16 July 2005 | wmorrow59
Lon Chaney gives a memorable performance in a most unusual role
When I was a kid I was an avid reader of Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and it was there I first heard about the director Tod Browning. He and his work were prominently featured in the pages of FM, where the (still missing) London After Midnight was often lamented as the Holy Grail of lost films. There were also frequent references to The Unholy Three in both its silent and talkie incarnations. It took me decades to finally catch up with the silent version, and my response is kind of schizo; objectively, I'm aware that in a number of ways it's absurd, and yet it's great fun, and highly entertaining. And the main reason the movie works so well, I believe, is the sheer charisma of Lon Chaney.
Chaney and Browning worked together many times, but this was their biggest box office success. Despite the general impression to the contrary their collaborations were not exactly horror films. In fact, as far as I can determine not one of their movies featured any supernatural elements; even the vampire of London After Midnight turns out to be a police inspector in disguise. Most of the Browning/Chaney films are crime melodramas with bizarre details stirred into the mix, often involving people from the lowest rungs of show business, such as circuses and carnivals. Chaney's characters in these stories are often afflicted with an intense, unrequited passion for a young woman (most memorably and disturbingly in The Unknown), and his behavior and actions are affected by this obsession, usually to his disadvantage, sometimes fatally so.
By the time The Unholy Three was produced Browning had developed his recurring themes and motifs into a highly effective, time-tested formula. His directorial technique is stylish in an unobtrusive way: for special emphasis he'll highlight shadows thrown on a wall, forming a silhouette of the three title characters, but otherwise he generally avoids flamboyant touches. With a story like this, he doesn't need them. The synopsis has been outlined elsewhere, but briefly it involves a trio of crooks from the sideshow world: Professor Echo the ventriloquist (Chaney) who disguises himself as an old lady, a strong man (Victor MacLaglen), and a midget (Harry Earles) who masquerades as a baby. A pet store serves as a front for their activities. The trio is actually is quintet, as they are accompanied by a thief named Rosie (Mae Busch) and a bespectacled patsy named Hector (Matt Moore) who is somehow oblivious that his employers are, well, not what they seem. Hector takes everything in stride. It's perfectly normal to him that the pet shop where he works offers not only birds and rabbits but also a dangerous gorilla in a big cage. So hey, if Hector takes it for granted, why shouldn't we? The plot turns on a jewel heist that goes awry, in part because of Prof. Echo's jealousy over Rosie. However, in this film the story is secondary to the sinister atmospherics.
While it's Chaney's performance that drives the film the supporting cast is solid -- more so, I feel, than in the talkie remake -- and the characters' interactions have a "rightness" that persuades us to overlook numerous credibility issues. As in the best Hitchcock films, we're willing to ignore gaping plot holes in order to savor the set pieces. One of the most effective sequences features a police inspector who interrogates the trio in the wake of the jewel heist. He's unaware that the jewels he seeks are inside a toy elephant at his feet, a toy that supposedly belongs to the "baby." The scene is suspenseful and funny, and, for me, the sight of Harry Earles disguised as a baby is almost as creepy as anything in an out-and-out horror movie.
The unlikely twists increase to the point of craziness in the final scenes, yet the story follows the consistent internal logic of a deeply weird dream. It's no surprise this was such a big hit in its day. I was fortunate enough to see a newly restored print of this film at the Museum of Modern Art this summer, back to back with the talkie remake. The silent version in particular went over quite well, though admittedly there were chuckles when a title card glibly announces the outcome of Prof. Echo's trial. Afterward in the lobby viewers were enthusiastic about the film, and about Lon Chaney. Seventy-five years after his death audiences are still impressed with his magnetism. So here's a tip of the hat to Forry Ackerman, who saw the Browning/Chaney films when they were new, and was right about this one all along!