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?