The 1930 version of The Unholy Three boasts a distinction that guarantees it permanent special status among film buffs: the great silent star Lon Chaney made his only talkie appearance here, shortly before his death from throat cancer at the age of 47. Also of interest is the fact that it's a faithful remake of the 1925 silent version in which Chaney also starred, thus giving us a rare chance to compare two performances by the same actor in the same role but in two very different formats, and also to compare the handling of the same material before and after the coming of sound. (When Hollywood remade hits from the silent era the lead roles were almost always recast; parts once played by Doug Fairbanks would go to Errol Flynn, Valentino's would go to Tyrone Power, etc.) This summer I was lucky enough to see restored prints of both versions of The Unholy Three back-to-back at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and the experience was fascinating.
The plot has been outlined in detail elsewhere, but briefly it involves the criminal career of a trio from the "carny" world: a ventriloquist called Professor Echo (Chaney) who masquerades as an old lady, a strongman, and a midget who disguises himself as a baby. A pet shop is the front for their activities. The trio is accompanied by a thief named Rosie, and a patsy named Hector they've employed who is unaware of their identities and plans. When a heist goes awry the members of the gang turn against each other, and violence erupts.
Based on my recent viewings I feel the silent version holds up best. This off-the-wall material plays better in the silent medium, though I found it surprising how similar the two films are when viewed consecutively. When Jack Conway took on directing chores for the remake he must have had a print of the 1925 version available for close study, because there are several sequences in which he follows Tod Browning's editing rhythms and scenic compositions almost exactly. (One example of the latter: the shadow images of the title characters' silhouettes, thrown onto a wall while they plot together.) Even the dialog in the talkie frequently quotes the silent version's title cards verbatim. The biggest change comes in the courtroom finale, where sound allowed the filmmakers to utilize Prof. Echo's vocal talents more creatively. The outcome of the trial is also different in the remake, and somewhat more believable; although the audience at MoMA was respectful toward both films the verdict in the silent version was greeted with a burst of laughter.
Why is the silent version the stronger of the two? Certainly Chaney gives a charismatic performance in both films, somehow carrying the viewer past numerous credibility stretchers through sheer force of personality. In the talkie version he demonstrates a fine voice, deep and a little raspy (possibly a result of his medical condition), not unlike Wallace Beery's. Chaney is terrific in both films and is the main reason to see the remake. The 1930 version follows the original so closely we can't blame the writers for going astray, nor are the film's shortcomings entirely the fault of director Conway, at least where visual style is concerned, for he followed Browning's original almost shot-for-shot. No, I believe the difference has to do with the aesthetic gulf between silent and sound film. We're willing to suspend disbelief when watching a silent movie: we'll accept crazy events in silent cinema that would be unacceptable, absurd, or even horrifying (in the wrong sense of the word) in the world of sound. Case in point: one of the most outlandish elements can be found at the pet store, where the proprietors offer birds, hamsters, rabbits--and a dangerous gorilla, confined in a big cage. No one seems to consider the gorilla's presence unusual. In the silent version, we note this oddity and roll right along. But in the talkie, the gorilla is laugh-provoking; and it doesn't help that instead of the actual simian used in the silent film, the 1930 version features a man in a highly unconvincing ape suit, the sort of tatty-looking costume you'd expect to find in a Bowery Boys comedy.
Talkies aren't just silent movies with sound added, they're a new world with different rules, especially where pace is concerned. Early talkies tend to drag, and this one is no exception. Although the remake follows the original closely it feels slower because director Conway and his colleagues hadn't mastered the new medium; they hadn't yet developed that rat-a-tat editing tempo we find in the gangster movies and musicals produced just a year or two later. And although Chaney handled his dialog deftly some of his co-stars did not: both strongman Ivan Linow and "baby" Harry Earles speak with thick accents that are difficult to understand.
It's fascinating to see (and hear) Chaney in a talkie, but the remake is fairly slow going. The second Unholy Three is a film that requires patience for the average viewer, though it's a must for anyone with an interest in early talkies, the silent era, and-- of course --its star performer. I only wish Lon Chaney had recovered and lived to make more films, once Hollywood got a grip on its new technology and was making slicker, more stylish movies that could have displayed his talents to better advantage.
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