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Shadows Movie: Chaney Transcends Stereotypes in Great Silent

Shadows movie Lon ChaneyShadows movie with Lon Chaney. Following in the footsteps of Richard Barthelmess (D.W. Griffith’s 1919 Broken Blossoms), in this 1922 melodrama Hollywood’s Man of a Thousand Faces plays an honorable Chinese national living in England.
  • Shadows (1922) movie overview: Lon Chaney brings dignity to his Chinese victim/savior stranded in good, racist England in Tom Forman’s Victorian but still engrossing melodrama.

Shadows movie overview: As a Chinese man stranded in a small English town, Lon Chaney transcends the stereotypical delineation of his character

In actor-turned-director Tom Forman’s 1922 melodrama Shadows, the shipwrecked Chinese cook Yen Sin (Lon Chaney) washes up onto a coastal English village where he is shunned by the local Christian townsfolk. When he does not join them in prayer, they refer to him as a “chink” and a “heathen.”

Since Yen Sin has nowhere else to go, he sets up business on a houseboat, washing clothes for the whole village. At first, the local kids play tricks on him and taunt him cruelly, but eventually Yen Sin’s good nature win their respect.

When a new, young preacher (Harrison Ford; no relation to the Indiana Jones actor) arrives in town, he befriends – and tries to convert – Yen Sin. The priest also meets a young widow, Sympathy Gibbs (Marguerite De La Motte; don’t you just love her character’s name?), whose abusive husband supposedly died in the shipwreck.

Some time later, Sympathy and the preacher get married. But instead of living happily ever after, they are threatened by jealousy and blackmail. It is up to Yen Sin to solve it all.

Dignity intact

Shadows features one of my favorite Lon Chaney performances. The way his character ingratiates himself into a hostile environment – without losing his dignity – is refreshing.

In some of the title cards, Yen Sin calls the town bully “Mista Bad Boy” and dreams of someday returning to “Chiny Way.” Yet, even though Yen Sin was written as a stereotype, Chaney never allows him to become a caricature.

Despite Alpha Video’s old, scratchy DVD transfer, Shadows remains one of the best silent films I’ve seen. Adapted from Wilbur Daniel Steele’s 1917 short story “Ching Ching Chinaman,” the narrative, notwithstanding its dated Victorian morality, is remarkably intelligent. The performances are fully believable, while behind the camera Tom Forman keeps things moving at a steady pace.

Overall, Shadows remains a testimony of love and of the frailties and strengths of the human spirit.

Shadows (1922)

Director: Tom Forman.

Screenplay: Hope Loring & Eve Unsell.
From Wilbur Daniel Steele’s 1917 short story “Ching Ching Chinaman.”

Cast: Lon Chaney. Marguerite De La Motte. Harrison Ford. John St. Polis. Walter Long. Buddy Messinger. Priscilla Bonner. Frances Raymond.

Shadows Movie: Chaney Transcends Stereotypes in Great Silent” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.


Shadows Movie (1922) Overview” endnotes

Chinese Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney had previously played Chinese characters in Marshall Neilan’s Bits of Life (1918) and Tod Browning’s Outside the Law (1921).

He would play a couple more in one single film: William Nigh’s 1927 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release Mr. Wu.


Lon Chaney Shadows movie image: B.P. Schulberg Productions | Kino Video.

Shadows Movie: Chaney Transcends Stereotypes in Great Silent” last updated in September 2021.

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