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Saturday, 19 December 2015

LON CHANEY - Part V

Following THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Lon Chaney’s next film was an inauspicious horror film called THE MONSTER, made for an independent studio outside Universal. It lacked the talent surrounding him to be notable even though its plot sounded inviting, that of a former surgeon of repute who takes over the asylum in which he is an insane patient.

THE UNHOLY THREE (1925). Happily, Universal honoured the promise they made before PHANTOM, and gave him a one-year contract with options that would return him to worthy projects under the wise mentorship of Irving Thalberg. The first title under this arrangement was to be another of Lon’s masterpieces – the circus folk crime thriller THE UNHOLY THREE – directed once again by the masterful Tod Browning whose affinity for the material went back to his childhood. Browning ran away to join a circus at age sixteen and submerged himself in the life of circuses and carnivals. He worked as a barker and a performer, at one time being buried alive under the stage name ‘the Living Corpse’. Like his later famous horror film FREAKS, in THE UNHOLY THREE Browning focused on the lives of circus people, but whereas the former would earn sympathy for those regarded as abnormal, in this film the performers use their unusual natural talents for criminal purposes.

Chaney plays Echo, a gifted ventriloquist who teams up with two of his fellow sideshow actors to rob people. His cohorts are future John Ford/John Wayne regular Victor McLaglen as strongman ‘Hercules’, and the midget Tweedledee played by adult Harry Earles (who went on to appear vividly in FREAKS and as one of the Munchkins in THE WIZARD OF OZ). The ‘fourth member’ of the gang is the formidable man’s woman Mae Busch, who later became such an intimidatingly great foil for Laurel and Hardy. She is Echo’s pickpocket girlfriend Rosie. Together they hatch elaborate con tricks to set up robberies. By selling pets to rich people from their store, (in this case a parrot which only talks when Echo is present to throw his voice), they set up a premise for visiting the buyer when a complaint is made that the bird no longer speaks once brought home.  Echo poses as the convincingly genteel little old lady Mrs O’Grady (Rosie’s mother) and Tweedledee is disguised as her baby grandson. This adds a sense of deceptive fun to the caper - especially as Earles has an amusing touch of the W .C. Fields curmudgeon about him which he buries believably in his Babygro. Once at the buyer’s home, the three discover the owner has a valuable ruby necklace which they covet.

Unbeknownst to Echo, Hercules and Tweedledee go ahead and commit the robbery without him, murdering the owner and injuring his toddler daughter. This enrages Echo as, hard-bitten and ruthless though he appears, he would never have taken a gun to a robbery to avoid just such awful consequences. A memorably suspenseful scene tales place when a detective interviews the ‘adult’ twosome, during which Tweedledee secretes the necklace in a toy elephant. The policeman hears the rattling and almost opens the elephant but his attention is misdirected by Hercules.

The gang plant the jewellery in the room of Hector, Rosie’s bookish ‘boob’ fiancé (a nice turn by Matt Moore). Rosie is kidnapped by the boys for fear of her spilling the beans on them. More potential double-crosses rear up among the thieves, between Tweedledee and Hercules and then a suggestion by Hercules to Rosie. This results in the midget letting loose their large pet ape upon him, but Tweedledee is strangled by the strongman before the ape can get him.

Rosie pleads with Echo to free Hector, in return vowing to stay with him and never see her fiancé again. We then witness a terrific court-room climax with Chaney writhing in mental anguish as he attempts to find a way to get Hector off the hook without incriminating himself. Finally, his unlikely conscience strikes again and he uses his ventriloqual talent to confess while Hector silently mouths for him on the witness stand. Both men are equally acquitted on the grounds that the actual perpetrators are now dead. While Rosie makes to honour her agreement with Echo, he is shrewd and kind enough to recognise that her heart belongs to Hector and releases her to go after him with no ill-will and a touching farewell spoken via his doll.

THE UNHOLY THREE is a wonderfully satisfying film, not in the horror genre but with enough dark plotting and suspense to be worthy of Hitchcock. It contains a great central performance of villainy with a heart of gold from Chaney, another in his powerful gallery of men who sacrifice all for an unrequited love as well as a dual role portraying an elderly lady - but also there is revelatory playing from Mae Busch. If like me, you only know her work as the frosty dragon wife or mistress to Stan and Ollie, here she reveals a tender vulnerability especially in the moving scene where she breaks down at the thought of losing Hector and confesses her guilty lifestyle to him.
Tod Browning also found the film to be a great career move for him. His alcoholism had almost ruined him before Thalberg trusted his talent enough to give him a chance to redeem himself with this story. FREAKS would consolidate his return in 1932.

TELL IT TO THE MARINES (1926) Amongst Lon Chaney’s other highlights in his new home at Universal was this remarkable U.S. Marine tale, famous for proving to all that Chaney didn’t need elaborate make-up to create an unforgettable role. Here he plays Sgt O’Hara, the very model of the tough Drill Sergeant who bullies rookie wise-guy recruit ‘Skeet’ Burns (an excellent William Haines) into shape from a ne’er-do-well into a man, along the way revealing that under that granite exterior is a good hearted man who loves his platoon and would do anything for them. Chaney deftly switches between the motivating tyrant and a softer side with Burns' nurse sweetheart (Eleanor Boardman). Every Chaney fan should see this film to appreciate his awesome range as a straight dramatic actor not simply a genre star.


Directed confidently by George W Hill (who went on to have huge hits with THE BIG HOUSE and MIN AND BILL), this was the first film to gain co-operation from the U.S. Marine Corps. Many later films would be refused such assistance owing to portrayals of the military that were not ultimately favourable, however TELL IT TO THE MARINES was so glowing a tribute to the soldiers that Chaney was the first actor to be granted honorary membership of the Corps – an honour of which he was very proud.

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