29 October 2001 | zetes
Odd and Engaging
This Lon Chaney vehicle, directed by the great Tod Browning, is the story of three circus performers who begin to thieve jewels. They open a shop that sells parrots as a front. Chaney, a ventriloquist, dresses up as an old woman, one of his cohorts a man posing as the old woman's son, and the third, a midget, as his infant son (one of the major reasons to see this flick is that the same midget, here named Tweedledeedee, also plays Hans, the midget who marries the acrobat Cleopatra in Browning's later masterpiece, Freaks; in this film he actually is seen smoking a giant cigar, which, in Freaks, his fiancee suggested that he shouldn't smoke). One other circus performer, a woman, knows about their plans. Chaney loves her, but she doesn't reciprocate his feelings. The Unholy Three also hire a young dufus to help with the store. In case they get into trouble, they can always pin it on that guy. The store also sports a chimpanzee, humorously filmed so that he seems as big as a gorilla (when it is to walk through a doorway, it walks through a smaller doorway, for instance, than the actors do).
The story of the film is very interesting. It can also can be quite funny, quite suspenseful, and quite pathetic, especially when Chaney is trying to court the young woman. There's at least one masterful sequence, where a policeman almost discovers the jewels the gang has stolen. They hide it in a toy elephant, which amuses the officer very much. The film also uses ventriloquism quite marvelously - I assume that a lot of the audience of this film in 1925 only knew of ventriloquism by second-hand knowledge - they just knew that ventriloquists could throw their voices, not knowing what it would actually look or sound like. In a silent movie then, you could take full advantage of the audience's ignorance. When Madame O'Grady (Chaney's aka) is trying to sell parrots that don't actually talk as talking parrots, she throws her voice to fool the customers. Browning actually shows that the parrots are supposed to be speaking by drawing speech bubbles on the film in front of the birds! The climax also uses ventriloquism wonderfully: Chaney throws his voice to a man who is on the stand, apparently testifying - he moves his lips, but Chaney supplies the voice. Of course, we know that's ridiculous, but only a few in 1925 would have scoffed. 8/10.