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
I had an afternoon free so I decided to watch the two versions of this Lon Chaney classic back to back, the original 1925 version directed by Tod Browning, and this later sound remake, which was directed by Jack Conway. It's the story of a crooked carnival ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) who teams up with the midget (Harry Earles) and strong man (Ivan Linow) for a series of robberies. Chaney dresses as an old woman and Earles plays a baby to perfect their scheme. In many ways this was a precursor to the popular Little Rascals/Our Gang short subject FREE EATS, where a couple of gangsters act as parents to a couple of little people dressed as infants, mistakenly referred to as "fidgets".
I thought this was a wildly entertaining story either way, though it's difficult to fairly judge one film or the other when they're viewed so close together like this. There are pros and cons to both movies for me, though I think I would give this 1930 sound re-do the edge over the previous silent. Of course, this rendition is notable not only for the fact that it's Lon Chaney's last film, but also that it's his one and only SOUND film. I found that I preferred Lila Lee in the role of Rosie O'Grady here as opposed to the silent actress, Mae Busch. I also thought this one had a better courtroom sequence, as well as a more satisfying wrap-up for an ending. The sound film moves more briskly, while the silent felt slightly overlong (though the other was still quite good, and well-directed).
It was an amazing treat to get to hear Chaney in his only talking film, and he actually sounded very much as I'd always imagined he would from his gruff exterior. It's essential to hear him doing the voice of the old woman, which was lacking in the original. On the other hand, it was sometimes difficult to always understand the dialogue spoken by Harry Earles (as Tweedledee the midget) and Ivan Linow (as Hercules the strong man). Jack Conway didn't do a bad job at all with this take, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if most fans feel partial to the silent original just because it was directed by the legendary Tod Browning. My advice is to see them both! **** out of ****
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