Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Unholy Three

Tod Browning remains one of the most intriguing directors of the silent era. Best known for grotesque and bizarre crime dramas and character-driven horror, Browning falls into a delicate middle-ground of silent film directors. His work is definitely distinct, even when it is not terribly interesting. He really achieved his mark with a series of films starring Lon Chaney, who appeared in every conceivable makeup in a variety of grotesque roles. Unlike some of Chaney's other directors, such as Wallace Worsley, Victor Sjostrom and Herbert Brenon, Browning was most interested precisely in that grotesque element, fusing it with popular crime stories.

One of the earliest Chaney-Browning collaborations at MGM, the studio at which both of them worked regularly from 1925 on, is a truly bizarre film about three ex-sideshow performers who hatch an elaborate scheme to steal jewels. Professor Echo (Chaney) is the ventriloquist with a gift for throwing his voice. Harry Earles is Tweedledee, the midget who flies into a fury of violence when he is laughed at for his height (in the opening of the film, we see him kick a small boy in the face). Victor McLaglen is Hercules, the strong man. Together, they form "the unholy three", and set about on their scheme. There is also a bit of romance, between Echo and Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch), whom Echo becomes extremely protective of partly through concern for the scheme, and partly from jealousy.

The scheme itself is quite elabroate. Echo disguises himself as "Mrs. O'Grady", bird seller, who throws his voice to convince customers that the parrots he sells them can talk. When the customers call back to complain, "Mrs. O'Grady" and her "grandson" (Harry Earles) take a trip out to the house, where they proceed to case the joint before coming back to rob it. Rosie begins a relationship with Hector MacDonald, the young shop assistant working in the bird store, which both threatens their plans and makes Echo jealous.

Things go horribly awry after Earles strangles the child of a wealthy victim in front of the Christmas tree in a rage. Before long, the detectives are on their trail, and things quickly unravel.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either of the strongest of the Browning-Chaney collaborations, or one of the weakest. The film is filled with gimmicks, and contains many memorable bits, most involving Chaney and Earles in their disguises, as well as the "speech balloons" that are used to convey the voices supplied for the parrots by Chaney. On the other hand, the plot itself takes a while to really get going, and lacks the narrative drive of their best collaborations. Part of the problem is that it's a little difficult to become too involved with any of the characters. The crime becomes the centerpiece of the film rather than the characters, which is ultimately all wrong for a film like this. Also like many of the other Browning-Chaney collaborations, it lacks the artistry that makes a film like "He Who Gets Slapped" and "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" so interesting even in their slower spots. Browning's framing of the shots is relatively straightforward, and does little to heighten the potential for interesting cinematography. There are shots, too, which feel as if they last longer than they need to.

It is interesting to compare the 1925 version with its 1930 remake, which is practically a shot by shot remake featuring some of the same cast (Chaney and Earles). That version was directed by Jack Conway, one of MGM's least distinct functionaries, and he seems to be copying Browning's original as a model of style. In some ways, the film actually works better as a talkie. It's certainly shot and edited like a talkie (in a way that, say, "The Unknown" isn't). The plot device of having the ventriloquist throw his voice is clearly better served in sound, but also heightens the absurdity of the whole idea when we actually hear Chaney talking in a "little old lady" voice.

"The Unholy Three" is probably the instrumental film in moving Chaney away from the crime dramas that he most often appeared in earlier in his career ("The Ace of Hearts", the brilliant "The Penalty"), and toward the sideshow gallery of the grotesque that made him an icon.

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