The Unholy Three (1930)
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I thought this was a wildly entertaining story either way, though it's difficult to fairly judge one film or the other when they're viewed so close together like this. There are pros and cons to both movies for me, though I think I would give this 1930 sound re-do the edge over the previous silent. Of course, this rendition is notable not only for the fact that it's Lon Chaney's last film, but also that it's his one and only SOUND film. I found that I preferred Lila Lee in the role of Rosie O'Grady here as opposed to the silent actress, Mae Busch. I also thought this one had a better courtroom sequence, as well as a more satisfying wrap-up for an ending. The sound film moves more briskly, while the silent felt slightly overlong (though the other was still quite good, and well-directed).
It was an amazing treat to get to hear Chaney in his only talking film, and he actually sounded very much as I'd always imagined he would from his gruff exterior. It's essential to hear him doing the voice of the old woman, which was lacking in the original. On the other hand, it was sometimes difficult to always understand the dialogue spoken by Harry Earles (as Tweedledee the midget) and Ivan Linow (as Hercules the strong man). Jack Conway didn't do a bad job at all with this take, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if most fans feel partial to the silent original just because it was directed by the legendary Tod Browning. My advice is to see them both! **** out of ****
But Chaney's is not the only good performance here. Lila Lee and future director-screenwriter Elliott Nugent are both good as the young lovers, the former's scenes with Chaney being some of the best in the picture. And, just as much as he did in the silent version, midget Harry Earles conveys pure menace as the depraved dwarf Tweedledee, although a combination of early sound equipment and his thick German accent make many of his lines all but incomprehensible. Reducing that accent by half, he would do impressive work in "Freaks" and, of course, "The Wizard of Oz" later in the decade. The only other roles of any size fall to veteran character men Clarence Burton and John Miljan, and they prove themselves more than up to the task.
Probably the only way anyone will get to see this film, until MGM decides to release it on video, is on Turner Classic Movies, which is where I saw it recently. If you do see it, you're in for a rare treat.
In this film, Chaney did five voices; those of a parrot, an old woman, a girl, a ventriloquist, and the ventriloquist's dummy. His voice work was such that he had to sign a notarized statement largely as a publicity stunt, attesting to his versatile voice work in The Unholy Three. While the film is notable as a vehicle for the actor's vocal gymnastics, the story of this talkie version of the 1925 version is pretty much identical to the silent, but with a few exceptions: As a talkie, The Unholy Three is a bit less gripping by the sounds becoming explicit, as well as, lacking much of the macabre horror the silent version featured. Mae Busch is replaced by the far better Lila Lee, who was not only better as the roll of Rosie but much prettier as well. However, Victor Mclagen who played Hercules in the silent version was much better than his replacement, Ivan Linow. As far as, Harry Earles is concerned, his voice is completely incomprehensible. Not to mention, the man sitting behind the chair is no longer Tod Browning, but in fact, Jack Conway. Also, at the climax (differing much from the silent version), Mrs. O'Grady appears in court to testify on Hector's behalf. Under the strain of the cross-examination, Echo's voice cracks, and the prosecuting attorney pulls off his wig. Echo's subsequent confession clears Hector, but Echo is sent to prison. In the tearfully painful final scene, Hector and Rosie wave goodbye as Echo is sent off to prison by train.
The question that will forever remain, is if Chaney had lived, what else would he have accomplished? My guess is he would've easily conquered the movement in Hollywood toward more complicated make-up techniques, making any such effects icon look rather amateurish. Perhaps several nominations, maybe even an Oscar winner! He certainly would've played Count Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If that were the case, what would ever come of such actors like Fredric March, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff who became famous from playing their landmark Monster roll? He undoubtedly could've played anything and been anyone he wanted. His abilities were far beyond any actor of his or any other era. Unfortunately, out of 150+ films Chaney appeared in, less than 50 survived, and all we really have left of this brilliant, phenom of a talent are the monster movies that made him famous. Chaney was known for much more, for comedy and drama. In fact, he was also a highly skilled dancer, director, writer, singer, and comedian. And yet it was cancer that took him from film just as he proved he could successfully speak within the new realm of sound.
Lon Chaney could have been, perhaps, the greatest actor of all time, though, with much of his work missing, it's still justifiable that he is and beyond all the thousands of faces, there was one true Chaney: an incredibly gifted artist. Too bad we don't get to see it more often.
People have wondered what he could have done with Dracula, although it's been proved there was never any such proof Chaney was sought for the part. (Chaney was under contract to MGM, Dracula was made by Universal, and MGM wasn't about to loan out one of their top stars.) Still, MGM had some great films lined up for him, and more's the pity they never got made. No one's replaced him, nor will they.
