The Unholy Three

The Unholy Three ★★★½

Chaney Talks and Says Goodbye

"That's all there is to life... just a little laugh... a little tear" -Lon Chaney as Echo.

Exceedingly simplistic though Chaney's twice-made statement above in the role of Echo in "The Unholy Three" is, it's nonetheless remarkable that some of the earliest and last words spoken by the silent-film star in his one-and-only talkie should regard philosophizing life shortly before he died. He gave a lot more to the screen than "just a little laugh" and "a little tear," though. He achieved movie stardom playing roles other lead actors wouldn't be dreamt of accepting or being cast in--ones requiring physically-challenging and grotesque transformations, including his talent for self-applying elaborate make-up. Regardless of the rest of the movies besides him, his performances in, say, "The Penalty" (1920), "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) and "The Unknown" (1927) are impressive for his part. Fortunately, for this talkie, they remade one of his more self-referential silents, the 1925 "The Unholy Three," which is about his mastery of disguise and the creation of a character that drives the plot in his assuming the identity of a granny to pull off a jewel heist. With a character that is a ventriloquist, as well, the mastery extends to sound in the remake. "The Man of a Thousand Faces" becomes "The Man of a Thousand Voices."

The more of Chaney's films I see, the more apparent it is to me that he really was one of the all-time great actors--one of the few to truly transform the art on the screen. That's even evident in his final days in this creaky early synchronized-sound film. The silent version also benefited from the direction of frequent-Chaney collaborator Tod Browning, who also pursued unusual and circus-related subject matter, including his early talkie masterpiece "Freaks" (1932). Although he would go on to helm Best Picture nominees "Viva Villa!" (1934), "A Tale of Two Cities" (1935) and "Libeled Lady" (1936), Jack Conway's direction here is of little note--mostly copying what had already been done in the silent version, but limited in camera angles and close-ups by primitive sound stages. The only significant alteration is in the courtroom reveal, or twist, which, ironically, is visual in the talkie and audial in the silent.

Based on a book, the scenario is theoretically better served by a sound film; after all, it's about a ventriloquist named "Echo" who sells parrots as a front, and there are two key scenes (three in the silent version), one involving a car starting and the other a thrown object crashing--both being heard through doors, that are motivated by sound. It's telling, however, at least of my preference for 1920s silent films over early talkies, that so little is added by the insertion of synchronized dialogue and sound effects. I argue it even partly harms the importance of sound to the scenario, as the spectator hears characters speaking clearly and loudly (not a lot of mumbling or whispering in the days of primitive sound recording technology) about things other characters on the other side of a door are not supposed to hear, but this is contradicted by those two key scenes that rely on them being overheard through doors. So, the effect is inconsistent with sound, whereas one could image the characters speaking in hushed tones to avoid detection in the silent version, and crosscutting is employed in both films to reveal the sounds being heard by characters and whether or not by the spectator, anyways.

The addition of sound doesn't really help make gags such as, "She could make Coolidge talk," any less dated, either. All of that said, though, there's a minor improvement here or there in this one. The ape business is foreshadowed more. Besides Chaney, also reprising his role from the silent version, Harry Earles comes into his own in this one. Whereas he overly relied on the gesture of throwing his arm downwards in the original, the intervening five years and addition of sound recording results in a more naturalistic and diverse performance from him, which also does well to establish his conflicts with Echo and their pickpocket accomplice, Rosie. And whereas the scene involving the detective and elephant toy was better composed and edited to create suspense in the 1925 film, I think the courtroom scenes are somewhat improved here. Plus, we still get most of the good stuff from the first film, including the parroting and aping puns, the comically absurd scheme of running a bird store as a front for stealing jewelry, and the reflexive vehicle for Chaney's genius in disguise and acting. He was a talent sadly taken from us in his prime, but who fortunately lives on in his surviving films.

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