Hear ye! Hear ye! Step right up to the Castro Theatre. Behold a bizarre trio of crooks. One an expert ventriloquist in old lady drag. Another a Goliath whose fickle heart is bigger than his brain. The third a pint-size schemer, who thinks nothing of pretending to be a baby in a stroller in order to case a high-class joint for jewels. Witness these three sell counterfeit parrots — you heard right, counterfeit parrots! — to unsuspecting mugs in order to visit their homes and rob them blind. Watch 1925’s The Unholy Three, just one of director Tod Browning’s circus-influenced nightmares.
The treats at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival include Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Madonna muse Dita Parlo in Au Bonheur des Dames with live music by the Hot Club. But all of this city’s imps of the perverse will be gathering for The Unholy Three (screening Sun/16 at 5 p.m.), if only to pay homage to Browning, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, and mein liebchen, the one and only Harry Earles (real name: Kurt Schneider), who later approached Browning with the idea of turning the Tod Robbins story “Spurs” into what became 1932’s nightmarish and unforgettable Freaks. Also based on a Robbins story, The Unholy Three might contain Earles’ best performance, especially since, as Danny Peary notes in an entry within his book Cult Movie Stars, Earles’ high-pitched voice was often “unintelligible” when transmitted through the primitive sound technology of early talkies.
He may be a dead ringer for tear sprayer extraordinaire Ricky Schroder in The Champ, but don’t cross him: Peary incisively observes that Earles’ face “was doll-like and seemed harmless until you looked closely and saw it was hard and quite eerie.” The Unholy Three mines this effectively. Earles’ character, Tweedledee, is introduced performing on a sideshow stage. When the audience within the film mocks him, it doesn’t take long for him to lose his temper and kick a laughing little boy in the face. Soon afterward he’s in infant disguise, whether locked in a stroller and acting as if ruby necklaces are mere baby beads or half in and half out of masquerade, smoking a cigarette while wearing a jumper. According to Browning biographer David Skal’s Dark Carnival, this type of outrageousness reached its apex in a child-killing Christmas Eve scene by a tree that doubtless would have given Dawn Davenport at the start of Female Trouble a run for her murderous money — if it wasn’t censored.
Though Browning’s astute biographer verges on going too far in comparing it to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s shadow play, The Unholy Three humorously and kinetically uses comic strip speech bubbles in a way that prefigures pop art and Batman on TV. Also, as writers such as Skal, David Thomson, and Carlos Clarens have observed, it exemplifies early-20th-century horror’s interest in reconfiguring common romantic and sexual aggravation into fantastic stories of vengeance. Himself forced to perform as an infant and a circus runaway who made an early living as “The Living Hypnotic Corpse,” Browning no doubt related to Earles and to Chaney (whose pantomime abilities stemmed partly from childhood communication with his deaf parents).
The Unholy Three’s titular characters form a perverse trinity of sorts, with Earles’ Tweedledee a modern child of mythical Leprechaun figures and a less lusty uncle of Cousin Lymon from Carson McCullers’ Sad Café. You don’t have to be Leslie Fiedler to recognize that both Earles and Chaney present an interested viewer with a mythic image of his or her secret self. SFBG
SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
429 Castro, SF