Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Unholy Three (Jack Conway, 1930)

Almost two years ago, I wrote about Tod Browning's 1925 weirdo silent film classic The Unholy Three. Here's a link to that review. A short but cinematically eventful five years later, Hollywood remade The Unholy Three as a talkie, with Lon Chaney and Harry Earles reprising their roles. What results is an interesting curiosity that closely follows the earlier film's plot, structure, and beats, but is a far less satisfying experience. Film is a visual medium, which seems like such a blatantly obvious statement that I shouldn't even have to mention it, but too many people look at film primarily as a storytelling mechanism. Here we have two films with the exact same story, told in the same way (though one is silent with intertitles and the other is a talkie) and in the same order, with two of the same actors, and the 1925 film is a work of visual art while the 1930 remake is just a filmed story.
The remake is not a failure, but it is a more pedestrian, less thrilling experience if you've seen the original. The story is so ingenious and weird and needlessly complicated that it remains compelling a second time. Lon Chaney, in his only sound film (he died later that year from a throat hemorrhage), has the same charisma and presence he exhibited in his many silent film classics (though his ventriloquist dummy is less creepy in this version), and Lila Lee, taking over the Rosie role from Mae Busch, handles her complex character with a naturalism that feels modern.
On the negative side, director Jack Conway is a Hollywood pro who dials down the strangeness and personality that Browning can't help but exude, and the film's best moments are direct lifts from Browning's framing and the actors' movements in the '25 film, though sometimes shot from the opposite side of the set. Harry Earles, a hilarious and disturbing presence in the silent film, is an almost indecipherable mushmouth in the sound film. I could only pick up about every fifth word he said. Credited as Tweedledee in Browning's film, Conway lists him as "Midget" in the credits, with the other characters referring to him as "the midge." Browning, who worked in circuses, traveling carnivals, and vaudeville prior to his film career, has a more respectful and nuanced approach to his "circus freak" characters than Conway does. Ivan Linow as Hercules in this film is a duller, flatter performer than Victor McLaglen in Browning's film. Last but not least, the ape in the remake is a man in an ape suit, while Browning used a chimpanzee and trick camera angles to create a wilder and more visceral experience.
I don't know what else to say about this film. It sticks so closely to the original without capturing its magic but is a fascinating piece of film history. It's the only place to hear Lon Chaney's voice and for many years was much easier to see than the Browning film. And now I'm sad that Lon Chaney won't be appearing in any more films on our list. He and Conrad Veidt dominated the 1920s world of horror, suspense, crime, and indescribable strangeness, and I salute them for it.  

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