This 1930 film is a remake of Tod Browning's 1925 silent classic of the same name. This early talkie version, as directed by Jack Conway, is in its way as good. Browning's striking compositions and dark shadows are gone, but this is compensated for by some lively and very funny dialogue. Chaney plays a ventriloquist name Echo who who becomes a scam artist, opens a pet store, dressing up as a little old lady and calling himself Mother O'Grady, complete with white wig and high-pitched voice, and with the help of a midget named Tweedledee and a strong man named Hercules, sets out to prey on wealthy customers. As we can see, we aren't is Disney territory here but in Chaneyland, or more fittingly Chaney and Browningland.
From the opening shot in a carnival, surprisingly seedy and sexy, the movie has nary a dull moment. The preposterous story is undercut somewhat by a silly romance, but this takes up relatively little screen time and is well integrated into the whole. Chaney is a wonder, visually and vocally, and one can only speculate on what sort of career he might have had had he lived just a few years longer. He died of throat cancer not long after this film was completed.
The movie succeeds as a nightmare vision, of what I'm not sure, perhaps life, even when it fails as melodrama. It is infectiously loony and has yet a logic to it that enables the viewer to suspend disbelief. Neither Chaney nor anyone else condescends to the material. This one is played absolutely straight. There is humor, but no winking at the camera, as the funny stuff arises naturally from the story. This is I imagine the sort of movie many avant garde film-makers have been trying all their professional lives to make and have never managed to pull off. It isn't easy to make a bizarre melodrama like this. Too much sophistication will ruin it. It helps also to have a theatre background, as much of what keeps this picture so watchable is its busy and always intriguing surface, which is managed with at all times with the impeccable vaudevillean timing of a juggler with five balls in the air, and who never drops a one of them.
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