The Unholy Three is a 1925 American silent crime melodrama film involving a trio of circus conmen, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney. The supporting cast features Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen, and Harry Earles. The Unholy Three marks the establishment of the notable artistic alliance between director Browning and actor Chaney that would deliver eight outstanding films to M-G-M studios during the late silent film era.
Three performers leave a sideshow after Tweedledee (Harry Earles), a midget performer, assaults a young heckler and sparks a melee. The three join together in an “unholy” plan to become wealthy. Prof. Echo, the ventriloquist, assumes the role of Mrs. O’Grady, a kindly old grandmother, who runs a pet shop, while Tweedledee plays her grandchild. Hercules (Victor McLaglen), the strongman, works in the shop along with the unsuspecting Hector McDonald (Matt Moore). Echo’s girlfriend, pickpocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch), pretends to be his granddaughter.
Using what they learn from delivering pets, the trio later commit burglaries, with their wealthy buyers as victims. On Christmas Eve, John Arlington (an uncredited Charles Wellesley) telephones to complain that the “talking” parrot (aided by Echo’s ventriloquism) he bought will not speak. When “Granny” O’Grady visits him to coax the bird into performing, “she” takes along grandson “Little Willie”. While there, they learn that a valuable ruby necklace is in the house. They decide to steal it that night. As Echo is too busy, the other two grow impatient and decide to go ahead without him.
The next day, Echo is furious to read in the newspaper that Arlington was killed and his three-year-old daughter badly injured in the robbery. Hercules shows no remorse whatsoever, relating how Arlington pleaded for his life. When a police investigator shows up at the shop, the trio become fearful and decide to frame Hector, hiding the jewelry in his room.
Meanwhile, Hector proposes to Rosie. She turns him down, but he overhears her crying after he leaves. To his joy, she confesses she loves him, but was ashamed of her shady past. When the police take him away, Rosie tells the trio that she will exonerate him, forcing them to abduct her and flee to a mountain cabin. Echo takes along his large pet ape (who terrifies Hercules).
In the spring, Hector is brought to trial. Rosie pleads with Echo to save Hector, promising to stay with him if he does. After Echo leaves for the city, Tweedledee overhears Hercules asking Rosie to run away with him (and the loot). Tweedledee releases the ape. Hercules kills Tweedledee right before the ape gets him.
At the trial, Echo agonizes over what to do, but finally rushes forward and confesses all. Both he and Hector are set free. When Rosie goes to Echo to keep her promise, he lies and says he was only kidding. He tells her to go to Hector. Echo returns to the sideshow, giving his spiel to the customers: “That’s all there is to life, friends, … a little laughter … a little tear.”
- Lon Chaney as Prof. Echo, a.k.a. Mrs. O’Grady or “Granny”
- Mae Busch as Rosie O’Grady
- Matt Moore as Hector McDonald
- Victor McLaglen as Hercules, a.k.a. “Son-in-Law”
- Harry Earles as Tweedledee, a.k.a. Baby “Little Willie”
- Matthew Betz as Detective Regan
- Edward Connelly as the Judge
- William Humphrey as Defense Attorney
- E. Alyn Warren as Prosecuting Attorney
In 1924, Universal’s vice-president Irving Thalberg departed to join Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios as production manager. Director Tod Browning followed him to M-G-M after producing a number of unimpressive independent films.
At M-G-M he proposed adapting author Tod Robbins’ The Unholy Three and Thalberg accommodated Browning by purchasing the rights and enlisting Lon Chaney to play the lead; Chaney may have requested that Browning direct, having worked with him effectively in 1921 on Universal’s Outside the Law starring Priscilla Dean.
With The Unholy Three, Thalberg, Browning and Chaney established a highly creative and profitable collaborative trio that produced seven more films at M-G-M, marking the zenith of both Browning’s and Chaney’s careers.
Browning arrived at M-G-M well-versed in the techniques of “trick photography.” The “ape” that dispatches the strongman Hector (Victor McLaglen) was actually a three-foot-tall chimpanzee who was made to appear gigantic with camera trickery and perspective shots. When Echo removes the ape from his cage, the shot shows Echo (with his back turned to the camera) unlocking the cage and walking the ape to the truck. The ape appears to be roughly the same size as Echo. This effect was achieved by having Harry Earles (who played “Tweedledee” in the film) play Echo for these brief shots, and then cutting to Chaney, making it seem as though the ape is gigantic. (In the 1930 remake, the ape was played by Charles Gemora.)
Release and reception
The Unholy Three enjoyed tremendous success, adding luster to Chaney’s reputation as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and revealing Browning’s as a remarkable film stylist.
On August 15, 1925 The Billboard published a list of five short reviews for the movie. This featured such critics as Mordaunt Hall (Times), George Gerhard (Evening World), Richard Watts Jr. (Herald-Tribune), and W.R. (World).
The movie was such a success upon its debut that at its release at the New York Capitol Theater, it maintained a strong audience attendance for at least two weeks. Major Edward Bowes, who was the managing director at the time, took steps to ensure everyone who didn’t get to see the movie the first week of its viewing would get to by extending the movie’s stay. An article written about this event noted the movie as “acclaimed as the best crook drama on the screen and one of the most entertaining motion pictures ever made”, which speaks, along with its apparent popularity, for the movie’s quality.
Sherwood of Life magazine praised the movie for its photography and providing a more psychological horror film rather than relying on movie effects to scare its audience. Noted by Sherwood is how the film was shot great attention given to scenes as individual pieces rather than as parts of one greater project, causing continuity errors. This is explained by the writer as an acceptable outcome considering the overall quality. The review is concluded with Sherwood declaring The Unholy Three to be “the best picture of its kind since The Miracle Man.”
The Unholy Three was released for the first time on DVD by Warner Bros. Digital Distribution on October 26, 2010. The company would later re-release the film as a part of its 6-disc Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection on November 22, 2011, and on June 23, 2015.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 83% based on 6 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 6.8/10. Author and film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film two and a half out of four stars. Although Maltin noted that the film contained aspects that were less satisfactory, he commended its strong basic idea and Chaney’s performance.
As is common of a Tod Browning film, circus life and unusual bodies play a central role in this movie along with great use of trompe-l’œil optical illusion. Trompe-l’œil is exercised and played with as the illusion of Dr. Echo as “Mrs. O’Grady” and Tweedledee as “Little Willie”. The main plot of the movie revolves around the character’s abilities to pass themselves off convincingly as something they are not, an illusion the movie peels back and reasserts for both the other characters and for the audience themselves. Contrary to the usual use of this effect, Browning makes it a point to disillusion the audience and display the workings of the illusion to create a different sort of viewing stimulation.
In most Browning films, his opinion of the deformed and different becomes evident. The Unholy Three‘s plot plays directly with another of Browning’s favorite topics, dealing with identity, doubles, dual roles, and deformity. This film is unique in that the character Tweedledee is the only one of this group of that is played by a deformed character and is malicious in nature.