The film is really out of control. Three out of work circus performers (Chaney, midget Harry Earles and strongman Ivan Linow) decide to become a trio of jewel thieves. Midget Earles has the best dialog, delivered in a squeaky voice- "I like it" (meaning the plan) "It's unholy!" This motley trio decide to disquise themselves very outlandishly (Chaney as an old woman, Earles as a cooing baby) They couldn't just lay low, or take assumed names? They had to resort this sort of lunacy? Lila Lee is also a wonderful treat here. Why didn't she do more talkies?
The plot has been outlined in detail elsewhere, but briefly it involves the criminal career of a trio from the "carny" world: a ventriloquist called Professor Echo (Chaney) who masquerades as an old lady, a strongman, and a midget who disguises himself as a baby. A pet shop is the front for their activities. The trio is accompanied by a thief named Rosie, and a patsy named Hector they've employed who is unaware of their identities and plans. When a heist goes awry the members of the gang turn against each other, and violence erupts.
Based on my recent viewings I feel the silent version holds up best. This off-the-wall material plays better in the silent medium, though I found it surprising how similar the two films are when viewed consecutively. When Jack Conway took on directing chores for the remake he must have had a print of the 1925 version available for close study, because there are several sequences in which he follows Tod Browning's editing rhythms and scenic compositions almost exactly. (One example of the latter: the shadow images of the title characters' silhouettes, thrown onto a wall while they plot together.) Even the dialog in the talkie frequently quotes the silent version's title cards verbatim. The biggest change comes in the courtroom finale, where sound allowed the filmmakers to utilize Prof. Echo's vocal talents more creatively. The outcome of the trial is also different in the remake, and somewhat more believable; although the audience at MoMA was respectful toward both films the verdict in the silent version was greeted with a burst of laughter.
Why is the silent version the stronger of the two? Certainly Chaney gives a charismatic performance in both films, somehow carrying the viewer past numerous credibility stretchers through sheer force of personality. In the talkie version he demonstrates a fine voice, deep and a little raspy (possibly a result of his medical condition), not unlike Wallace Beery's. Chaney is terrific in both films and is the main reason to see the remake. The 1930 version follows the original so closely we can't blame the writers for going astray, nor are the film's shortcomings entirely the fault of director Conway, at least where visual style is concerned, for he followed Browning's original almost shot-for-shot. No, I believe the difference has to do with the aesthetic gulf between silent and sound film. We're willing to suspend disbelief when watching a silent movie: we'll accept crazy events in silent cinema that would be unacceptable, absurd, or even horrifying (in the wrong sense of the word) in the world of sound. Case in point: one of the most outlandish elements can be found at the pet store, where the proprietors offer birds, hamsters, rabbits -- and a dangerous gorilla, confined in a big cage. No one seems to consider the gorilla's presence unusual. In the silent version, we note this oddity and roll right along. But in the talkie, the gorilla is laugh-provoking; and it doesn't help that instead of the actual simian used in the silent film, the 1930 version features a man in a highly unconvincing ape suit, the sort of tatty-looking costume you'd expect to find in a Bowery Boys comedy.
Talkies aren't just silent movies with sound added, they're a new world with different rules, especially where pace is concerned. Early talkies tend to drag, and this one is no exception. Although the remake follows the original closely it feels slower because director Conway and his colleagues hadn't mastered the new medium; they hadn't yet developed that rat-a-tat editing tempo we find in the gangster movies and musicals produced just a year or two later. And although Chaney handled his dialog deftly some of his co-stars did not: both strongman Ivan Linow and "baby" Harry Earles speak with thick accents that are difficult to understand.
It's fascinating to see (and hear) Chaney in a talkie, but the remake is fairly slow going. The second Unholy Three is a film that requires patience for the average viewer, though it's a must for anyone with an interest in early talkies, the silent era, and, of course, its star performer. I only wish Lon Chaney had recovered and lived to make more films, once Hollywood's directors had grasped the demands of the new technology and learned to make slicker, more stylish movies that would have displayed his talents to better advantage.
From the opening shot in a carnival, surprisingly seedy and sexy, the movie has nary a dull moment. The preposterous story is undercut somewhat by a silly romance, but this takes up relatively little screen time and is well integrated into the whole. Chaney is a wonder, visually and vocally, and one can only speculate on what sort of career he might have had had he lived just a few years longer. He died of throat cancer not long after this film was completed.
