Professor Echo is a sideshow ventriloquist who recruits two sociopathic co-workers, Midge and Hercules, the show's midget and strong man respectively, into a burglary ring. Echo disguises himself as the elderly Mrs. O'Grady, the owner of a pet store, who sells talking parrots and mynah birds to a high-class clientèle with Hercules posing as his son-in-law married to Echo's pickpocket girlfriend Rosie and Midge passing as their infant son. Echo's ventriloquist skills initially convince the customers that their parrot can talk, but they're disappointed when they bring the mute bird home. A phone call of complaint brings Grandma O'Grady and her daughter's "baby" to the client's house to facilitate the bird's talking, an opportunity to case the house for a subsequent robbery by "The Unholy Three." Written by
Make no mistake, Lon Chaney Sr. was one of the most talented and versatile actors in the history of American Film. And in this, his only completed sound film, he is brilliant. As Professor Echo he uses his own pleasant voice (William Holden's voice is a good comparison), while he effectively and believably changes his voice during his old lady disguise. One wonders if he knew he was terminally ill when he made this film. Several sound vehicles were planned for him: "Dracula" (Bela Lugosi became a star inheriting the Chaney part), "The Sea Bat" (Charles Bickford), "The Phantom of Paris" (John Gilbert), and "The Big House" and "The Bugle Sounds" (Wallace Beery, the former establishing him in sound films.). One can only wonder how any of these films would have been if Chaney had lived to complete them.
But Chaney's is not the only good performance here. Lila Lee and future director-screenwriter Elliott Nugent are both good as the young lovers, the former's scenes with Chaney being some of the best in the picture. And, just as much as he did in the silent version, midget Harry Earles conveys pure menace as the depraved dwarf Tweedledee, although a combination of early sound equipment and his thick German accent make many of his lines all but incomprehensible. Reducing that accent by half, he would do impressive work in "Freaks" and, of course, "The Wizard of Oz" later in the decade. The only other roles of any size fall to veteran character men Clarence Burton and John Miljan, and they prove themselves more than up to the task.
Probably the only way anyone will get to see this film, until MGM decides to release it on video, is on Turner Classic Movies, which is where I saw it recently. If you do see it, you're in for a rare treat.
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