The always impressive Turner Classic Movies showed The Unholy Three (1925) the other night, a film that stands as one of Lon Chaney Sr.'s most famous. The memorable story of three circus performers who leave the stage for a life of crime when they conceive what they feel to be the "perfect" crime is both simple, ridiculous, and highly orignal. The three will get into the parrot selling business(!), unloading the birds on well-to-do members of high society. When their customers phone the pet shop the next day to complain that their parrots don't talk, the three pay their patrons a visit, and rob them. Y'know, that tired story again.
The Unholy Three is notable for several reasons. Along with the absurd plot, Lon Chaney, initially introduced to us as a ventriloquist, appears in drag for most of the film. The opening sequence featuring an assortment of odd looking sideshow performers was predecessor to another of director Tod Browning's demented celluloid contributions which was to come seven years later, Freaks (1932). Also, the concept of a hulking male dressing as a woman in order to commit crime was, remarkably, re-used eleven years later by Browning in his film The Devil-Doll (1936) with Lionel Barrymore. As if this weren't enough, The Unholy Three is most notable of all for the performance of the most famous thirty nine inch tall actor in Hollywood history, Harry Earles.
Earles had an unmistakable look, and in Hollywood's silent era, the aesthetics of one's face was far more important than acting ability. During the twenties when film could not rely on anything but visuals (a reliance that hypothetically should remain today but too often does not), that distinctive look could be pay dirt for an actor. Knowing that a man of his unique physique could easily be type-casted into mere comedic fodder as almost all dwarves, midgets, and general Hollywood little people tended to be in the 1920s, it is said that Earles was the one who brought the stories of both The Unholy Three as well as the story for Freaks (in the form of a novel by author Clarence A. Robbins called Spurs) to director Browning's attention, Earles knowing full well either could mean a juicy role for himself. Earles eventually did appear in a pair of comedic roles as "a funny little man" in Good News (1930) and Be Big (1931). But don't be concerned if you think Harry's dignity was jeopardized by being laughed at in these films, you can rest assured that in Good News he was billed as "Midget in Trash Basket." The extremely rare piece of footage from this film featuring his sequence has been posted on Youtube which you can watch here.
Born in Germany under the name Kurt Scheider, Harry moved to the United States in 1915 with his sister Daisy who was also afflicted with an abnormally small build. The two were able to capitalize on the burgeoning Vaudeville, Catskill, and Circus sideshow circuits. In 1920 their two pint sized sisters joined them in America and the four would tour under the name The Doll Family, performing their novelty act of small bodied song and dance, eventually joining the crowning jewel of the circus world, Barnum and Bailey. No information is available explaining exactly how, when, and why Harry or his sister moved to Hollywood, but one might wager that they took notice of the overwhelming amount of little people appearing in Hollywood one-reelers.
Although often able to avoid the typecasting of being a mere comedic foil, instead appearing in dramatic parts in the already mentioned Unholy Three and Freaks, and of course as a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz (1939), he still ended up being typecast in a role that no other actor before or since has ever been typecast as. Earles was often stuck playing the character of an adult posing as a baby. In none of his roles was he playing an actual baby, but always an adult trying to pull a fast one. This gag was Harry's vehicle in That's My Baby (1926), Baby Clothes (1926), Baby Brother (1927), Sailors Beware (1927), of course The Unholy Three (1925) and then again when Browning remade it as a talkie in 1930 bringing the total amount of times he played a phony baby to six! In all of the films in which he pulled this off it is utterly convincing thanks to his natural baby face. No where is it quite as hysterical as in The Unholy Three when Earles, in an attempt to avert suspicion from his crimes, is posing as a baby who robs parrot buying clients. He almost blows the whole operation's cover several times by forgetting to dispose of his smouldering cigars when someone enters the room, while he is still draped in baby attire.
During the shooting of Freaks the majority of the film's stars
were barred from eating in MGM's legendary studio canteen which was
notorious for being set up in the most hiearchal of ways. Cast members
were no longer allowed to eat amongst the Gables, Harlows, and Garbos
after some anonymous MGMers complained to Irving Thalberg that their
prescence when they were trying to eat made them sick. One could note
how a person was moving up the star system ladder at the studio based
on their ever changing seating arrangements. The only exception to the
"anti-freaks" rule was the ever debonaire Harry Earles and his sister (who played his jealous wife in the film), who were
allowed to continue eating in the console, presumably, not making
anybody ill. Freaks is without question the film Earles is best remembered for as he
appeared in the love subplot with his sister
and performing partner, Daisy. Unfortunately, their thick German accents did not treat
their transition from silents to talkies well at all, and it is likely they were fine actors in their native tongue, but the language barrier marred their talents in english.
Contrary to an oft-stated misconception, Earles was not in the classic "all-midget western," The Terror of Tiny Town. As explained over here, Earles had a Hollywood doppelganger named Karl Kosicsky. For an exhaustive list of little people who enjoyed show business careers, the vast majority in silent screen comedy at some point, go here.
After appearances in The Wizard of Oz (alongside every other available little person in California) Earles returned to life on the stage, touring around America well into the fifties until finally retiring to Flordia with his three sisters. They lived in a state-of-the-art custom built house which accomadated their size. The home was often featured in magazines of the era for its novelty. Harry lived well into his eighties, dying in the year 1985. At the very least, check out the silent version of The Unholy Three to see the "unique physique" of Harry Earles, at his finest and at the very start of his, very short (both literaly and figuratively) movie career.