The movie succeeds as a nightmare vision, of what I'm not sure, perhaps life, even when it fails as melodrama. It is infectiously loony and has yet a logic to it that enables the viewer to suspend disbelief. Neither Chaney nor anyone else condescends to the material. This one is played absolutely straight. There is humor, but no winking at the camera, as the funny stuff arises naturally from the story. This is I imagine the sort of movie many avant garde film-makers have been trying all their professional lives to make and have never managed to pull off. It isn't easy to make a bizarre melodrama like this. Too much sophistication will ruin it. It helps also to have a theatre background, as much of what keeps this picture so watchable is its busy and always intriguing surface, which is managed with at all times with the impeccable vaudevillean timing of a juggler with five balls in the air, and who never drops a one of them.
For starters, the performances around him include two extremely bad examples of early screen acting--from awkward Lila Lee and a young man who would later turn his talent to directing rather than acting--Elliot Nugent. Nugent has the hapless role of an innocent, naive young man and plays it in hopelessly nerd style--a foretaste, perhaps, of his Broadway role as the timid professor in THE MALE ANIMAL. Anyway, his is the weakest performance in the film with Lila not far behind.
The tale itself is interesting enough to hold the attention--and especially chilling is the malice (pure evil) displayed by Harry Earle as the malevolent midget. Unfortunately, most of his dialogue is unintelligible due to his German accent, something director Jack Conway should have noted.
Only real satisfaction is watching Lon Chaney in one of his last roles. He is excellent and makes it painful to realize he was fighting throat cancer while filming was underway. A better script, production values, and tighter direction by Conway would have worked wonders to make this tale more chilling and believable.
Summing up: At best, it is an interesting example of Chaney's considerable talent despite the primitive acting technique displayed by Lila Lee and Elliot Nugent. Nugent's performance makes one grateful he switched to directing later in his career, with more satisfying results.
The title comes from a crack Chaney makes about him as the show ventriloquist, the strong man Linow, and the midget Harry Earles being an unusual gang. The three decide to pool their respective talents with Chaney being a master of disguise as a criminal gang. As a front they open Mrs. O'Grady's pet shop with Chaney in drag as little old Mrs. O'Grady.
The weakness of the plot is Lila Lee who knows very well what this crowd is up to. She's along for the ride and she falls for a true innocent in this film, Elliott Nugent. He clerks in the pet shop and when murder is committed during one of their heists, he's set up to take the fall for it.
However the film was done to display Chaney's talents in creating new makeup faces and to throw in the dimension of voice. Who would know that after this film was finished that voice was attacked by throat cancer and then stilled.
One thing I found interesting showing the problems of early sound. During Nugent's trial sequence a note is passed to his lawyer Crauford Kent and Nugent reads it and they discuss the contents. They should have been whispering and would have been later on in sound. But instead they talk in normal conversational tone that certainly would have disrupted the trial proceedings. The microphone obviously wasn't sensitive enough to pick up whispers and/or the actors weren't accustomed to sound to fake it.
Speaking of the trial, John Miljan who normally played villains in his career does good work as the District Attorney who unmasks literally, the whole criminal enterprise.
The Unholy Three was not the best film Chaney could have done to make a sound debut, still it's our only record of him on sound and he registers well in the new medium.
After fleeing a carnival bust, this threesome sets up a burglary ring with Echo also posing as an old lady pet shop owner. The gang also recruits Rosie (Lila Lee) as the sexy "granddaughter". This front works well enough for the gang until one of Rosie's suitors (Elliott Nugent) naively and innocently undermines the gang's unity.
This is a very enjoyable film, which has nice comic touches and some racy, pre-Code dialougue. The best scenes involve "Grandma" (Chaney in drag is a hoot!) fighting with the gang as the old lady. Other priceless scenes include "Baby" (Earles) casing a wealthy home ("pretty beads...) and where the gang eludes the police inspector watching Baby play around the Christmas tree ("my cow, gimme my cow!...). Very funny stuff.
This film is highly recommended to all film buffs -- and in particular, to fans of Lon Chaney. The real pleasure of course, is Chaney, who adds several vocal textures to his already incredible repertoire. He not only is the voice of Echo, but also "Grandma", a sideshow dummy, and a parrot! It is indeed a shame that we could not have had more from this incredible talent ...
