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C. Aubrey Smith
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
Chaney's first talky performance is superb, but sadly, it also proved to be his last.
Indeed, Lon Chaney was the man of a thousand faces, a make-up genius so ahead of his time that "three quarters of a century later" well accomplished professionals are still to be awed at the visual effects he compassed. Sadly, for most, he will always be remembered as Erick, the Phantom and Quasimodo. However, Chaney was much than just a horror actor and a pioneer of many stage make-up techniques; he was a gifted actor, as well as, a matchless performer and person. He was an incredibly skilled actor and, thankfully, The Unholy Three (1930) let's us actually see that.
In this film, Chaney did five voices; those of a parrot, an old woman, a girl, a ventriloquist, and the ventriloquist's dummy. His voice work was such that he had to sign a notarized statement largely as a publicity stunt, attesting to his versatile voice work in The Unholy Three. While the film is notable as a vehicle for the actor's vocal gymnastics, the story of this talkie version of the 1925 version is pretty much identical to the silent, but with a few exceptions: As a talkie, The Unholy Three is a bit less gripping by the sounds becoming explicit, as well as, lacking much of the macabre horror the silent version featured. Mae Busch is replaced by the far better Lila Lee, who was not only better as the roll of Rosie but much prettier as well. However, Victor Mclagen who played Hercules in the silent version was much better than his replacement, Ivan Linow. As far as, Harry Earles is concerned, his voice is completely incomprehensible. Not to mention, the man sitting behind the chair is no longer Tod Browning, but in fact, Jack Conway. Also, at the climax (differing much from the silent version), Mrs. O'Grady appears in court to testify on Hector's behalf. Under the strain of the cross-examination, Echo's voice cracks, and the prosecuting attorney pulls off his wig. Echo's subsequent confession clears Hector, but Echo is sent to prison. In the tearfully painful final scene, Hector and Rosie wave goodbye as Echo is sent off to prison by train.
The question that will forever remain, is if Chaney had lived, what else would he have accomplished? My guess is he would've easily conquered the movement in Hollywood toward more complicated make-up techniques, making any such effects icon look rather amateurish. Perhaps several nominations, maybe even an Oscar winner! He certainly would've played Count Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If that were the case, what would ever come of such actors like Fredric March, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff who became famous from playing their landmark Monster roll? He undoubtedly could've played anything and been anyone he wanted. His abilities were far beyond any actor of his or any other era. Unfortunately, out of 150+ films Chaney appeared in, less than 50 survived, and all we really have left of this brilliant, phenom of a talent are the monster movies that made him famous. Chaney was known for much more, for comedy and drama. In fact, he was also a highly skilled dancer, director, writer, singer, and comedian. And yet it was cancer that took him from film just as he proved he could successfully speak within the new realm of sound.
Lon Chaney could have been, perhaps, the greatest actor of all time, though, with much of his work missing, it's still justifiable that he is and beyond all the thousands of faces, there was one true Chaney: an incredibly gifted artist. Too bad we don't get to see it more often.
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