Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Unholy Three (1930)

Tod Browning was one of the most distinct directors of the late 1920s. Developing a specialty for crime dramas early on his directing career, he soon turned to a unique combination of the bizarre and the grotesque, the sordid and the spectacular, creating-with star Lon Chaney-some of the most delightfully weird films ever to come out of Hollywood. The film that really solidified the Browning-Chaney collaboration was a 1925 production from MGM, "The Unholy Three", which cast Chaney as Professor Echo, a ventriloquist who teams up with two fellow sideshow performers to form an unholy trio of criminals.

In 1930, MGM decided to remake the film as Chaney's first talkie, billing the "Man of 1000 Faces" as "The Man of 1000 Voices" in advertisements. The 1930 version is interesting on a number of levels. It provides us with the chance to see the same actor playing the same role a second time and in the new medium of talking pictures. It is remarkably faithful to the original film, and gives us the opportunity of watching a journeyman director like Jack Conway imitate the style of Tod Browning quite well. It's use of sound is quite creative for the time, and despite some moments of muddled recording, quite clear. The "shadow" of Tod Browning hangs over the project, as so much of the film, and certainly all of the distinct visual touches (such as showing the silhouettes of the "unholy three" while plotting their crime) come from his original film.

The film begins at a sideshow, where a barker is bringing audiences in to gawk at the variety of oddities and novelty acts. The audience for this show is overwhelmingly "bland" and "normal", compared to the bizarre gallery of performers they have come to watch. It is tempting to read into this scene, a direct carry-over from Browning's original, a bit of commentary on the kind of grotesque entertainment that Browning and Chaney provided, and the large numbers of viewers who lined up to watch it. Both versions are clearly fascinated with showing the sideshow performers-a tattooed lady, a fat woman, a fire eater, Siamese twins-perhaps giving the movie audience their "money's worth" on acts that could only be seen otherwise in dime museums or carnival fairgrounds. The sideshow scenes have a sleazy quality to them, a certain grim tone that makes this carnival seem like a frightening and unpleasant place. This was a staple of Browning's work, and of his original version of the film, which no doubt stemmed from his years working the sideshow circuit. Jack Conway does a good job of re-creating that atmosphere here.

Ivan Linow plays Hercules, the strong man, a role played by Victor McLaglen in the original. Linow is actually quite good in the role, and is perhaps does even more with the part than McLaglen did. The 1930 remake jettisons a cute bit during this scene from the 1925 original, in which a mother tells her son that if he doesn't smoke, he'll grow up to be strong just like Hercules. Later, just after Hercules has finished selling copies of his "self-help" book, he casually lights a cigarette.

Next, we are introduced to Chaney as Professor Echo. Chaney has a wonderful, relaxed presence in front of the camera here, apparently quite comfortable with handling dialog in his first talkie. He also has a pleasant voice that matches his screen presence well. Watching this film, it immediately becomes apparent that Chaney could have had quite a career in talkies, and it is a pity that he would be dead within the year. His performance here includes a delightfully strange act with his ventriloquist, who makes wisecracks and sings songs. Chaney "signs off" his act with "That's all there is to life, a little laugh, a little tear". Echo is also involved with Rosie O'Grady (played by Lila Lee, who is charming enough but lacks the presence that Mae Busch brought to the original role), a young woman who works as his partner in picking pockets in the audience during his act.

Finally, the audience is introduced to the third partner in crime, Tweedledee (played to perfection by Harry Earles from the original), a midget who is extremely sensitive to comments on his height. Presumably just to earn a living, he allows himself to be taunted and gawked at by the crowds, until he finally loses control and kicks a small boy in the face for heckling him. The boy's father rushes the stage, and a terrible brawl erupts, causing the sideshow to be shut down by order of the police.

Out of work, Echo teams up with Hercules and Tweedledee to form the "Unholy Three". Their plan is quite complicated: Echo will disguise himself as "Mrs. O'Grady", with Rosie as his "granddaughter", and sell birds in a rented pet shop. Hercules will become "Herman", their friend, and Tweedledee will become their "baby". Echo will throw his voice to convince potential buyers that the birds can talk. Of course, when customers bring them home and they say nothing, they call the pet shop demanding an explanation. "Mrs. O'Grady", along with the "baby", will come out to the house, ostensibly to check on the bird, but really to case the joint so they can plan a perfect robbery.

In the rented pet shop, they have taken on a salesman, Hector MacDonald (played quite well by Elliott Nugent, who also co-wrote this film and is superior to Matt Moore in the original). Hector is falling in love with Rosie, which creates great tension between her and Echo. Their robbery of the Arlington home ends in disaster, and raises the suspicion of a detective, Regan, who begins an investigation. There is a particularly memorable scene in which Regan comes to visit "Mrs. O'Grady" in her bird store, and almost discovers the stolen beads which Tweedledee has hidden inside his toy elephant. This scene is a fine example of how this story really works better as a talkie, because the sound effects convey so much of the suspense and the pending disaster.

From here, it is only a short time before things become more complicated, and their plans continue to spin out of control, ending in a trial that goes well except for one fatal mistake.

This 1930 film is remarkable in the fact that it manages to retain so many of the really strange, fantastic elements of its 1925 version without losing its power. It's the kind of story that would be very easy to do wrong, because it requires complete conviction on the part of the actors to maintain the genuinely suspenseful tone amid all the really bizarre and even improbable plot points. The scheme hatched by the trio, for instance, is impossibly complicated, but the film allows the viewer to get so drawn in to this bizarre world that it hardly matters.

Jack Conway was one of MGM's least distinct technicians, but his direction of this film shows that he was at least capable of imitating Browning's style. Browning himself was never the stylist that some of Chaney's other directors, such as Victor Sjostrom and Herbert Brenon, were. But he did develop a distinct visual look which gave his 1920s work a particularly effective atmosphere. Conway manages to capture that here.

By the end of 1930, Chaney would be dead from throat cancer, a tragic end to a brilliant career. In this, his final film, he delivers a powerful performance, making the most out of his character and transforming Echo from a caricature to a real character. The film is a testament to his professionalism and his love for his art.

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