Timothy Owen Driscoll (pulpjunkie) wrote,
Timothy Owen Driscoll

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1930 Movie #3: "The Unholy Three"

The Unholy Three
MGM, USA, 1930
Directed by Jack Conway
From the book by Clarence Aaron Robbins
Continuity and Dialogue by J. C. Nugent and Elliott Nugent

Pure pulp goodness after the cut.

Oh, yeah! Now we're talkin'! Here's where this little scheme really starts to pay off! Ladies and gentlemen... "The Unholy Three!" (That's my exclamation mark this time. Sorry, I just get so excited thinking of this movie...)

This film is apparently a very close remake of Tod Browning's 1925 silent film of the same title. It even features much of the same cast, allowing Lon Chaney to reprise his role of Doctor Echo in what turned out to be his only sound film. I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing the original version of this, but despite the definite similarities between the two, I'll be eagerly watching for it.

Chaney here plays ventriloquist Dr. Echo, a low grade grifter working a traveling carnival. We also see various other carnies at work, including Tweedle Dee the Midget (Harry Earles, later to star in Browning's "Freaks;" the character is listed in the credits simply as "Midget") and Hercules the Strongman (Ivan Linow) . We also meet Echo's gal Rosie, played by the appealing Lila Lee, working her own trade - picking pockets. When the superhumanly surly and misanthropic midget starts a fight with a bratty child who insults him, a general brawl breaks out, leading to a police shut down of the carnival. But Echo has a plan, and forms an alliance with "Herc and the Midge" (as Rosie delightfully refers to them in a later scene.) "Sounds unholy," says the midget. "I like it!"

Echo's big idea: they set up shop in a pet store, chock full of the exotic birds and gratuitous monkeys that were missing from "Golden Dawn." Echo poses as kindly old Granny O'Grady. Hercules is her son-in-law. The Midget is his little baby boy Willy. And Echo's gal is Granny's granddaughter Rosie. Echo-as-Granny uses his ventriloquism to sell "talking" parrots to rich patrons. During the delivery of the birds, and also during Granny's inevitable house calls to check up on why the birds won't talk (heh), they take the opportunity to case the joint for future burglary. So far, so good, as they've successfully pulled a few heists already. As further cover, they've hired a hapless young sap named Hector (co-screenwriter Elliott Nugent) to work the counter. Echo's only worry is that Rosie might be taking a shine to nice, sweet Hector (and he's not wrong, no matter how much she protests.)

At this point I should probably mention the gorilla.

Look at it this way: you're a budding criminal mastermind, armed only with a talent for ventriloquism and a brain capable of thinking up a robbery scheme involving long-term cross-dressing, mute parrots, and a midget in a baby carriage. You have two partners. The midget should be no problem. He's only two feet tall, you should be able to take him in a fight. But the big guy could break you in two, if the thought entered his somewhat deficient mind. So what do you have to keep the big guy in check? Right. A caged gorilla. Specifically, a gorilla that already hates the guy from back in your carnie days (as the audience saw in an earlier scene). So if the big guy gets uppity, you just threaten to let the gorilla out. Simple, see?

Of course, things go wrong (thanks to the Midget's murderous impulses), the gang goes into hiding (taking the gorilla with them, mind you) and Hector gets the frame-up. Will Hector escape the chair? Will justice prevail? Can a tainted dove like Rosie ("I've been trampin' around since I was 14!") find true love with a sap like Hector? Can Echo, against all odds, find a kind of redemption? Will the gorilla go on a rampage? (Well, yes. Plus, the gorilla gets away scot free! Hooray!)

Wow. This film has so many good parts. The carnie aspects of the plot and characters, and the gratuitous gorilla-suit action have obvious appeal, but the film has much more to offer. It’s packed full of energy, pacing, inventiveness, humor and emotion. This is classic melodrama cranking on all cylinders.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines melodrama as: "A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts." Other definitons stress melodrama's plot-over-character emphasis, as well as it's clear delineations of good and evil. The term comes from an 18th century theatrical form in which a play is interspersed with songs, and accompanied by music.

The word came to take on a very negative connotation by the mid-20th century, definitely considered to be drama’s black sheep cousin. But it’s still with us today, often disguised by a serious veneer, or, alternately, a thick coat of ironic distance. Recent films like “Superman Returns” and “Casino Royale” are fine examples of straight-faced melodrama. My favorite (and clearest) example from the late 20th Century is John Woo’s “The Killer,” with all it’s grand gestures and truly epic emotionalism.

The Unholy Three” has a wonderful emotional relationship at it’s core: Echo and Rosie. In an early scene at the carnie, Rosie shamefully confesses she was holding out some of her pick-pocketing take. Chaney’s face portrays Echo burying his immediate anger, and he sincerely thanks her for coming clean with him. The importance of this exchange is confirmed later when he flies into a rage when he thinks Herc & the Midge (hee hee) are holding out on him; he nearly blows his little-old-lady cover, and almost sics the Ape on Hercules.

Rosie, for her part, seems to regard Echo with a sort of warm gratitude. She confesses to holding out a watch on him because of the warmth with which he praises her for her evening’s take. The viewer gets the impression, coupled with her later confessions to hector of her hard life, that Echo is the nicest guy she’s ever hooked up with. He truly loves her. When he blusters at her in fits of jealousy, she stands up to him without fear, knowing his raised hand isn’t going to fall on her.

The catch to their relationship is that Rosie doesn’t truly love Echo. Gratitude and trust don’t quite measure up as substitutes. As nice as Echo’s been to her, she falls for someone even nicer, Hector. Hector is, in fact, much the sort of sucker they’ve been preying upon in their carnie life. A “boob.” A sap. Trusting of all, unsuspicious of possible dark truths hidden behind benign appearances. And yet, when Rosie confesses her sleazy past to him, he’s completely willing to overlook it, trying (unsuccessfully) to paint himself as being a little bad, too.

After Echo gets proof of Rosie’s love for Hector, and after Rosie learns of Echo’s framing of the young man, their trust and affection completely fails. Echo, in a fit of rage, strikes her across the face (leaving a handprint!) Both of them react with shock. Rosie, in desperation, promises Echo that she’ll stay with him, even take abuse from him, if only he’ll save Hector. Thoroughly shamed (but not about to turn himself in,) Echo concocts a plan to do just that…

This fairly intense bit of characterization is portrayed rather simply, with little ambivalence and a great deal of efficiency. A few brief exchanges, a couple of sentences here and there (excepting the big face-slapping scene, of course. That’s when the violins come out and speeches are made). For all their brevity, the emotional scenes are played with utmost sincerity. Really, the whole film is approached this way, killer midget, rampaging ape, cross-dressing ventriloquist and all. While several scenes are mined for their inherent humor, the cast plays the film straight. There’s no sense of feeling superior to the material. They know exactly what sort of film they’re making, see no shame in it, and set out to make the best example of it that they can.

A final note: this film (and it's predecessor) is obviously the sourse for those Bugs Bunny "Baby Finster" cartoons, where a gangster disguises himself as an infant to get into Bugs' home to retrieve some lost loot. Have a look:


This film is sadly unavailable on DVD, as is the original 1925 version. They’ve both run on TCM (where I got my copy of this one.) So I once again offer a loan of my DVD-R to any scholar of my acquaintance who wants to delve into the pleasures of pulp-on-film.


And one last screencap. This one is for James:

Tags: 1930s, film: circus, film: crime, gorilla suit, little people, lon chaney, movie review
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