Saturday, April 30, 2016

#230: The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925)

Damn, I love this movie.
The Unholy Three is one of those films that catches fire from its combination of a great director who understands that visual style and great individual moments and details are important, an exciting and offbeat story, actors who thrive in their roles and have excellent chemistry with each other, a weirdness played seriously and straight-facedly while acknowledging moments of humor, a pace that builds in momentum and action without losing its way or forgetting its characters, a great opening scene that is both different from and a great introduction to what is to follow, and an indescribable yet palpable magic that only makes its presence felt in really good movies. It's also one of the most accessible silent movies I've seen, with a modern feel in its actors' movements and expressions and its economy of storytelling.
This was my first introduction to the silent films of Tod Browning, but I'm a big fan of several of his sound films, including Dracula with Bela Lugosi, deathless cult classic Freaks, underrated Lugosi vampire film Mark of the Vampire, and proto-Incredible Shrinking Man cross-dressing oddity The Devil-Doll. On the proof of The Unholy Three, he may have been even greater in the silent era.
The Unholy Three opens with an incredible circus sideshow scene. We see the fat lady, the exotic dancer, Hercules the strongman (Victor McLaglen), Tweedledee the little person (Harry Earles), and ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney, who, as I've written many times before on this site, seems to have appeared in every American horror, crime, and suspense film of the 1920s). Also in this group is pickpocket with a heart of gold Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch), who is kinda-sorta romantically involved with Echo and who cuts him on the pickpocket proceeds. When a couple of stylish flappers make fun of the hot-tempered Tweedledee, the crowd gets in on the heckling and the little man loses it. He kicks a child in the face, which causes a riot. In the melee, Hercules and Echo pitch in to help out their colleague, but they all flee when the cops arrive.
Now out of work and needing some scratch, the former sideshow performers hatch a scheme so unholy they dub themselves The Unholy Three. Never mind that Rosie is forced to go along with the con and is an integral part of it. They don't include her in the planning, the nickname, or the profits. These guys are jerks.
The plan, possibly one of the most complicated in Hollywood history, involves Echo opening a store that sells exotic birds and bird seed while disguised as a kindly old grandmother. (For some strange reason, the store also has a pet gorilla in a cage, as your high-end bird stores always do.) Rosie pretends to be Echo's granddaughter while Tweedledee, the 20-year-old little person, pretends to be Echo's infant grandson. Poor Hercules has no alternate identity, and just hangs around as a family friend. He's also deathly afraid of the gorilla. The gang of con artists lives in an apartment in the back of the bird store.
The bird-store grift angle is as follows. Echo is selling cheap parrot lookalikes that don't actually talk. He convinces his customers the birds are parrots through his ventriloquism skills. When a rich customer buys a bird, he eventually and inevitably complains about the bird's lack of vocal skills. Echo in grandmother disguise brings baby Tweedledee along to the rich person's home, does her parrot ventriloquism shtick while Tweedledee cases the joint, and the trio sneaks in the next night and robs the rich guy blind. In case they draw heat, the gang hires a goodie-two-shoes employee, Hector (Matt Moore), as a patsy they can pin the crimes on. They never counted on Hector and Rosie falling in love.
Things heat up when Echo can't make a burglary, Tweedledee and Hercules go without him, and everyone learns what a couple of sadistic psychos they are. Echo starts feeling shame and remorse, and many notable events ensue, some involving the gorilla. I realize I've given you several paragraphs of plot description, but I've only scratched the surface. There's way more here than just an ingenious, bizarre story.
Browning develops every character and finds time in the midst of all the action to put his camera on some fascinating face, detail, or visual moment incidental to the plot. I especially enjoyed Tweedledee chomping on a cigar and gesturing like a wiseguy while in convincing disguise as a toddler and the heckling flappers at the circus.
Harry Earles, the actor playing Tweedledee, had a long, fascinating life. Born Kurt Schneider in Germany as one of seven children, Harry shared his dwarfism with three sisters, Gracie, Daisy, and Tiny (real names Frieda, Hilda, and Elly). In an I'm-glad-the-world-doesn't-operate-this-way-anymore development, their father sold the four little siblings to Bert W. Earles, an American proprietor of a Wild West show. Earles adopted them, Americanized their names, included them in his traveling show, and gave them a place to live on his Pasadena ranch. When the elderly Earles died, the adult siblings struck out on their own and joined the Barnum & Bailey circus, where they were billed as the Doll Family. Harry was the first to get into the movies, and The Unholy Three was his first role. His sisters soon joined him, and their most famous performance was as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Harry enjoyed working with Browning, and gave him the short story that inspired Browning's Freaks, in which two of his sisters also appeared. After the acting roles dried up in the 1950s, the Earles rejoined the circus for a few years before retiring in Florida in a house they designed that had every room customized to fit their heights. They lived long, financially stable lives (very un-Hollywood), with the youngest sibling, Tiny, the last to die in 2004.
The Louisville-born Browning had a series of strange careers before his long, successful life as a Hollywood director, all of which seemed to exert an influence on how he made films and what he made them about. Falling in love with a circus performer at age 16, he joined the circus as a clown before becoming a jockey for several years. The entertainment bug returned, and he was directing theatrical variety shows when D.W. Griffith discovered him and cast him as an actor in silent films. He made the transition to directing in 1915 and died in Hollywood in 1962 at the age of 82.

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