About two years ago, an on-line journal that shall remain unnamed said it would be putting this up as soon as it had the mix right with which to include it.
I’d forgotten all about it until I was scanning one of my folders. So while the general public is waiting, so sense delaying things for my ardent fans any longer…
Making Them Like They Used To
Boy, they set the bar for screenplays low. Take “The Unholy Three” (1925), a Tod Browning-directed silent film.
The premise – three ex-circus performers form a jewel-robbery ring – is fine. The cast is solid. Victor McLaglen, who will win a Best Actor Oscar for “The Informer” a decade later, plays Hercules, the strongman. Three-foot, three-inch Harry Earles, best known as the cuckolded Hans, in Browning’s landmark, though near career-destroying “Freaks” (and less well-known as a member of the Lollipop Guild in “Wizard of Oz”), is the midget Tweedledee. And Lon (“The Man of a Thousand Faces”) Chaney stars as Echo, the ventriloquist.
Chaney was a major talent, who dominated screens with the ability to convey a poignant inner self trapped within a powerful, often twisted, commanding physical presence. He had already appeared in over 140 films. In jus6t the prior three years, his portrayals had included a tragic clown, two mad scientists, a cripple, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a blind pirate, and Fagin in “Oliver Twist. Browning was a talented, if clinically disturbed, cinematic trailblazer. (“Dracula,” with Bela Lugosi, was probably his finest work.) But you have to wonder how Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s head, kept from biting the end off his cigar when pitched the idea of a silent movie with a ventriloquist as its central character. (When Browning shot “Freaks,” Mayer’s patience finally snapped at the director’s fondness for the bizarre. Rather than expose the rest of his studio to the presence on the lot of a troupe that included carnival sideshow stalwarts such as Schnitzie, the Pin-head, Koo-Koo, the Bird-Girl, Johnny Eck, the Half-Boy, Prince Randian, the Living Torso, and the Siamese Twins, Diana and Violet Hilton, Mayer erected a separate-but-not-quite-equal commissary where they were required to eat and bussed them to their own hotel immediately after each day’s shooting concluded.)
The cast of “Three” also included Mae Busch as the pickpocket Rosie O’Grady, Chaney’s girl friend, and Matt Moore, as a shop clerk, Hector McDonald, who falls for her. Busch went on to a long run in Laurel and Hardy comedies as the latter’s shrewish wife. Moore appeared in over 200 films, and though his cinematic career is little remembered, two of his cats earned stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Oh, I almost forgot. There is also a Giant Ape. It looks on close-up suspiciously like a chimpanzee; but you know what Chekhov said about having a Giant Ape on stage when the curtain rises on Act One.
The gang’s method-of-operation leaves something, imaginatively speaking, to be desired. Chaney, in white wig, shawl, and long dress, poses as “Mrs. O’Grady,” the owner of a pet store. Earles, in baby clothes, becomes her grandson, “Little Willie,” and McLaglen lumbers about as… I’m not sure what. The credits list him as “the son-in-law,” presumably the husband of Busch, who is also on the premises. But Busch’s character was an “O’Grady”before the gang formed, so Chaney’s sharing of her name means that, unless Busch is portraying a before-her-time, maiden name-retaining, liberated woman, both her relationship to McLaglen and Little Willie’s legitimacy is placed in question.
Anyway, aside from the ape, the store’s stock seems to consist entirely of amazingly verbal parrots. (Ventriloquist? Parrots? You may sense where this is going.) Sure enough, when the customers get the birds home, the damn things won’t talk. This requires Grandmother O’Grady to make house calls, to which she wheels Little Willie in his stroller. No one seems to wonder why he wasn’t left with Hercules or Rosie; nor does any police officer become suspicious of a string of robberies that occurred shortly after visits by an old woman with a child, and a succession of parrots who have been struck dumb.
During the only home-visit depicted, Chaney is called away to attend the silent bird while Earles is left unattended in the very room at the very moment a minor character is examining a valuable necklace. (Note that Earles is not required to do anything as subtle as observe the combination to a wall safe. He just spots the jewelry.) That is enough for he and McLaglen to return and steal it. Now anyone who has seen “Riffifi” or “Topkapi” would expect this heist to involve, at least, great strength on the part of McLaglen and great squirming through narrow apertures by Earles. But the entire escapade occurs off-screen, leaving one to wonder why the gang required a strongman, or why Busch – or even Rin Tin Tin – couldn’t have been left idling about to spot the necklace. (Rinty could have barked – or wagged – to note its existence.) For that matter, it’s unclear why Chaney didn’t masquerade as a grandfather. It certainly would have been less trouble.
Eventually, the thieves, as is their want, fall out. And here the ape obeys Chekhov. (Incidentally, its gargantuan size was established through early motion picture technical wizardry. At one point, the beast is seen standing next to Chaney, appearing to be his equal in height and breadth. Only it wasn’t Chaney. It was Earles, in a wig and shawl, photographed from the rear.) Two deaths seemingly result, though again the camera cuts away before any chests are crushed or windpipes shattered. The delicate sensibility behind this cutting may explain why fewer school children were slain by madmen overstimulated by media violence in 1925 than there are now, but it also makes for diminished dramatic impact.
None of this hurt “The Unholy Three” at the box office. It was so successful, it was remade as a talkie in 1930. Chaney and Earles reprised their roles. The chimp was replaced by a man in a gorilla suit.
What explains it? The novelty of seeing Chaney in drag? The miracle of Earles smoking a cigar like a normal-sized fellow? The horrifying ape, even though it was only three-feet tall? The lack of competition from TV and the Internet? Deficiencies in the public school system? I attribute it to the fact that the same audience that was spinning the turnstiles had elected as successive presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and okayed Prohibition.
It may just be that H.L. Mencken had the intelligence of the American people nailed.