HO-HO-HOLI-YULE-A-DO Review: THE UNHOLY THREE (1930)

It seems now is as good a time as any to start working my way through some holiday movies, so this marks the beginning of the celebrated and first inaugural HO-HO-HOLI-YULE-A-DO. This non-stop barrage of holiday film reviews will run until December 25 and will feature movies of all shapes, sizes, colours, and whatnots. It’s my hope, friends, that we can kick off the bleakness of the day and have a cup of two of holiday cheer together. Without further ado, here’s the first HO-HO-HOLI-YULE-A-DO review:

Jack Conway’s THE UNHOLY THREE is an interesting picture for several reasons. For starters, this 1930 outing is a remake of the 1925 silent feature. It’s also Lon Chaney’s first talkie and his last film. He died seven weeks after its release. Chaney, along with Harry Earles, also starred in the original. THE UNHOLY THREE is, for our intents and purposes at least, kind of a Christmas movie. It features an act of sacrifice and compassion, plus there’s a touch of criminal activity on Christmas Eve.

Chaney stars as Echo, a ventriloquist with a sideshow. Earles is Tweedledee, a “twenty-inch man” with a wicked temper. He causes a disturbance when he kicks a mouthy child, which leads Echo, Tweedledee and the strongman Hercules (Ivan Linow) to consider a criminal enterprise. Echo’s sweetheart Rosie (Lila Lee) is along for the ride and they set up a pet store to operate as a front, with Echo masquerading as an old woman. This leads to a plot to rob rich patrons. Also, there’s a gorilla.

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Beyond the kind of curiosity that exists when a silent film star like Chaney reveals his voice for the first time, THE UNHOLY THREE is a strange bird. The original version by Tod Browning is wacky in its own right, which makes Conway’s remake a bit of a twist. This is a bizarre movie and it’s more than a little unconventional. There’s an inelegance to it that’s not without dark charm, plus the downbeat ending is refreshing and redemptive.

But at the core of THE UNHOLY THREE is love. Rosie’s relationship with Echo is built on something other than love, which is why she finds herself falling for the good, decent and stupid Hector (Elliott Nugent). It’s also why Echo comes to his senses, even if it’s to his own disadvantage. The “message” for the holidays lies in how the selfish become selfless. Rather than imagining personal gain and business as usual, Echo’s grandmother act reveals a capacity for compassionate change. Imagine that.

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