Monday, August 22, 2016

The Unholy Three (1930)

A circus is closed down after a brawl, so some of the performers go into business for themselves. Echo (Lon Chaney), a ventriloquist, Hercules, a strong man, and Tweedledee, a midget open a pet store as a front. Echo, disguised as an old woman, makes his birds talk. When the customer complains that they don’t anymore, our heroes visit and case the joint for robbing later. The heat is on when a burglary goes bad leaving one dead. Our bumbling crew frame nice guy Hector then lay low. Also in the gang is Rosie, a pickpocket apparently in a relationship with Echo, and a Gorilla, because, of course.

The Unholy Three (1930) is a remake of a silent film of the same name from five years earlier. The older is considered the better film but this stands as Chaney’s only spoken role. Adding voice to his transformative skills, he not only did two voices (normal and old lady) but also performed all of the ventriloquism in the film. He would die six weeks after the film’s release robbing Hollywood of a true acting genius.

A long while back I wondered what was up with all the gorillas in early talkie horrors. Mostly, that was Charles Gemora. Not the gorilla, the guy in the suit. He played similar roles in The Island of Lost Souls and the terrible Ghost Parade, as well as dozens of others. He was a makeup artist by trade.

There are many parallels between this film (and its predecessor) with Freaks (1932). Dwarf Harry Earles appeared in all three films, Tod Browning directed the silent Unholy and Freaks, all three have a character named Hercules, and the Circus setting, a favorite of Browning. Browning did excellent silent films and earned some acclaim with Freaks and Dracula (1931) but let’s face it. His sound films were a mess. Maybe he couldn’t adapt with the radically new style of storytelling that sound ushered in, or maybe it was all the drinking. He never did a retrospective interview about his career.

As the silent 1925 version is largely considered superior, it’s the one I normally come across. I was happy that TCM ran this version so I could finally hear Chaney speak. Not a terrible film but little to recommend it otherwise. As a Chaney fan I was glad to see it, but to be fair, it deserves a slightly lower grade. AMRU 2.5.
“The way you look at me. You and that horrible little midge. You give me the creeps!”

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