Yen Sin, a humble Chinese, is washed ashore after a storm and finds himself an outsider in the deeply Christian fishing community of Urkey. Yen Sin elects to stay, despite his status as a despised 'heathen', only to reveal hypocrisy amid the self-righteous township.
Lon Chaney ... Yen Sin,'The Heathen'
Marguerite De La Motte ... Sympathy Gibbs
Harrison Ford ... John Malden
John St. Polis ... Nate Snow
Walter Long ... Daniel Gibbs
Buddy Messinger ... 'Mr. Bad Boy'
Priscilla Bonner ... Mary Brent
Frances Raymond ... Emsy Nickerson
Shadows is a very powerful film, yet it draws you into its story slowly, almost seductively. A story of racial prejudice, pride, love, tolerance, betrayal, friendship, and spirituality. Not something you expect from a silent film in 1922, created while others were making silly flapper and sheik movies.
A new Christian pastor (Harrison Ford the First) arrives in a little seafaring town and falls in love with a woman he believes to be a widow (Marguerite de la Motte). They marry, but a shadow is over the marriage in the form of a jealous man pretending to be their friend (John St. Polis). He devises a way to make the pastor believe that his wife's former husband is still alive, and begins blackmailing him. The pastor, now a young father, doesn't want to shame his wife before the townspeople and so he quietly gives in to the demands for money.
Meanwhile a Chinaman, Yen Sin (Lon Chaney), who at first is ostracized by the townspeople, then accepted, begins to catch on to the false friend's secret motivations. A final confrontation leads to Yen Sin's conversion to Christianity, but not before the pastor humbly forgives his false friend. We were shown previously that the pastor had tried to win Yen Sin to faith in Jesus Christ by simply presenting the gospel to him from the Bible, but Yen Sin would not believe. He had not seen anyone's faith in action until the moment the pastor forgives his enemy, as Christ forgave His enemies. Then Yen Sin finally believes; there must be something to this religion after all. It's a very powerful moment.
All the cast members are excellent, and I personally like the direction of this film by Tom Forman, and don't feel it was poorly done just because there weren't that many close ups. I feel there were more than enough to satisfy the audience of that time, and even for our own time. Plus, you needed longer body shots to see body languages of the characters involved, which told a lot about their inner motivations and thoughts. Sometimes close ups reveal too much, too soon.
Also of special note is little Buddy Messinger, a child star of the time, whose friendship with the Chinaman is quite touching.
All in all, an excellent little story of faith and friendship, with well rounded performances.
This interesting movie is very much a mixed bag. Lon Chaney gives another outstanding performance as Yen Sin, a Chinese man. With very little makeup, and a very expressive body, he gives us a sympathetic portrayal of a Chinese man who is not always treated nicely by the local townfolk. The screenplay is very daring for the time, as Asians were mostly portrayed as slant-eyed villains at the time, and Chinese were referred to as "Chinks". This is a very impressive production for a film that was not produced by a major studio.
On the other hand the direction of the film is mediocre. Director Tom Forman stages much of the action in long-shot. We rarely get a close-up view of Chaney or even Marguerite De La Motte, the heroine of this story.
This film is highly recommended for Lon Chaney, Sr. fans, and for those studying how American Cinema portrayed minorities in the 1920's.
SHADOWS (Preferred Studios, 1922), directed by Tom Forman, is a little known silent production featuring the legendary "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney (1883-1930), a year before his triumph as Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (Universal, 1923). Best known for his versatility in a wide range of unique characters bearing different faces from one film to the next, SHADOWS has him portraying a lonesome Chinaman, one of several in his long range of screen roles. Aside from squinted eyes, his character sports his hair cut evenly around the top of his head, and shoulders not in the hunchback tradition but slightly in forward position. Unlike other American actors in their attempt in portraying Orientals, typically villains instead of heroes, Chaney breaks away somewhat from that stereotype by concentrating more on the heart and soul of his character, although his spoken words through the use of title cards fails to break from the Hollywood tradition, speaking in typical broken English, Chinese style.
Taken from "Ching Ching Chinaman" by Wilder Daniel Steel, the story opens with a plot development set in a fishing village of Urkey that introduces an attractive woman named Sympathy (Marguerite De La Motte), trapped in a loveless marriage to Daniel Gibbs (Walter Long), "admiral of the fishing fleet," a union arranged years ago by her now deceased father. One night a storm breaks out, drowning Gibbs and washing ashore the mysterious Yen Sin (Lon Chaney), identified as a Chinese cook and lone survivor of a sunken ship. Because he refuses to take part in the community in prayer, Yen Sin is cast aside, addressed as a "heathen" by a leading missionary. Regardness of racial prejudices he encounters, Yen Sin settles in the New England village, living on a houseboat where he supports himself as a laundryman. Although not a religious man by nature, he has a good heart and forgiving soul. Hoping to be accepted by the community, he makes his first step with "Mista Bad Boy" (Buddy Messinger) by winning him over by giving him Chinese lechee nuts shortly after being teased unkindly by him and his friends. Enter John Malden (Harrison Ford), a new minister in town, who takes an interest in both Yen Sin, whom he tries to convert, and the lovely widow, Sympathy, whom he soon marries, much to the dismay of Nate Snow (John St. Polis), owner of everything in town except what he wants, Sympathy. All goes well with the young couple, complete with their infant daughter, Ruth. However, things start to change for the minister as he starts receiving letters indicating that Gibbs is very much alive. Believing that he has "coveted thy neighbor's wife," John's personal life is tormented with guilt and fear, unable to inform Sympathy of what's been bothering him and give a good sermon in church on Sundays. Because of his friendship with Yen Sin, it's up to him to reveal the secret that could possibly save him from possible disgrace. And what's the secret? Only the shadows know.
Regardless of Chaney's name heading the cast, most of the attention centers upon his co-stars, Marguerite De La Motte, remembered mostly as Douglas Fairbanks frequent co-star in such notable productions as THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920) and THE IRON MASK (1929), and Harrison Ford (no relation to the popular actor of latter years). Ford's character as the guilt-ridden minister almost resembles that of the Reverend Dimmesdale from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, "The Scarlet Letter," where the minister from that story has fathered the child of a married woman whose husband, too, is believed to have perished at sea. Though no scarlet letters this time around but letters of blackmail and mystery, it's Lon Chaney whose performance holds attention throughout its 68 minutes of screen time. Others members in the cast include: Priscilla Bonner (Mary Trent); and Frances Raymond (Emsy Nickerson).
A melodrama with a moral message that could very well be a passage from the Bible, SHADOWS is of great interest today due to Lon Chaney. Distributed through a minor film studio, SHADOWS is fortunate to have survived at all considering how many silent films have disappeared throughout the years. One of its known TV revivals happens to be on a public television series, "The Toy That Grew Up" that aired periodically between 1965 and 1972, especially on WNET, Channel 13, in New York City. Availability on video cassette was through Blackhawk in the 1980s, and Kino Video a decade later, each acquiring the same organ score by Gaylord Carter. Currently in the DVD format, SHADOWS can often be found as part of the double bill with another rarely seen Chaney silent, OUTSIDE THE LAW (1921). To learn more about Chaney and his style of acting, take a look at SHADOWS and whatever else that's currently available. He was truly a remarkable actor.