Archive for The Unholy Three

The Monday Intertitle: Low Amperage Rampage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 30, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h56m25s142

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h58m12s178

WHERE EAST IS EAST — well, isn’t that everywhere? Despite its mystifying title, this is less perplexing than many Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaborations, being a fairly conventional melodrama in which Chaney, as scar-faced big-game hunter “Tiger” Haynes, tries to protect his beloved daughter Toyo (Lupe Velez) from her debauched mother Estelle Taylor.

At the climax, a gorilla runs amok, as it so often does in Browning pictures (see also THE UNHOLY THREE) — this one being set in Malaysia, the presence of the great ape is particularly unmotivated, though it should be noted that the excuse used in the earlier film is that Chaney is running a pet shop. And pet shops always have a gorilla or two on hand, don’t they? Yes they do. They keep them round the back so they don’t scare the budgies.

The movie is a soundie, so we get a few gimmicky bits of crowd noise, but this is a weak sister to WEST OF ZANZIBAR, which is grittier, darker and dirtier in every way. It feels like the censor has intervened to prevent the gorilla action getting too intense, which means the whole climax is offscreen, a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. This only really feels like a Browning picture in the queasy intimations of incest and perversity, which are kept low-key.

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h56m11s250

Also — rare use of early zoom lens — untranslated intertitles (anyone here read Malay? Or Chinese, possibly? Or maybe it’s just made-up squiggles from the MGM titles department?) — and the classic Browning device (featured in half his oeuvre, it seems) of an exotic animal appearing somewhere it clearly doesn’t belong. I love the opossum and armadillos of DRACULA, and here we have an extremely rare Malayan gorilla.

This vengeful female ape, Rangha, is played by one Richard Neill, in drag I guess you could call it, and is the most nearly spherical fake ape I’ve ever seen, Neill seems to have been playing leading roles circa 1910 (Hefty in THE ROMANCE OF HEFTY BURKE) and only declined to simian roles in the twenties, but was able to maintain some kind of fringe relationship to showbiz up until 1959, mainly playing humans. He died in 1971. “And leave showbiz?”

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h57m07s48

The Monday Intertitle: Mrs O’Grady — Old Lady

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-09-16-08h09m14s106

Two versions of THE UNHOLY THREE — I think I’d previously watched the talkie version, but zoned out a bit at the end — the key ideas had certainly lodged in my mind. And I’d convinced myself that I’d watched the silent but I hadn’t, else how could I have forgotten the giant chimp?

The original is a pretty perfect Tod Browning flick, with wild animal carnage, bizarre crime, ludicrous disguise and constant betrayal the order of the day. Plus an opening that serves up gat fat lady and Siamese twins in short order — plus this guy ~

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-21h21m30s79

The ready acceptance of this flick by contemporary audiences explains why Browning thought he could get away with FREAKS. After all, when midget Harry Earles kicks a child in the face in Scene One, you’re laying out your stall pretty fast. In addition to Harry’s Tweedledee there’s Victor McLaglan, oddly unrecognizable in silent movie pancake makeup and lipstick as the brutal strong man Hercules, and of course Lon Chaney as transvestite ventriloquist Mr Echo.

The talkie, directed by Jack RED HEADED WOMAN Conway, is very faithful, but replaced McLaglan with burly Latvian Ivan Linov, who seems engaged in a contest with Earles regarding who can garble their lines most incomprehensibly.

Oddly, the silent version begins with a slightly decomposed MGM lion, staring proudly yet mutely, whereas in the talkie he roars — but no sound comes out.

