Carnival of Crime
Lon Chaney was the man behind a slew of iconic characters, but one face among his stable of a thousand holds special significance. It's the only role he played twice, once in the first of multiple collaborations with Dracula's Tod Browning and second in what was his debut talkie...and final picture, period. The character was criminal mastermind Professor Echo, and the story was The Unholy Three, released during silent cinema's heyday in 1925 and remade with sound in 1930. Based upon a novel by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins, both films share the very same premise, similar scenarios, and verbatim chunks of dialogue. Yet despite all the common threads between the two, each movie is an experience unto itself, thanks mostly to Chaney, who shows off what made him a titan of the silent era in one version and the legend he was cut short of becoming in the other.
On the surface, they're simple sideshow performers. Echo (Chaney) is an expert ventriloquist; Tweedledee (Harry Earles) is a dwarf with a nasty temper; and Hercules (Victor McLaglen in '25, Ivan Linow in '30) is a musclebound strongman. But after their latest gig goes sour, the trio sets out as the Unholy Three, a gang of robbers with a foolproof way of covering their tracks. With Echo impersonating a sweet old lady, Tweedledee pretending to be a baby, and Hercules laying low as a handyman, the crooks use the front of an unassuming bird store to fleece their richest customers right under their noses. But when Echo's pickpocket girlfriend (Mae Busch in '25, Lila Lee in '30) starts to stray, tensions rise, causing his associates to set out on their own for the next job. Unfortunately, this heist ends in murder, forcing the Professor to make a choice between saving his own skin or ensuring his sweetheart's happiness.
While Chaney is known for the elaborate make-up techniques he employed in bringing certain characters to life, The Unholy Three allowed him to take a little breather. Slapping on a white-haired wig was probably the least taxing thing the man was ever asked to do, but that doesn't mean he was a slouch with the remainder of his performance. 1925's The Unholy Three sees Chaney and director Browning just about at the top of their respective games. For the latter, it was his first major success, one of many dramas centered on society's misfits that he'd go on to make (culminating in the release of Freaks seven years later). Browning does an effective job of plunking viewers into a shadowy underworld, but it's Chaney who gives it an unexpected dose of heart. Echo isn't completely cold (chastising his partners for carrying guns in the first place), with the movie's most intense scene being one in which he ponders saving his girlfriend's new beau from taking the fall for his crimes in court.
The Unholy Three had a wry darkness that made its more absurd qualities easier to swallow, and while its 1930 counterpart isn't as grim, most of what clicked about the original has been preserved. The biggest difference, of course, is that Chaney speaks, and although it's the only time he did so on film (passing away shortly after its premiere), he makes just as strong of an impression as you'd think he would. Not only does he adopt a tough-talking tone as Echo, he provides a variety of voices for the many roles Echo takes on all by himself. With apologies to Mae Busch, Lila Lee is a perfect fit as Echo's pickpocketing paramour, with their tumultuous romance coming to a more realistic end in the '30s version (albeit taking a more muddled path to get there). As the other members of the titular trio, I've no complaints about either Hercules, and while Earles is fittingly ornery in both pictures, his almost incomprehensible voice makes for a huge distraction in the 1930 cut.
No matter which rendition you pick up, you're in for criminal goodness with The Unholy Three. You might chuckle at the prospect of hoodlums donning dresses and baby bonnets to execute their misdeeds, but all it takes is bit of a taste of their cruel streaks and gallows humor for the films to let you know they're not messing around. Be your tastes geared toward the sound or the silent, The Unholy Three is apt to grip you no matter what.
(Both versions of The Unholy Three are available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.warnerarchive.com)