Classic Film of the Week #14: The Unholy Three (1925) & (1930)

Today, remakes face a lot of backlash. Hollywood has churned out so many poor ones in recent years that the very idea of trying to update a classic film causes many cinephiles to bristle; however, the truth is that remakes have always been a major part of Hollywood, and there are actually many original-remake pairings out there that are well-worth a watch. A perfect example is Lon Chaney's The Unholy Three, originally released in 1925 and remade in 1930 as a talkie. For the most part, it's a shot-for-shot remake, but the small differences between the two films offer some pretty interesting commentary on the changes in Hollywood in the transition from silence to sound--and on top of that, they're both just really great films.
The Unholy Three was directed by Tod Browning in 1925, and then Jack Conway took it on in 1930, with both films starring the legendary Lon Chaney. The story follows Echo (Chaney), a talented ventriloquist working in a circus sideshow with Rosie (Mae Busch/Lila Lee), a pickpocket who targets his audience and splits the proceeds with him after the show. Other acts include Hercules (Victor McLaglen/Ivan Linow), a strong man, and Tweedledee (Harry Earles), a 20-year old who is just 3 feet tall. When Tweedledee causes a ruckus and the police close down the circus, the trio of performers devise a new robbery scheme, this one involving a parrot shop, an old woman (who is actually Echo), and a bevvy of rich customers. They drag Rosie along for the ride, but it's not long before she starts falling for their unwitting fall guy Hector (Matt Moore/Elliot Nugent), the store's cashier--a predicament that sends the whole plan into chaos as Echo jealously tries to thwart the budding love affair.

The thing that strikes me most about The Unholy Three is how simple its story is. Breaking it down, it really isn't any different from millions of other crime films out there; instead, what makes it special is its characters and the actors playing them. Lon Chaney especially is one of my very favorite actors, and I think these films are a perfect representation of his career and the kind of roles he loved to play. His quote that bookends both versions of the film, "That's all there is to life. A little laughter... a little tear" is a wonderful summation of the complex, tortured characters he made a career out of portraying, and I think it's fitting that this line wound up being the last one he ever delivered to his fans. Known as the Man with a Thousand Faces, these films give us two different faces in the same picture: Echo and Mrs. Grady. As ridiculous as the Mrs. Grady disguise is, Chaney sells it completely, and the gag of Hector addressing dear old granny who is actually also in love with Rosie and trying to get rid of him is a lot of fun. Along with Chaney, I was really impressed by Harry Earles. Most famous for his role in Freaks, where he plays a "freak" who is actually a perfect gentleman, it was fun to see him here as a legitimate devious criminal--the scenes where he rips a cigar out of his mouth in order to start babbling and playing with a train for the benefit of his mark really have to be seen to be believed. He puts in an equally good performance in both versions of the film, but unfortunately the poor sound quality of the 1930 version, combined with his high-pitched voice and accent, renders his dialogue almost unintelligible--I was very glad to have seen the silent version with its title cards first so I knew what he was saying! The rest of the actors differ between the two versions, but I thought all of them did a good job--I was especially fond of Nugent as Hector in the talkie version, who is less stuffy and more fun than Moore in the original, making Rosie's affection for him more believable.

I think the greatest appeal of The Unholy Three, aside from its great cast, is that it really embodies that old adage of "they don't make them like this anymore". Nowadays, period films about the circus or over-the-top heists are very stylized, dipped in the golden glow of nostalgia and seeped in glamour--think The Prestige or Water for Elephants. Here, we see something much closer to reality: the circus is dingy and the performers are a bunch of unhappy misfits who turn to crime because they can't find anything better to do. But even without that glossy sheen, it's a highly entertaining story: it's simple, but compelling and lots of fun even on a re-watch. Something that I did find interesting about the remake was that it contains a lot of dialogue not in the original; people talk much faster than title cards allow for, so lots of lines had to be added in to make up the difference. While the additions don't necessarily improve the film, they were fun to see, especially an extended scene between Mrs. O'Grady and Hector in the bird shop. Watching the two versions back-to-back is almost like watching the theatrical and extended cuts of the same film.

As I watched through the 1930 version, I was really beginning to think the two versions were inter-changeable--a first-time viewer could simply choose between the versions based on personal preference--when suddenly I reached the ending. The pre-Code era is known for its lack of censorship, so it's easy to forget that the old guiding hand of morality was still quite strong even then, and it's particularly evident here in the alteration to the ending. In the 1925 version, Echo is acquitted of his crimes and ends the film working as a ventriloquist in a new circus--right back where he was at the start of the film. While a bit unrealistic in the legal sense, I thought this ending was perfectly fitting: it clearly sends the message that crime doesn't pay without being preachy about it, and offers Echo--a character the audience is intended to sympathize with--a second chance to live a life without crime. In the 1930 version, no acquittal is given, and the last shot has him handcuffed to a police officer, boarding a train to prison for an undetermined sentence. While perhaps more realistic, this ending simply doesn't fit the story: we don't want to see Echo going to prison, and him getting sent there doesn't add anything to the film's moral message that the original ending didn't already have. It's a perfect example of how the Production Code was capable of killing the subtlety in a script, forcing conclusions that hit the audience over the head with "decency" but are then lacking in artistic integrity. While the 1930 version is still enjoyable--and the changes aren't nearly as bad as some other, more famous victims of the Code--this modification to the ending does make Tod Browning's original the definitive edition of the story.

Filmmaking has come a long way since the era of silents and early talkies, but one thing remains constant: a good film is a good film, no matter how much time passes and how much technology changes. Both incarnations of The Unholy Three feature great casts, a compelling story, and memorable characters that ensure the films remain entertaining and worth seeing today--although if you only choose to watch one, make sure it's the 1925 original! A true, un-compromised masterpiece.


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