The big question about doing a silent movie about ventriloquism is not so much “Why?” — since silent movies were all they had, the question hardly arises — as “How?” The solution devised by Browning and his colleagues is perfectly in keeping with the film’s comic book tone –

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-21h25m50s144

Although an archetypal example of the Browning-Chaney-MGM school, the movie manages to prefigure Warner Bros pre-code crime flicks, the EC horror comic, and channel the pulp fiction weirdness of Cornell Woolrich. Without Chaney, this grotesque and carnivalesque approach to melodrama could not survive long at the studio — while Universal made out like bandits with horror movies in the ’30s, MGM made one attempt, FREAKS, and then ran scared. Their other weirdie, KONGO, was a remake of a Chaney picture. Had Chaney lived, the whole studio might have had a different personality.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-20h30m16s66

In the talkie, Charles Gemora rampages in his gorilla costume, as if to say “We had to end the thing SOMEHOW” — but the original’s solution is much stranger, deploying a chimpanzee in miniature sets, with Harry Earles doubling for Chaney (easily spotted by his bulbous baby head ballooning from under his hat like a Salvador Dali flesh-swelling). I haven’t seen many giant chimp effects — there’s the memorable fellow in the Fairbanks/Walsh THIEF OF BAGDAD, outfitted in black satin hot pants by Mitchell Leisen. And there’s the odd solution taken by MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which has Gemora costumed up in longshot but cuts to close-ups of an anonymous chimp (I like to think it’s Cheeta) to enhance/destroy the illusion. And in KONGA (not to be confused with KONGO) Michael Gough’s special mad science causes an ordinary household chimp to expand into a man in a gorilla suit. It’s as plausible as anything else in that film.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-20h28m32s55

McLaglan, Earles, Chaney.

The remake lacks some of the brutality (the child’s face doesn’t gush blood) but has good dialogue co-written by co-star Elliott Nugent (a decent pre-code director himself) –

Lady responds to talking parrot: “Isn’t that a biblical quotation?”

Chaney as Mrs O’Grady: “Yes. You see, this bird used to belong to Aimee Semple McPherson.”

Nugent: “It’s wonderful how your grandmother can make those birds talk.”

Lila Lee: “Aw, she could make Coolidge talk.”

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-20h27m42s92

We had fun suggesting stars for a remake, but few of our modern players can do surly/grotesque like Lon Snr. Maybe Pacino? But where would you find a dwarf small enough to star opposite him?

Buy it: The Unholy Three (1925)
Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection (He Who Gets Slapped / Mockery / The Monster / Mr. Wu / The Unholy Three / The Unholy 3)

Intertitle of the Week: Santa’s Little Helper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 2008 by dcairns

vlcsnap-387827

Fingers crossed. “Let’s hope it’s a good one / Without any fear.”

Frame-grabbed this a while ago and forget what it’s from, but at a guess, I’d say Tod Browning’s THE UNHOLY THREE, perhaps the greatest silent film on the theme of ventriloquism. Why weren’t there more? I blame the talkies.

Apart from Lon Chaney Snr. in drag as Mrs Grady, old lady, the film also boasts little man Harry Earles disguised as a baby. Earles’  fearsome scowl makes it a memorable characterisation: this cigar-chomping tot could easily lick Baby Herman from WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? The idea that a cute little “diddums” might suddenly turn into a hard-boiled career criminal as soon as the adults’ backs are turned is an alarming and compelling one. This is because it’s what really happens.

vlcsnap-295246

In the sound remake (Chaney’s only talkie), Earle’s very aggressive, German-accented delivery enhances the part even more.

In FREAKS, Earles gives his best-known perf, as Hans, the hapless circus midget persecuted by Cleopatra the trapeze artist, who marries him for his money (Wait – he has money, and he still exhibits himself for a living?) Able to play babies, criminals, unlucky romantics and a singing munchkin, Earles had a pretty impressive range, considering he was about four foot tall and, going by normal aesthetic criteria, a rubbish actor. But Robert DeNiro couldn’t do what he did, and with such apparent ease.

Earles lived to be 83, by which time he had to be fed with the aid of a microscope. Treated for a chest infection, the little trouper perished when the antibiotic attacked him instead of the virus.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 386 other followers