Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Unholy Three (1930)

Premiered July 12, 1930.

This film was released 90 years ago today, so we thought it was a good time to post this out-of-season Christmas review!:

A ventriloquist who calls himself Professor Echo (Lon Chaney) works at a carnival where he shows off his voice-throwing skills and rips off the local rubes.

Others who work at the carnival include a strong man known as Hercules (Ivan Linow)...

...and Tweedledee (Harry Earles), who is billed as the "smallest adult in the world"...

...and a professional pickpocket named Rosie (Lila Lee).

When Tweedledee kicks a child during a fight, a riot breaks out and the carnival is shut down.

Echo tells Tweedledee and Hercules he has a new scam that will make them all rich.  He says the three of them will disappear and change their identities.  Tweedledee says plan sounds, "unholy," which prompts Echo to call this crew "The Unholy Three."

Echo also brings along his pet gorilla, which seems to be the only thing Hercules is afraid of.  Echo uses this to his advantage whenever Hercules doesn't fall in line.

Sometime later, the trio opens an exotic pets shop they can use as a front for their criminal operation.

Echo runs the pet shop under his new alias, a grandmother named Mrs. O'Grady.

Tweedledum poses as her grandson Willie.

And Hercules pretends he's Mrs. O'Grady's son-in-law Herman.

Rosie also works at the shop.  Echo has romantic ideas about Rosie, but he treats her with contempt.  Rosie is attracted to a pet shop employee named Hector McDonald (Elliott Nugent) and the attraction is mutual.

On Christmas Eve, Echo, Herman and Willie decide to steal a valuable ruby necklace from one of their customers.  Poor Hector has no idea that he works with criminals and buys a Christmas tree and lots of toys for Willie.  Hector hopes to spend a romantic evening trimming the tree with Rosie.

However, Echo gets jealous and decides stay behind and trim the tree as Mrs. O'Grady.  Hector tells Mrs. O'Grady he plans to ask Rosie to marry him.

Tweedledee and Herman go through with the robbery without Echo.  Herman ends up shooting and killing a man while stealing the necklace.  On Christmas morning, the trio decides to pin the theft and murder on Hector.  They plant the necklace in Hector's closet and he's arrested.

Hector tells the police and judge that Rosie and Mrs. O'Grady will provide him with an alibi.  However, Mrs. O'Grady and Rosie are nowhere to be found.  The Unholy Three have disappeared and are hiding out in a cabin in the mountains.  They've brought along Echo's gorilla and kidnapped Rosie. 

Will Hector be convicted for a crime he didn't commit?

J.A. Morris says:

If the premise for this movie sounds a bit ridiculous, that's because it is!  Prof. Echo needs a money-making scam, so the first idea that pops into his head is to open an exotic pet shop?  However, it's also ridiculously great!  The "Christmas Scam" is a something of a trope in holiday movies and I'm guessing this is one of the first times it's been featured on film. 

The Unholy Three has great historical importance.  It's the only sound film appearance of the great Lon Chaney, a major star of the silent era who today is best remembered as the star of The Phantom Of The Opera and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.  It's a shame Chaney died several weeks after the release of this film, because he's great here and he had a scary, menacing voice.

The rest of the cast provide solid support. 

Director Jack Conway makes great use of shadows in several scenes.   Here's a good example of that:

If there's anything wrong with The Unholy Three, it's that there's a (never stated aloud) message that Carnival folks are inherently bad and strange people.  While Echo displays a few, fleeting moments of humanity, Hercules and Tweedledee don't have many redeeming qualities.  They seem to exist merely to steal money and kill people.  I'm sure this was the conventional wisdom about Carnival "freaks" when this film was made, but I still feel like it needs to be called out.

Strictly speaking, The Unholy Three is more of a "Christmas-adjacent" movie than a "Christmas movie," but Christmas plays a very important role in the plot.  The trimming of the tree sets a lot of actions in motion:it causes echo to stay behind, which leads to the robbery turning into a murder, which eventually leads to the framing of Hector.  An important conversation between Rosie and Hector takes place during Christmas dinner.

Christmas is also discussed during Hector's murder trial, so we decided the movie was "Christmas-y enough" for our blog!

The Unholy Three is a fascinating film and a good farewell film for Lon Chaney.  It's especially recommended for fans of Christmas crime films and for those who need a break from predictable holiday entertainment.

J.A. Morris's rating: 

3 candy canes

RigbyMel says: 

The Unholy Three is a strange and gripping film with a "high concept" plot featuring characters from a freak show and elaborate criminal schemes.  It's also historically significant as it's the only talkie the great silent film star Lon Chaney ever did as well as being his final movie.  (He died of lung cancer on August 26th, 1930, seven weeks after The Unholy Three was released.) This movie allows Chaney to show off his considerable acting talents and also demonstrates that, had he lived longer,  he could have continued to be successful in talking pictures.

Chaney manages to be menacing in old lady drag!
It's also interesting to note that The Unholy Three is a remake of a 1925 silent movie (also starring Lon Chaney and Harry Earles).  The original version is silent and does NOT take place during Christmas.  Remakes have been around pretty much as long as Hollywood has, it would seem!   The addition of the Christmas angle to the remake serves to increase dramatic tension.

Poster from the 1925 version of the film.

Harry Earles, who plays the creepy and merciless Tweedledee/Little Willie, actually grew up as a circus and sideshow entertainer and was a part of several other important early movies such as Freaks (1932). He and his siblings were among the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939).   (Harry is one of the members of the Lollipop Guild.)  The way Tweedledee is written is ... not sensitive.  However, Earles makes it memorable and it's worth noting that he was able to have an acting career in a time when disabled and different folks were really not afforded a lot of  opportunities.

I also find the film intriguing from a material culture angle.  Viewers get extended glimpses of 1920s/30s Christmas decorations and the inside of a pet shop, for example. 

On their return from Christmas shopping, Hector helps Rosie remove her galoshes
There's even a "feather tree" (one of the first artificial Christmas trees), which is a holdover from Victorian Christmas celebrations, in the background of some shots. 

Hector gets ready to feed a cockatiel in the pet shop
It provides us with little glimpses into bygone days and small details that might be unfamiliar to modern audiences.

A feather tree (on the table) as well as a wreath and a paper bell (in the window) are on display in this shot
Christmas is central to the plot as the primary crime - murder, in the course of a robbery - occurs on Christmas Eve and there are tense Christmas morning visits from police, jewels hidden in toys, and even a touch of Christmas romance between poor dopey Hector and soon to be reformed criminal Rosie.

A "cozy" Christmas morning visit from a police detective
The Unholy Three is definitely worth a look  -- especially if one is interested in caper and/or pre-code movies or if one is a fan of Lon Chaney's work!

RigbyMel's rating: 

3 candy canes