Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925)

This surprisingly good silent film combines the carnival and criminal worlds. In the beginning, Echo the Ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) is working a sideshow, along with Hercules the Strong Man (Victor McLaglen) and baby-faced small man Tweedledee, aka Little Willie (Harry Earles), and Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch) works the crowd as a pickpocket. Echo closes his act by saying “That’s all there is to life, friends…a little laughter….a little tear...” Eager to get out of this life, the three concoct a plan to burgle houses they scope out by selling parrots to the owners. Chaney is a convincing cross-dressed Granny O’Grady, and things go well until Rosie falls in love with the straight shop assistant Hector. Hercules and Little Willie go out to do a robbery without Echo and wind up killing the owner of the house they are robbing. They plant evidence on Hector and hide, but Rosie prevails on Echo to save him. Eventually he does, quite dramatically in the courtroom, and when Rosie arrives at the sideshow to make good her promise to stay with him if he saves Hector, Echo says he was just kidding and lets her go, his heart breaking but a smile on his face, and the movie ending with his motto repeated. Busch is remarkable for being able to play the moll with a sneer and mocking laughter and a demi-ingenue in love, and she’s lovely in both modes. McLaglen is big, and Earles is little. And Chaney’s repertoire of facial expressions is nothing short of amazing—his posture and gestures make his Granny convincing, though if you watch carefully you can see the other layer of character, Echo, just inside. It’s a tour-de-force performance, almost enough to make one forget about the absurdity of hingeing the plot of a silent movie on ventriloquism…

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