mostly predictable lines.
A significant issue for a modern audience may be the presence of white-bread Noah Beery in the role of Li Fang. Fortunately, his appearance as a Chinaman avoids the worst excesses of the era. He dresses in a white business suit, and his dialogue on the intertitles is free from colloquialisms or nuggets of Oriental wisdom. Also, more often than not, there were simply no Asian actors with the necessary experience to take on such a role. Of course, an argument can always be made sufficient opportunity was not available to acquire that experience in the first place.
The most positive aspect of the film is, without question, Chaney’s performance. Although he had shown a tendency to play to the gallery on occasion, there’s little evidence of that here. His David Webster is a tragic and emotional figure, but the actor plays his cards close to his chest, given the era’s style. By now, Chaney had played plenty of thugs, tough guys and villains, but his David Webster is a far more contained proposition, even in his confrontation with Lewis in the final act. His dealings with Roberts are also nicely played, even if his longing stares in her direction might come across as a bit on the creepy side if the audience didn’t know she was his daughter. But it’s good to see Chaney continuing to give it his all, even though he must have been aware that this was an inferior project.
If it seems a strange decision for Chaney to front an independent picture at a time when he was starting to make waves at the studios, it may simply have been that it was just the best thing on the table at that moment. Chaney had grown up in far from affluent circumstances, quitting school around the age of 10 to look after his ailing mother full-time. He worked as a tour guide at 14 and a carpet layer at 17 before turning to the theatre shortly afterwards. The year 1922 saw Chaney appear in no fewer than eight films, seven of them features. No one could fault his work ethic or question his success as a breadwinner.
A minor footnote in the film career of star Lon Chaney but one his serious fans will want to view, even if there is little to recommend it other than his performance.