By Stephanie Star Smith
April 9, 2003
Lon Chaney, Sr. was a bit of a genius.
In this age of latex prostheses, contact lenses and CGI, an appellation like Man of a Thousand Faces doesn't mean a whole lot. After all, with the tools available in the 21st century, any one of us could alter our appearance to the point of being unrecognizable to our friends and family with little effort (albeit with some considerable expense).
But in the Hollywood of the silent era, none of these high-tech options were available. Most actors could make themselves look older, or dye their hair, or dress in drag, but you could still tell it was Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, and none of these disguises were particularly startling to audiences.
Then came Lon Chaney.
The man born Leonidas Chaney was almost a chimera, able to take on fantastical shapes no mere mortal should have been able to achieve, unrecognizable even to his nears-and-dears in most of the 154 (!) films he made during his too-short career. Much of his work, alas, has been lost to the ravages of time, but a few of the films that solidified his reputation as a make-up artist extraordinaire have survived to modern times.
One such film is The Unholy Three. It has the rare distinction of being perhaps the only silent film that was later remade as a talkie, and a successful one at that; turned out audiences were as enthralled by Chaney the sound-era star as they were Chaney the silent film icon. The story of love, betrayal and redemption amongst thieves lent itself well to both silent and sound-aided telling, and Chaney was poised to become one of the nascent stars of the new Hollywood when his career, and ultimately his life, was cut short by throat cancer.
So why should contemporary audiences bother with a movie that has no color and no sound?
Mostly because Lon Chaney is a damned fine actor. Even without employing his amazing make-up techniques, Chaney can capture and hold a viewer's interest just by his acting. Granted, one has to pay attention to a silent film, far more so than one with sound, but this serves to draw the viewer in and make the story more engrossing. One hears how the silent film star's acting styles seem exaggerated now, but it's really not more over-the-top than, say, Al Pacino. And once you get involved in the story, any incongruities to the modern style disappear.
And the story itself is pretty entertaining. Much like another tale as old as time, The Unholy Three's story of the power of love to transform and ennoble has been around as long as man has woven narrative for his fellow men. But as with any oft-told fable, the plot seems fresh, and the happy ending seems well-earned and...well, right somehow.
So the next time Turner Classic Movies airs this in one of its silent film festivals, sit yourself down and give it 86 minutes of your undivided attention. You'll be well rewarded.