It's the talkie remake of Tod Browning's The Unholy Three (1925)
. More famously, it's also the last film of the great Lon Chaney and the only one that isn't silent. Two months later, he died of throat cancer.
Firstly, the two are fundamentally the same film. There are some minor plot tweaks towards the end, but nothing of huge importance. This version's even kept the two main stars from the original, Lon Chaney and the midget Harry Earles. They're close enough that I don't think it's possible to say that either is better, with each having its own strong points. In favour of the remake, we have:
(a) a snappier and more plausible story. The pace is faster, it held my attention better and it's all done and dusted in a brisk 72 minutes. This version also has the advantage of not beggaring credibility. The original's courtroom scenes made not a scrap of sense, whereas here the prosecution council's lengthy speeches make more sense of the legal peculiarities and I didn't have any difficulty in believing what happens. This time I could understand the authorities' reactions to catching criminals.
(b) sound is nice. It makes a film more accessible to a casual audience. People were going nuts back in 1930 to be able to hear Lon Chaney's voice, but furthermore sound is actually important for the plot. After all, Chaney's playing a ventriloquist.
(c) the new Hercules is more visually striking and there's nothing wrong with his performance, if you don't mind a foreign accent. The guy's name is Ivan Linow and he was from Latvia. Wow, he's huge. I also liked the new Rosie and Hector, although the latter is definitely more nerdy. You could almost call him a milksop, to be honest, but at least this makes him a more distinctive character than Matt Moore in 1925 and you're also never wondering why he's there in the first place.
Those are all laudable. Surprisingly I'm even neutral on replacing the original's chimpanzee with a man in a gorilla suit. It's quite a good suit and at least this avoids the boggle factor of a killer chimp. I'll now go through the factors that I think favour the original:
(d) Tod Browning isn't the director this time. There's just something a bit more edgy and surreal about Browning, making the silent version a freakier experience. Even the goofy stuff (e.g. the chimp) and the outright unbelievable stuff (e.g. the finale's plot developments) somehow come together into this surreal trip through the mind of a man with freaks and carnivals in his blood. The talkie is less startling. The plot making sense is almost a disadvantage, because it makes the film feel more predictable. Theoretically the talkie's finale has everything that the silent version did, but I found Chaney's sentiments more powerful when the plot's coming full circle back to the carnival world. What he says to Rosie isn't such a sacrifice when he's about to get on a train anyway.
(b) the acting's not as good. Firstly, Lon Chaney's off his game. Everyone in their right mind adores Chaney (and I do too), but in this film he hasn't completed the transition from silent acting and he has almost no chemistry at all with Lila Lee's Rosie. In their scenes together, by modern standards you'd occasionally call him bad. He also feels more one-dimensional than he did in 1925, too often being angry and aggressive. However that said, he's being short-changed by his lack of close-ups and he's still basically an outstanding actor who I've no doubt would have gone on to be a titan of this new medium if he'd lived. He's masterful in how he transforms himself, going in the blink of an eye from this sweet little old lady to a vicious gang leader who's capable of being scary and can believably push around even the monstrous Ivan Linow.
Meanwhile Harry Earles can't deliver dialogue, to the extent that it actually helps that you usually can't understand what he's saying. However he's still a massive presence in the movie and always wonderful to watch. Lila Lee has a few moments of silent-style theatricality, but I didn't mind them.
Overall, they're both good films. I'd probably say that the original is more unhinged and striking, but perhaps could have done with being a bit snappier. The remake has more pace and clarity. I'd probably suggest starting off a newbie with the latter, if only because it's a talkie and you'll probably find it easier to get people to sit down and watch one of those. I have to admit that I imagine Tod Browning's original as the proper version and the remake as being a bit diluted in comparison, though. Nevertheless I'm delighted that both exist and it's both pleasing and unsurprising that they both did excellent business at the box office. Chaney and Earles. I'll never get enough of those two.