Monday, October 24, 2016

The Unholy Three (1925)

A circus is closed down after a brawl, so some of the performers … you know what. Just go back and read the first paragraph I wrote for the 1930 remake. I’ll wait.

Ok, so we’re back. Yea. that, almost exactly. Same story. Same scenes, same pacing, some of the same stars. Even the sets looked alike. The courtroom scene in the third act was someone different, but the end result was the same. Oh, yea, and the ape was different. But the biggest difference was the tone. There was a certain goofiness in the remake, while the original was a serious drama.

Suddenly one day all movies had to be talkies, Just about no exceptions would be tolerated. What’s a studio to do? I know, remake recent successful silent films. London After Midnight (1927) became Mark of the Vampire (1935), West of Zanzibar (1928) became Kongo (1932). There’s a whole wiki article on the subject. Hollywood loves doing the same crap over again, but here the motivation here was to take advantage of the gimmick of sound rather than to reinterpret it for a newer audience. A similar thing happened again with the gimmick of color, but to a lesser extent.

Let’s talk about the ape, shall we? While the remake used veteran gorilla Charles Gemora in a suit, the original used an actual ape. A chimp, to be exact. While chimps are amazingly strong (tear your arms off, they will!), they aren’t large and imposing for screen purposes. So, director Tod Browning was resourceful. He filmed the chimp in scaled down sets for the tight shots and used a dwarf dressed as Chaney with his back turned in others. The illusion wasn’t always successful but the attempt was appreciated.

For two movies that are almost duplicates, the difference in tone was startling. Despite being silent certain elements of the story were clearer, specifically  Echo and the pickpocket’s relationship. Also, this was more believable. Mae Busch was five years older than Lila Lee at the time of filming, and Chaney aged a ton in the five years since. All in all, The Unholy Three adds credibility to the argument that Tod Browning excelled at silent direction. Sound direction, not so much. AMRU 3.

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