The story opens where Professor Echo (Chaney), a sideshow performer, entertains with his ventriloquist act. He is accompanied by Hercules, the strong man (Ivan Linow), Tweeledee (Harry Earles), the midget, and his girlfriend, Rosie O'Grady (Lila Lee), who roams around the crowd picking the pockets from observant patrons. Following a police raid that puts the Brandon's Old-Fashioned Museum out of business, the next scene reveals Echo planning a new racket with his associates, working as thieves in the night. As "The Unholy Three," Echo disguises himself as a kindly old lady who owns "Mrs. O'Grady's Bird Shop"; Rosie as "her granddaughter"; Tweeledee plays the baby in the cradle; and Hercules as Granny's son-in-law and baby's uncle. For security reasons, Echo takes his pet gorilla from the sideshow, keeping him in the back room in case any of his partners in crime, particularly Hercules, decides to betray them. Also among "The Unholy Three" is Hector MacDonald (Elliott Nugent), a young student studying to become an architect who's obtained a position in the bird shop in order to be near Rosie, unaware that her "relatives" are a gang of thieves. When Echo discovers Rosie's love for the young man, he decides to make Hector the fall guy by making him the prime suspect, causing his arrest for the series of crimes and murder while the gang seeks refuge in a cabin out in the country, with Rosie being held against her will.
First filmed in 1925 that also featured Chaney and Harry Earles, with Mae Busch and Victor McLaglen as Rosie and Hercules, the same roles enacted here by the lesser known names of Lila Lee and Ivan Linow, who make fine, though not entirely great substitutes. While Chaney's voice(s) are articulate and clear, Earles is often hard to comprehend. Aside from this, Earles' character comes off both annoying and unlikable, which is probably the way he's supposed to be in the first place, being an instigator tempting Hercules to do things against his will. Hercules may be a strong man, but comes across as weak, considering his fear towards Echo's gorilla as well as failing to stand for himself against both Echo and Tweeledee.
Twelve minutes shorter than the original, with certain scenes slightly altered or eliminated altogether, everything appears to occur very quickly, with detailed actions described in words than depicted with extended scenes. Director Jack Conway makes several attempts in duplicating Tod Browning's style as presented for the 1925 version. The use of silhouetted images of "The Unholy Three" as they gather together planning their latest caper is revised, along with elements of surprise and suspense where a police inspector (Clarence Burton) plays around with the baby's toy elephant where the stolen necklace is actually hidden, and another at the trial where Echo plants a note for Hector to read, only to watch him toying with it instead. Aside from these revised highlights, only the ending differs from the original, for reasons explained in the TV documentary "Lon Chaney, a Thousand Faces" (2000). Comparing these films, each presented on Turner Classic Movies, it's sometimes hard to determine which is the better of the two, yet, the ending used for the remake is more in a logical sense. See and judge for yourself.
Although Chaney did became a success with his initial talkie, this was to be his one and only. Shortly after its completion, Chaney succumbed to cancer. Aside from Chaney's famous line, "That's all there is to life, folks, just a little laugh, a little tear," used in both movies, he finished his long and successful career with these final words, "I'll send you a postal card." The legend of Chaney ends here. The success and curiosity to THE UNHOLY THREE rests entirely on the man and the legend, even more so with this, his last hurrah. (***)
Both versions of THE UNHOLY THREE are very, very similar. The plot is very similar and in many cases they match scene for scene. Plus, two of the three Unholies are the same actors (Lon Chaney and Harry Earles). Now I am going to recommend something that really will enhance your appreciation of the 1930 version. As I am hard of hearing, I usually have the closed captions turned on and so when the heavily accented Earles spoke, I could tell exactly what he was saying. But being a midget with a high-pitched voice and German, I know even people with 100% normal hearing would struggle to understand all his lines. Audiences of 1930 must have felt the same way, though I am glad they still had him in the movie because he was such a malevolent little creature! I especially like how the ending was changed a bit--having Earles deliberately let the gorilla out instead of it just escaping. This diminutive man made for one of the more evil characters in film history.
I was particularly impressed with Lon Chaney in this film. While he was afflicted with lung cancer while he made the film, you can't tell by his performance and his voice was less affected than you might assume by the illness. His incredibly craggy and rather ugly face actually suited the character perfectly and despite having a reputation as a master of pantomime, you can see that had he lived he could have easily been a huge talking pictures star.
The plot is pretty much as the original, so I am not going to repeat it. Instead, there were a few changes. First, the gorilla is obviously a guy in a gorilla suit. This isn't as realistic as the 1925 ape, but for a fake ape, it's better than most. Plus I guess you can't blame them for not using a real gorilla--that might have proved to be a bit messy. Also, while the ending still pulls its punches a bit (you don't get to see the strong man killed--just everything leading up to it), it is pretty sick to watch Earles (whose head is off camera) being strangled to death! Pretty potent for 1930, though not super-surprising considering the Production Code had not yet been strengthened.
Overall, the film is exciting, well-paced and is one of the better scary films of the age. Well worth seeing and very little I would have changed in the story.
