Archive for The Unholy Three

Elephants, at your age

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2016 by dcairns


Continuing our journey through the films of the Marx Bros, while ignoring, as much as possible, the Marx Bros.

AT THE CIRCUS is rather good — I have historically undervalued it. It seems to be somehow slightly less memorable than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, the first two MGM Marx vehicles, without being any weaker in entertainment terms. There are some very good quips, the slapstick (to which Buster Keaton contributed his gag-writing skills) is often hilarious, Groucho gets one splendid number (Lydia the Tattooed Lady) and a couple of terrific set-piece scenes.

As the movie opens, we have the usual agonizing Wait for Groucho, during which romantic pseudo-leads Kenny Baker and Florence Rice make googly eyes and sing a dull song. As is standard, she is slightly more appealing than him. Kenny Baker lacks his famous namesake’s charisma and novelty size, but he has a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice which some might enjoy, I guess.


Then there’s the usual gruff businessman villain, a Scooby Doo stock figure without charisma, but James Burke does have some really good moments when he’s being attacked by a gorilla in the climax.

About that gorilla — Fiona pointed out that MGM are drawing upon their earlier hit(s), THE UNHOLY THREE. They don’t have a female impersonator hawking mute parrots, but they have a “midget” and a strongman and a mighty jungle beast.

Jerry Maren/Marenghi plays Little Professor Atom (watch his best scene here), looking like a ten-year-old boy if it were not for his dapper pencil mustache. The same year he would join the Lollipop Guild as a munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The scene in his room, with miniature furniture (Antic Hay!) and endless cigars emerging from Chico’s vest is one of the film’s highlights. One of those great scenes where Chico’s stupidity assumes almost diabolical proportions.

Jerry is still alive! Well, he was only 19 in 1939.


Goliath the strongman is Nat Pendleton, one of Shadowplay‘s favourite heavies, typecast as surly ruffian types. Here he’s initially unrecognizable in a Harpoesque wig and twirly moustache — he at least looks more like a strongman than that sagging hambone in FREAKS. (Sad to see none of the FREAKS ensemble turning up here — Koo Koo would have fitted right into a Marx Bros pic. But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.) Pendleton’s brand of grating menace makes him an ideal Marxian antagonist: Chico and Harpo get another standout scene as they attempt to search his room while he’s sleeping in it. This heavy is a heavy sleeper. This one fizzles out at the very end, but not before building to ridiculous excess.


Gibraltar the ape is another Shadowplay fave, make-up artist and part-time gorilla impersonator Charles Gemora, last seen gluing eyelids to Marlon Brando a few days back. Gibraltar makes the climax of the film the triumph it is (along with Fritz Feld’s irascible conductor, complete with pointy beard for Groucho to mock). He seems not so much dangerous as high-spirited, having a rare old time terrifying people on the flying trapeze, behaving not so much like a jungle beast as like a short Philipino makeup artist who’s just put on a gorilla costume and is having the time of his life.


Rounding out the team of baddies is vamp Peerless Pauline, played by husky-voiced Eve Arden, who has a nice human fly act with Groucho, walking on the ceiling. In the MGM films, Groucho’s horndoggery is dialled down, so he can only flirt with vamps and with Margaret Dumont. Somehow he’s always had a Spider Sense that allows him to detect who the leading lady, so he can restrain his wolfishness when she’s around. (LOVE HAPPY, dismal as it is, at least allows him to resume his moth-eaten lechery with Marilyn Monroe as letch-magnet.)


In shameless and senseless emulation of A DAY AT THE RACES, this movie also features a big production number where a lot of black people appear from nowhere to put on a show. But I quite like the Swingali number — director Edward Buzzell throws in some Dutch tilts for added vigour. The lyric “Is he man or maestro?” harkens back to DUCK SOUP. And he’s more resourceful at filming harp solos, which makes the Harpo interlude about 8% less dull than usual.


Then there’s Dumont, an essential part of the team — more important than the discarded Zeppo, it seems. Giant crane shot at her party — Rosalind Russell supposedly said you can’t do comedy on big sets but Mags makes a chump out of her here. Amidst all the cruelty, it seems a shame that, after her Mrs. Dewksbury has shed her pretensions and settled down to enjoy the big top entertainment (there’s more damn SINGING in this circus than I recall being usual under the big top), she still has to be fired out of a cannon and swung on the trapeze in her bloomers. Overkill! She’s already loosened up. How loose do you want her?

Great image of the orchestra drifting out to sea makes the film’s ending even better — maybe the best Marxian fadeout?


What happens after that fadeout? First violin leads a mutiny against the conductor while the brass section resorts to cannibalism?

The Monday Intertitle: Low Amperage Rampage

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



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.


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?”


The Monday Intertitle: Mrs O’Grady — Old Lady

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


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 ~


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 —


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.


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.


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.”


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)