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)