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Saturday, February 2, 2013

THE UNHOLY THREE (1925; 1930)

Lon Chaney was rarely more in touch with the undertow of sexual masochism in his roles than in the films made with director Tod Browning who brought his own perverse angle along. They’d move on to better (and sicker) things, but this outing has its own rewards. Chaney plays a Side Show ventriloquist who disguises himself as a bitty old Grandma to open a Pet Shop, along with ‘Strongman’ Victor McLaglen and ‘Professional Midget’ Harry Earles. It’s really a front to rob rich customers who buy ‘dud’ parrots. This gives Chaney an excuse to pay a house call along with tiny Mr. Earles who, disturbingly dressed up as a toddler, ‘cases the joint’ while G’ma ‘throws’ her voice to make the dud parrot speak. Later, the gang pays a return visit and robs the place blind. The story grows more improbable as it goes along, conveniently so when a gorilla shows up to mete out some rough justice. Yikes! But even this barely registers as odd in the strange, compelling, illogical logic of Mr. Browning. The sound remake, directed by Jack Conway, sticks close to the original, with a slightly improved climax and tag ending, but less visual flair. Chaney, in his only Talkie, sounds fine, no trace of the throat cancer he’d soon die of, but Harry Earles’ accent is so strong, you only pick up a few words. (Though you can make out his gloating over killing a man who begged for his life. Chilling stuff.) A bigger silent-to-sound loss are the weak replacements for Victor McLaglen & Mae Busch, the original strongman and carny gal pal. The strange tenderness between McLaglen & Earles is just the sort of creepy touch that goes missing in the remake, details that add up.

DOUBLE-BILL: Chaney was still a supporting actor when he first worked with Browning in THE WICKED DARLING/’19. Another gang of jewel thieves in this one, plus another gal for Chaney to lose. This time when she falls for the ‘mark.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Most Hollywood histories cite Greta Garbo as the last silent star to take the Talkie plunge. But ‘Garbo Talked!’ for the first time in ANNA CHRISTIE, released February 1930 while this film, with Chaney’s Talkie debut, got released five months later, July 1930. And even that left Chaplin waiting in the wings.

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