On a night when a lip-syncing drag queen did backflips behind the plate-glass windows of Downtown's Space Gallery (at a reception for the new photography show Then & Now) and half-naked boys dressed as winged, fanged angel/devils lined up on Liberty for a Halloween party next door at Pegasus, you'd expect a movie from 1930 to seem tame by comparison. But this second entry in the Warhol's Unseen Treasures from the George Eastman House Film Series offered a few surprises.
Unholy stars Lon Chaney (senior) as a sideshow ventriloquist who when the circus is shut down leads the strongman and the midget into a life of crime. Chaney, as "Echo," spends half the film in high-voiced, dowager's-humped sweet-little-old-lady drag as "Grandma O'Grady," owner of a pet shop. Echo's girlfriend (Lila Lee) pretends to be his daughter, and diminutive Tweedledee (Harry Earles) his grandson, while Hercules (Ivan Linow) is the muscle.
The film, directed by Jack Conway, remakes a 1925 version directed by Tod Browning, who'd later shoot the classic Freaks (in which Earles also starred). While Chaney (in his lone talkie and final film) is almost unnervingly excellent, this Unholy's no Freaks: The visual style's pretty conventional, for one. But the script has fun playing with how everyday people accept appearances as reality, a gullibility that the wily sideshow veterans are especially adept at exploiting. A particularly engaging subplot has a pet-store customer, a guileless fellow, falling for both Lee's hard-bitten character and the jewel-heisting trio's costumed ruses. (Watching baby-faced, 20-inch-tall adult Earles play-act a bonnetted baby is bizzarely hilarious.) The shop setting also provides an intriguing glimpse at how Hollywood portrayed the pre-Depression consumer economy: While the pet store looks gray and drafty by contemporary standards, the customers are already fully engaged in the instant gratification of acquiring top-quality status symbols.
Then there's the bookended plot. The film's opening sequence depicts the sideshow, and the climax, in a courtroom, echoes it as the only other crowd scene. Conway's decision to shoot both passages largely over the hatted heads of ordinary rubes slyly suggests that the justice system, too, is something of a circus.
The Warhol's Eastman House series, featuring preserved classics from the silent and early-sound eras, continues Nov. 28 with King Vidor's 1925 anti-war classic The Big Parade, and on Dec. 12 with the 1930 Louise Brooks vehicle Prix de Beauté.