Monday, December 17, 2012

The Unholy Three (MGM, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the “Sunday Silent Showcase” on TCM: The Unholy Three, the 1925 vehicle for director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney (Sr.) that marked their reunion at MGM after having originally worked together at Chaney’s previous studio, Universal. It’s a typically wild Browning script (based on a story by Tod Robbins, whose “Spurs” later provided the plot basis for Browning’s most infamous film, Freaks) in which Chaney plays Echo, a ventriloquist in a carnival sideshow. Actually the film might more accurately have been called The Unholy Four, since Echo’s entourage includes little-person performer Tweedledee (Harry Earles), strong man Hercules (Victor McLaglen, one actor who got more hammy — not less — with the advent of sound) and pickpocket “Sweet” Rosie O’Grady (Mae Marsh, who usually was the “other woman” both on screen and in real life — her brief affair with producer Mack Sennett broke him and Mabel Normand up — but here is quite personable and good in the female lead). Browning’s background in carnivals led him to the “carny” world for a subject again and again, and here the opening reel showing Rosie working the crowd and sharing her ill-gotten gains with Echo and Hercules being ballyhooed as an example of how strong you can get if you don’t smoke — just before he turns away from the crowd, goes behind his backdrop and lights up — are not only entertaining but are quite amusing for a film that has the reputation of a thriller.

After a fight with the management the Unholy Four bolt the carnival and put into action a plan that Echo thinks will make them millions: he will pose in drag as O’Grady’s aunt and open a pet store, where he will sell “talking” parrots to rich customers. Since the parrots only appear to talk because Echo is using his skills as a ventriloquist, the customers will complain — and Aunt O’Grady will offer to come to their homes, with his “niece” and her baby (Tweedledee disguised as a baby and being pushed around in a baby carriage), to see what’s wrong with the parrot. Actually, of course, they’re there to case the place, and later on Echo (in male dress), Hercules and Tweedledee will break in and steal the owner’s jewels. Only things start to go wrong when Hector MacDonald (Matt Moore, who goes through the entire movie with a look that makes him seem slightly nauseous and is one of the least attractive silent-film leads even though in general silent movies didn’t value physical attractiveness quite as much as sound films did) and Rosie fall in love — and they go further wrong when, after casing the home of John Arlington (Charles Wellesley), Echo decides he’d rather stay in with Rosie than go out on the robbery (he’s hoping his physical presence will keep her from transferring her affections to Hector), and so Tweedledee and Hercules do the crime alone, surprise Arlington at home and kill him — and in a very Browning-esque touch they return to the pet store and mock Arlington’s pleadings for his life. Echo, needless to say, is furious; he’d planned his crimes meticulously so the Unholies would never risk facing a murder rap, even forbidding them from carrying guns on the job.

The Unholies hatch a new plot to frame Hector for both the robbery and the murder, and in order to keep Rosie from coming to court and backing up his alibi (which is that he was working late at night in the pet store with her and her “aunt”) Hercules and Tweedledee kidnap her and hold her in a mountain cabin. Echo is in on the kidnap plot but he offers Rosie a choice — he’ll return to the city and alibi Hector if she’ll agree to leave Hector and stay with him instead — and in the courtroom, in the middle of the prosecutor’s closing argument, he tells Hector’s attorney to ask the judge for permission to put Hector on the stand and tells Hector that when he testifies he should say nothing — just mouth the Lord’s Prayer on the witness stand — while Echo, using his ventriloquist skills, will literally put words in his mouth, admitting the existence of the Unholy Three and how they actually committed the robberies. Eventually Rosie escapes her kidnappers with the help of Echo and his pet ape (actually played by a three-foot chimpanzee instead of the usual actor in an ape suit — you can tell because the chimp opens its mouth and bears its teeth, whereas ape suits have always been problematic because there’s no way to get the mouth to open realistically — and according to an “Trivia” poster, in order that the ape and Echo would appear to be the same size Browning had Harry Earles double for Chaney in the scenes with the ape and Echo together), and Echo makes a personal confession that apparently lets both him and Rosie off the hook legally — since the final scene shows him gallantly giving up Rosie and sending her back to Hector (though the exposure of the Unholy Three has led to the closure of the pet store they were using as a front and one wonders how Hector and Rosie will get by financially now that they’re both out of work), while he returns to the carnival and hands out the same spiel he’d been doing at the start about how life is sometimes a laugh and sometimes a tear (a line Robbins and screenwriter Waldemar Young obviously ripped off from Chaplin’s The Kid — and indeed Chaney’s performance in the final scene is surprisingly Chaplinesque given his reputation as an actor who explored the grotesque) just before he offers to sell his audience members a joke book.

The Unholy Three had at least one direct remake and quite a few films drew on it; two years later Harry Earles once again played a little-person thief who masqueraded as a baby in the early Laurel and Hardy film Sailor Beware (the high point of his performance is his big gag scene with Laurel, in which Earles is a grown little person impersonating a baby while Laurel is a baby in a full-sized adult male’s body; when Earles gets what he wanted from Laurel and abruptly breaks up their game, Laurel turns to the camera and whines, “But I thought it was all in fun!”). In 1930 MGM did a talkie remake of The Unholy Three (directed not by Browning but by Jack Conway) which turned out to be Lon Chaney, Sr.’s only sound film (he died of throat cancer shortly after it was finished — ironically, he lost his voice in his last days and could only communicate with the sign language he had learned from his deaf-mute parents) and which altered the ending considerably: in the sound version Chaney shows up to testify at the trial in drag but is exposed when he inadvertently slips out of his falsetto into his normal masculine voice (whose striking resemblance to James Cagney’s may have led to Cagney’s casting as Chaney in the 1957 biopic Man of a Thousand Faces), and at the end he’s actually taken into police custody for the robberies but he makes it seem to Rosie as if he is leaving to rejoin the carnival, when he’s actually going to prison. (That’s the difference between the so-called “pre-Code” era of 1930-34 — the Production Code was actually written in 1930 but it wasn’t until the Roman Catholic Church’s “Legion of Decency” campaign against sex, violence and horror in movies that it was strictly enforced and the head of the Code Administration, Joseph Breen, was given the power to censor films both in script form and once they were in otherwise final cut — and the real pre-Code silent period in which Browning, Robbins and Young could actually have both Echo and Rosie escape any legal punishment for their crimes.)

The Unholy Three also got semi-remade as The Devil Doll in 1936 — there the story source was supposedly Burn, Witch, Burn, a novel by A. A. Merritt, but Browning, once again in the director’s chair, and his writers (Garrett Fort, Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim and Richard Schayer) remodeled it to resemble The Unholy Three, with Lionel Barrymore as a mad scientist who discovers a way to shrink people to doll-size and uses his doll-people, rather than a normal little person, to sneak into houses and help him rob them: Barrymore’s character also sets up a shop as a front for his crimes and runs it in disguise as a woman. (It was the second time Lionel Barrymore remade a Chaney role for Browning: the first time was The Mark of the Vampire, a remake of London After Midnight.) The Unholy Three holds up quite well (though I find the more bitter ending of the sound remake works better), not really a horror film but a quite good criminal melodrama with endearingly quirky characters, the sort of oddball story Tod Browning did well. Both Browning and Chaney were more comfortable with films that stayed within the realm of normal physical possibility than with out-and-out supernatural horror or science fiction — which may be why Dracula (which Browning directed at Universal with Bela Lugosi after Chaney’s death necessitated an emergency recasting) is relatively dull and it’s probably just as well the projected Chaney Frankenstein never came off.