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After wending our way through a number of mediocre films today (the best of which were the Something Weird “weird noir” burlesque/carny oddity Girl on the Run and the 1929 adventure/melodrama The Lost Zeppelin), we just stumbled upon a true gem, on the order of which I haven’t been surprised by since discovering Madam Satan over the summer.

The 1930 talkie the Unholy Three was both Lon Chaney Sr.’s first talking role and his last – he unfortunately lost his life to throat cancer mere weeks after the film premiered.  The only positive, if you want to view it that way, was that he was slated for the role Bela Lugosi made famous, in Tod Browning’s Dracula thereafter…

A truly hilarious, snappy dialogue-filled and pre-code contemporary film, it shows Chaney to be everything his mopey, drink-afflicted son failed to be: a good actor, fair ventriloquist and master of multiple voices, intelligent, and quite likeable.  In fact, it was positively astonishing to hear the backstory I just mentioned, given his age and vivacity onscreen (he passed at what was for the era a hale and hearty 47).  But that’s not the best part.  The film’s REAL stars for us were silent starlet Lila Lee (the Germanic Augusta Wilhelmina Fredericka Appel, who hailed from Union NJ of all places) and midget Harry Earles (of the sideshow circuit Doll Family).

Thoroughly modern in a way that surpasses even the sassiest and worldliest of pre-code and/or early 40’s screwball comedy heroines, Lee’s streetwise pickpocket was so devastatingly contemporary, she could easily have passed for a woman of today, were it not for that extra veneer of class sadly lacking on the whole in these days of reality TV style debasement.  But she was sassy and declasse enough, with some great lines, comebacks, rude faces and hand gesticulations that left us laughing throughout (and for my part, thoroughly in love with the lady).  While her career would continue for another 8 years, this seems to have been her last real “prestige” picture and leading role, being mostly based in the silent era.  Did I mention she was damn good looking?

With some bitingly sarcastic putdowns and a truly Sadean persona, Earles’ thickly Teutonic-accented “Midge” (as they referred to him in the film – the actual billing was “Midget” in the credits) vied throughout with Lee as the real showstopper, delivering some eminently quotable dialogues filled with vim and vitriol, dripping with poison.  His cold glee over murder, double crossing and the prospect thereof was disconcerting, his nasty humor positively hilarious.

You don’t have to be a fan of vintage cinema to appreciate a film this well scripted, with this much wit, snappy banter and assorted nastiness going on (not to mention more than a dash of the “WTF!?!?” thrown in for eye-widening good measure).  There’s even a bit of romance (geeky but likeable Elliot Nugent falls for Lila’s far more experienced and earthy charms, the sap – and she’s appropriately moved by it all) and a bit of a happy ending, where all parties get their just desserts without being cloying or sentimental (failings the Hays Code would shortly impose on the industry and nation, bringing an unwelcome return to conservatism as we moved into the 40’s).

Available in a pristine print from the Warner Archives DVD burn program, which provides a plethora of interesting films, but without extras and on subpar, home market quality “blue tint” DVD burner style discs.  Prices for these programs (which have taken hold with a few studios, including Sony/Columbia and MGM) are quite out of hand (particularly given that these same studios have, and occasionally still do, deliver multi-film sets on commercial grade for less cost to the consumer than one or two single films as an “on demand” burn), but can be found for more reasonable prices (generally around $10 each) around the holiday season or during mid-year sales.

In sum, highly recommended to all.