November by the Numbers: The Unholy Three (1930)
This month, the crack CMPS staff tackles a series of movies with numbers in the titles. Each different in era and tone, join us as we crunch the numbers of The Unholy Three (1930)…
RODNEY BOWCOCK: The scene opens upon a very, very pre-code circus side show. There is a tattooed lady, a fat lady who hasn’t seen her…feet in years, a ventriloquist (Lon Chaney), a strong man (Ivan Linow), a ‘midget’ named Tweedledee (sorry, that’s what they call him…he’s Harry Earles) and Rosie, a pretty pickpocket that just kinda hangs around picking pockets (Lila Lee; cute as a button). See, they’ve got a pretty good racket going fleecing the yokels that go for this sort of entertainment, that is until Tweedledee gets ticked off and starts a riot by socking a kid that was making fun of him (I’m reminded of the little person bank robber in the classic Looney Tunes short Baby Buggy Bunny). The cops show up, these four escape, and the whole place gets shut down as a public nuisance.
So, with that in mind, they really only have one choice, which is to pose as relatives of Rosie’s and open a pet shop, which seems to be a great cover, all things considered, when you figure in that they managed to bring a crazed gorilla with them, for no other reason than every movie is made better by a gorilla (assuming you subscribe to this Mike Schlesinger philosophy). All seems well until the clerk that they hired to take care of the pet store falls in love with Rosie.
The film is based on a novel by Clarence Aaron Robbins, and had already been made into a film in 1925 directed by Tod Browning. I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that silent films having immediately been shuffled off into obsolescence upon the release of The Jazz Singer, that this one was due for a remake a mere five years later.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really have the same creepy atmosphere as its silent counterpart, teetering from spookiness, to sort-of comedy to melodrama all in an hour and fifteen minutes.
ADAM: Tod Browning’s silent version doesn’t pull any punches or kicks for that matter. The movie’s tone is set the moment Harry Earles assaults the little boy at the sideshow. It’s instructive to compare this moment in the two versions.
In Browning’s scene, the kick is primeval while Jack Conway’s remake feels comparatively gentle. This is how Browning bottled lightning: make the kid more obnoxious, kick him harder, have blood pour from his nose, and whip the crowd into a frenzy. Comparing the two is a quick lesson in how to direct action.
RODNEY: The probable reason why someone would want to watch this film today is likely due to it being the only talkie appearance of Lon Chaney, and sorry to say, I didn’t think he was all that great. Now that’s not to say that I wouldn’t like him in other talkie roles, but to see him in a film that basically hinges on him being a great ventriloquist and being decidedly NOT a great ventriloquist can make for a tough slog.
ADAM: Yet, the fact that the “man of a thousand faces” was adding several voices to his repertoire was the major selling point of the film. “Did you ever hear Lon Chaney swear?” the ads teased! I agree, Lon Chaney’s ventriloquism is unimpressive, and I felt his disguise as the granny Mrs. O’Grady was equally unconvincing. I’m not usually on the same page as The Chicago Daily Tribune’s Mae Tinee, but her review—entitled ‘Unholy Three,’ Gaining Voice, Losing Thrills—states very plainly, “It seemed to me that almost anybody would feel there was something phony about the old lady.” Sorry I keep having to compare this to the earlier version, but Lon Chaney’s performance works better in silence. However, I did think he was mesmerizing in the dramatic scenes—he would’ve made an excellent pre-Code gangster.
RODNEY: Still there are cast members to recommend this film for, not the least of which is Harry Earles (sometimes credited as Harry Doll) who makes as much of the role as he possibly can. He spent most of his time with Barnum & Bailey Circus, but still found time to make appearances in movies better than this, such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and one of my very, very favorites, the wonderful Block-Heads with Laurel & Hardy.
ADAM: One of my gateways into classic-era film was Freaks, another Harry Earles film. That squeaky and at times unintelligible voice is imprinted on my mind. Tweedledee is the cold heart of the movie, and Earles really gives the role his all, whether gloating over a murder or throwing an outsized tantrum.
Latvian pro wrestler Ivan Linow makes a sizable impression as Hercules, a role handled by Victor McLaglen in the silent. Ohio-born Elliott Nugent is quite funny as the naïve pushover Hector. He’s not the only Nugent to work on this film, Elliott’s father J.C. contributed to the script.
RODNEY: I’d also be remiss not to mention the cute as a button Lila Lee. Lee appeared in literally dozens and dozens of films and had a pretty exceptional silent career and transitioned well to talkies until a scandal involving a car salesman Reid Russel that she was dating caught up to her. After this, her career never really bounced back. She managed to work for a few more years, in diminished roles, and found work on soap operas in the 50s, but couldn’t manage to bounce back. It’s a shame because she’s really sympathetic in this role, more so than Mae Busch in the silent version. She wrote a biography that I bet would be a good read.
The Unholy Three is a movie that is worth seeking out for the novelty of seeing Lon Chaney talk, and while it’s a competent production, it’s also one that you may find fleeting in your mind mere days after you see it. I’m gonna go two and a half stars on this one.
ADAM: In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Elliott Nugent spoke about how closely they tried to adhere to the earlier iteration of The Unholy Three, “We would run off sections of the silent version piece by piece—Jack Conway, the director, helped us through it all—then discuss its sound possibilities and vary it to those needs.” I think this explains the problem with the movie. Rather than trying to create something new, an independent work of art, the cast and crew mimicked what had come before. In the process they created a film that feels a little lifeless. I’m going with two stars, with the caveat that this is still essential viewing for fans of Lon Chaney.