And the fact that Lila Lee is smokin' hot, and does an incredible stunt, tumbling down an embankment then running out into the road crying for help,. Wow!
"The Unholy Three" is a re-make of Chaney's 1925 film of the same name. It follows the same story line of three frustrated side show performers and one pick-pocket carrying out a series of robberies under the cover of a "Bird Store". Echo (Chaney), Tweedledee a baby faced midget (Harry Earles who repeats his role) and Hercules (Ivan Linov) form an alliance -- "The Unholy Three". Rosie (Lila Lee) is a thinly disguised street walker who picks pockets and has an "arrangement" with Echo.
Echo, disguised as Grandma O'Grady uses his skills as a ventriloquist to dupe rich clients into buying a "talking parrot". When the customer complains, Grandma and her "Grandson" go to the client's home. While Grandma again convinces the client that they have a talking parrot, "baby" cases the joint for a robbery.
Meanwhile Rosie strikes up a relationship with Harry the store's clerk much to the chagrin of Echo. On Christmas Eve, the three are planning another robbery but Echo becomes jealous of Rosie's romance and remains behind. The giant and the midget carry on and the client winds up dead. The trio then plans to pin the crime on hapless Harry to the dismay of Rosie.
Harry is arrested and Rosie is swept off with the "three" to a remote cabin. Meanwhile Harry goes to trial. Rosie pleads with Echo to intervene promising to remain with him if he does. Then Things get interesting and....................................
Chaney, who could have also been called "the man of a thousand voices" had he lived, uses his voice as the grandma, Echo, Echo's dummy and the parrot to great effect. He is very convincing as the old lady and it's interesting to see his transformation to the gruff Echo as soon as he takes off the wig. Harry Earles was easier to understand with sub-titles. Lila Lee is quite good as Rosie as she at first tries to discourage Harry from loving her. The best that can be said about Ivan Linov is that he was no Victor McLaglan (in the 1925 version).
The ending is somewhat different from the silent version. In this version Grandma takes the stand in court whereas in the silent Echo does so. There is an interesting "unmasking" scene in the court room that might remind Chaney fans of a similar scene in "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925).
Chaney might have gone on to bigger and better things in talkies but for his untimely death. He was rumored as being considered by Universal for their upcoming "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" films.
There is a poignant moment in the final scene where Chaney is standing on a train pulling away, seemingly is waving good bye to his fans. There will never be another Lon Chaney.
While this is not a horror film, it has a definite horrific moment near the end of the film that some may find very disturbing. It is difficult to like a film where the major characters are obvious crooks and killers, but what makes this better than average is Chaney's performance as the former ventriloquist who can make customers believe his parrots can talk and some really creepy shadowing. The other performers, particularly Lee, are outrageously melodramatic, and at times, it seems like they are speaking in silent cinema dialog rather than as characters in a sound film. But the movie avoids being creaky, so despite some of the bad acting, this is truly a historical film. The scene of Earle's toy elephant with the ruby inside and the detective playing with it is quite amusing, as is a reference to how a ruby Earle swallowed will eventually turn up. The court sequence at the end is truly gripping with a twist of fate that commences with wit and tragedy.
The film is a remake of the 1925 silent movie that plays almost the same, scene for scene, with a few minor changes. Lon Chaney and Earles each replicate their original roles. Chaney, as usual, is the master at acting (his only talkie) and makeup, and Lila Lee is appropriately cute and sexy. But much of the cast is mediocre. Because the Germanic Earles is incoherent, this writer had to view the movie in closed captioning to understand him (and the Latvian Linow). One additional point: the very last scene, with Chaney waving (to the viewers?) from the departing train seems to be symbolic of his impending death. Surely he must have known that he was dying, as he did less than two months after the movie's release.
The problem with this picture is that that Conway doesn't understand the material. I wanted Todd Browning the entire picture. This one is far too light and the mood isn't as foreboding as it should have been. The scene with the detective in the original picture is full of suspense but here it lacks any dramatic conviction.
Chaney's voice is the draw to this film and rightfully so. Well what did I think of it? I was somewhat disappointed, I wish he had done a picture that we hadn't seen before with it. He is very good but it takes away much of the mysterious allure that surrounded him and his characters. He does give a terrific performance though and I have no doubts that he could have enjoyed a long and illustrious career in the talkies. The fact is what we are seeing here isn't up to Chaney's full potential because keep in mind he was suffering from lung cancer at the time. The scene where Granny O'Grady goes for her cough syrup bi t at my soul. It is entirely fitting that Lon Chaney ends his career and sadly his life with that old gip "THat's all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear."