THE UNHOLY THREE, 1930
Starring: Lon Chaney, Harry Earles, Ivan Linow, Elliot Nugent, Lila Lee
A sideshow ventriloquist, midget, and strongman form a conspiracy known as "The Unholy Three" and commit a series of robberies.
The Unholy Three is a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film of the same name. If you’re familiar with Tod Browning, then you know that his films commonly revolved around strange characters (e.g. the sideshow performers in The Unknown and Freaks, vampires in London After Midnight and Dracula.) While I haven’t seen Browning’s version of this film, I imagine that this version by Jack Conway is much improved based on the addition of sound. The main character, Professor Echo (Lon Chaney), is a ventriloquist and several scenes take advantage of this fact in a number of gags.
Besides Echo, other side show performers include “the fat lady,” the fire eater, and a pair of conjoined twins. Tweedledee (Harry Earles), a dwarf who is referred to by the others as “Midge,” is forced to leave the show after he kicks a baby during a performance. Echo asks him (and Hercules, “the world’s strongest man,” played by Ivan Linow) to be a part of a criminal operation; the three will steal jewelry from the wealthy patrons of a pet shop. Echo pretends to be the store’s owner and the grandmother of Rosie O’Grady (his girlfriend played by Lila Lee), while Hercules pretends to be O’Grady’s son-in-law and Tweedldee her grandson. The clerk at the bird shop, Hector (Elliott Nugent), is gullible and falls for the group’s ruse. It is highly implausible that anyone would be fooled by Echo’s ridiculous attire or Midge’s impersonation of a toddler. When Echo first appears as Mrs. O’Grady I thought it was ridiculous. However, I soon found myself laughing out loud; these scenes featuring the three impersonating are the best scenes in the film.
Earles provides a great comedic performance mostly stemming from the disconnect between his appearance, i.e. dressed in baby’s clothes, and his scathing sarcasm. He played a sideshow performer in Browning’s Freaks as well and provided a more subdued yet effective performance in that film. Linow’s Hercules commiserates with Midge over Echo’s mistreatment of the pair. The size disparity between them allows Conway to create a variety of well composed frames which adds to the comic atmosphere.
While Hector is harmless and unsuspecting to the group’s criminal operation, his flirtation with Rosie arouses jealousy in Echo. When Hector begins spending more time alone with Rosie, Echo feels obligated to watch over them to ensure their relationship remains platonic. Echo allows his jealousy to cloud his judgment and places a stolen jewel necklace in Hector’s pocket when he realizes the police are on the case. Hector’s arrest and subsequent trial creates a rift between Rosie and Echo which can only be fixed if Echo comes clean.
Echo is called to be a witness (as Mrs. O’Grady) and at first refuses to show up. His testimony could help verify Hector’s whereabouts at the time of the robbery. He soon relents, mainly because Rosie has treated him coldly since his refusal to help Hector. Ultimately, Echo realizes that he would rather lose Rosie to Hector rather than lose her respect. He shows his love for Rosie by giving himself up to the police. While The Unholy Three is definitely a comedy, Conway brings sincere emotion and drama to the film by ending the story in this way.
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