‘He who winds the yarn and finds his mate, Must grab her quick and kiss her straight.’
Sympathy Gibbs is unhappily married to the brutish Daniel, head of the fishermen of the small coastal village of Urkey. One night a terrible storm wrecks the entire fleet, and Daniel is believed to have drowned. One of the only two survivors is a mysterious Chinaman who was rescued from the sea shortly before the disaster occurred…
Stilted romantic melodrama of the silent screen, directed by Tom Forman. It was primarily a vehicle for new star Lon Chaney, the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, whose fame would reach international levels with ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923).
When disaster overtakes the fishing fleet of Urkey, it’s a mixed blessing for the downtrodden Sympathy (Marguerite De La Motte). She’s suddenly free of her abusive husband, Daniel Gibbs (Walter Long), who is assumed lost at sea, his fate confirmed by the only fisherman that lives through the storm. The sole other survivor is shipwrecked Chinaman Yen Sin (Chaney), fished out of the sea just before the storm hit. Despite the tragedy, there’s a silver lining for banker Nate Snow (John St. Polis), who has loved De La Motte from afar for years and now hopes to marry her.
Despite being ostracised for his lack of Christian beliefs, Chaney elects to stay in Urkey and open a laundry, which he operates from a scow at the harbour. Bullied by the local children, he is rescued by new arrival John Malden (Harrison Ford, no, not that one!), who has been assigned the post of village minister. The churchman and De La Motte fall in love and eventually marry, with St. Polis as their best man. Ford is away at an ecclesiastical conference when he gets the news that De La Motte has given birth to their first child. However, that same night he receives a letter from Long, who did not drown after all and wants money to buy his continued silence.
Given the considerable passage of time, it’s hardly surprising that some examples of silent cinema now appear as historical relics, examples of a bygone era and the moral values that shaped it. This film is a case in point. It’s not simply that the caucasian Chaney plays an Asian character; that practice was common in Hollywood for many decades afterwards. It’s more that the turgid, preachy tone takes precedence over any possible entertainment value. Something that would be confined mainly to biblical epics in the more commercially focused studio era that followed.
Matters start brightly enough with the abusive relationship between Long and De La Motte depicted without resorting to overblown theatrics. The storm follows hard on the heels of this opening, and Chaney’s outsider status in the village is immediately established afterwards. Somewhat unexpectedly, this is not due to his race but his refusal to embrace the Christian faith. When Ford saves the Chinaman from the young bullies, it begins a lasting friendship, although the heathen persistently resists Ford’s attempts to convert him.
Obviously, Chaney’s appearance in an Asian role will cause a problem for some viewers, particularly given the teeth-grating pidgin English intertitles that serve for his dialogue. However, it’s worth noting that his character is the film’s main protagonist. He sorts out the leading couple’s difficulties and resolves the blackmail plot when, in marked contrast, nominal ‘hero’ Ford seems incapable of taking any positive action whatsoever. Placing an oriental character in this kind of affirmative role was highly unusual at the time and for many years afterwards. Also, he gives a superb performance under a makeup of his own design, complete with a stooped posture and increasing frailty as the character’s health begins to fail. He is unrecognisable, and there’s a total lack of the stereotypical mannerisms and expressions favoured by occidental actors of the time when portraying orientals.
What really hurts the film instead is its second half. As soon as Ford receives his first blackmail note and makes the first payoff, the film tips over into overwrought melodrama, and everything comes to a shuddering halt. A quarter of an hour of Ford wringing his hands and agonising over his domestic arrangements follows. After all, not only is he not married to De La Motte, but he has fathered a child with her. As a result, he can no longer live with her and spends the next year doing his best to avoid her and their daughter. As a minister, his behaviour is understandable; however, he doesn’t tell her why he’s doing it, which is unforgivably self-indulgent and cruel. Yes, the sudden news that her old husband is still alive and she has borne a child out of wedlock with a priest would be bad enough, but allowing her to spend a whole year in misery and confusion seems a hell of a lot worse. Still, it does let him play the martyr, I suppose.
In terms of the drama, things deteriorate even further. The last act is fundamentally just an extended death scene where Chaney resolves the blackmail plot, although why he’s waited so long to do it is a bit of a mystery. The film is a showcase for Chaney, so it’s understandable that this sequence will last a while, but it’s 25 minutes long, qualifying as one of the most protracted death scenes in movie history. It’s not unaffecting, but the sheer length of it removes a great deal of the emotional impact. Of course, the old Chinaman sees the error of his heathen ways before the end and converts to Christianity, further ramming home the film’s values and message. It doesn’t seem to bother him that it was Christianity that excluded him from the church at Ford and De La Motte’s wedding, despite his status as the couple’s best friend.
There is anecdotal evidence that Chaney wanted to film a life of Christ, and he had already starred in the religious-themed ‘The Light of Faith/The Light in the Dark’ (1922). So it may have been the film’s message that drew him to this project, along with rising to the challenge of the role. However, the film delivers its moral lessons in such a deliberate, heavy-handed way that it kills the pace and allows no room for anything but the most basic plot development.
De La Motte is best remembered for starring opposite Douglas Fairbanks in ‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1920) and ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1921). She’d made her screen debut at 16 two years earlier, but in between her debut and stardom had lost both parents separately, her mother in a car crash in which she was also injured. She married for the first time in 1924 to actor John Bowers, and the two starred together in several successful films. However, talking pictures killed their careers, and they turned to vaudeville before the marriage ended. The alcoholic Bowers drowned himself in the sea several years later. She married again in 1939 but divorced four years later; her final screen appearance was as a waitress in the Western serial ‘Overland Mail’ (1942) which starred Lon Chaney Jr. She died of cerebral thrombosis in 1950 at the age of 47.
Essential viewing for Chaney fans, of course, but, despite his fantastic performance, it’s a hard slog to get through.