Lon Chaney plays a ventriloquist-turned-criminal who joins forces with two other sideshow performers to open a pet shop and steal jewels. Just go with it. Chaney reunited with director Tod Browning for this strange crime drama.
Polly want a murder?
Lon Chaney started making movies in the early 1910s (the exact date of his debut is disputed) but it took years of elbow grease before he finally ascended to true stardom. Chaney had trusted and liked Irving Thalberg at Universal and it was Thalberg who oversaw Chaney’s string of hits at the fledgling MGM.
The Unholy Three was released between a Chaney bomb (The Monster, very much the brainchild of director Roland West and not nearly as bad as you might have heard) and one of his biggest hits (The Phantom of the Opera, completed much earlier but held back for tinkering and to make it—believe it or not—less scary). The film also reunited Chaney with director Tod Browning, who had helmed The Wicked Darling and Outside the Law. Both films had been vehicles for tough girl Priscilla Dean but had included juicy parts for Chaney.
The Unholy Three was a fairly subtle showcase for Chaney’s makeup skills. He disguises himself as an old woman as part of a jewel theft scheme, so we’re not talking about Quasimodo level prosthetics or anything like that. What makes the film particularly notable is that it was selected to be remade as Chaney’s first—and only—sound film. We’ll be discussing why this was an intelligent choice for MGM to make and how the original stacks up against the talkie remake but first, let’s dive into the silent film.
Professor Echo (Lon Chaney) is a ventriloquist plying his trade for dimes at a small sideshow. He supplements his income by collaborating with Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch), a pickpocket who lifts wallets and watches from the crowd. Echo and Rosie are an item but there’s not a lot of heat in the relationship, at least on her side. She thinks he’s a swell guy but… well, I believe we all know where this is going.
The rest of the cast is quickly introduced: Hercules (Victor McLaglen) is the strongman of the sideshow, impressive physically but weak-willed and easily manipulated. Tweedledee (played by real-life little person Harry Earles) is quick-tempered and prone to violence, especially when audiences mock his small stature.
When Tweedledee attacks a child at a sideshow performance and leaves his victim bloodied, Echo decides it’s time to put his plan into action. Echo, Tweedledee and Hercules will form a criminal gang called the Unholy Three. Step one: open a pet shop. Wait, what?
The plan is as follows: Echo disguises himself as Mrs. O’Grady, the bird whisperer of the shop. Using his ventriloquist skills, he will make the shop’s parrots the most desirable talkers around. Then as now, parrots cost a chunk of change and only well-to-do people are likely to purchase them. When the bird arrives and fails to talk, Mrs. O’Grady will bring her baby “grandson” with her and help the new owner out. Of course, the baby is really Tweedledee. The joint cased, the duo will return later with Hercules and rob the place.
In case the police get suspicious, the Unholy Three have hired a patsy to run the front end of the shop, Hector McDonald (Matt Moore). Hector was born yesterday and thinks he’s helping a dear old woman with her business. He even buys toys for the baby. The wrinkle is that Rosie, who is posing as Mrs. O’Grady’s granddaughter, kind of goes for naïve and she’s starting to fall for Hector.
Anyone who has seen a Lon Chaney movie will know where this is going: anger, jealousy and the question of a final sacrifice. And this being a Tod Browning film, we also get a random, giant killer ape.
You see, Echo and Tweedledee case a joint, spot a ruby necklace and decide to return that night with Hercules to claim it for themselves. Unfortunately, Hector wants to trim a Christmas tree with Rosie (oh gosh, oh golly, oh gee!) and Echo is too jealous to leave them alone together. Tweedledee gets impatient and needles Hercules into robbing the house without Echo. This is a problem as Echo is not only the mastermind, he is the one with the fewest homicidal tendencies and without his influence, Tweedledee and Hercules murder the homeowner. Okay, maybe Echo isn’t exactly a mastermind as noticing murderous intent in one’s business partners is an important life skill.
Tweedledee thinks the murder is pretty hilarious and Hercules is too stupid to realize the danger he has put them all in. Jewel thefts are serious but murder will really bring the police down on them. It looks like it may be time for Hector to fulfill his role as the fall guy for the gang.
Will Hector go to the chair for the murder? Will Echo win back Rosie’s love? Find out in The Unholy Three!
The Unholy Three had been a passion project for Tod Browning, who was always attracted to films about the sleazy world of the carnival, as well as the criminal underworld. This film also proved to be the first in a wildly (weirdly) successful string of collaborations with Lon Chaney at MGM. And that’s why it’s so odd that the direction is flat.
When he was on, there was no one better than Browning for creating atmosphere; one only has to watch The Wicked Darling or West of Zanzibar to see a master at work. Unfortunately, as author Michael Blake brings out in A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures, Browning was hit and miss in this regard. The Unholy Three has the sterile quality of a studio backlot and there is very little richness to the setting. I wanted to see mud and sawdust on the ground, practically smell the cigar smoke through the screen. Browning simply does not deliver and I am doubly disappointed because it is clearly within his abilities.
But, let’s face it, we’re here for Chaney and our beloved monster does his very best with his inconsistent character. Echo is supposed to be the voice of reason in the gang but if he was so smart, couldn’t he see that Tweedledee was a killer in the making? It’s to Chaney’s credit that we do not question this until after the film ends.
Chaney’s biggest accomplishment in the film is convincingly portraying Mrs. O’Grady, which he does with minimal makeup. Aided by a wig, some lace mitts to make his hands looks smaller and a pair of beaded earrings, Chaney flutters around his pet shop like he’s auditioning for Arsenic and Old Lace. It’s quite impressive.
That being said, Chaney is also helped along by an able supporting cast. Mae Busch’s world-weary tough girl is convincing, as is her love for Hector. Matt Moore takes the thankless role of nice guy patsy and infuses it with dorky dignity, making the character of Hector far more likeable than he would have been otherwise. Victor McLaglen does excellent work as Hercules, staring dimly out of his mental fog before being done in by a not-so-bright idea. Harry Earles overplays a bit but he is physically so perfect for his role that we can easily forgive him some carrying on.
Echo’s giant ape is, alas, far less convincing. Chaney was doubled by Earles from behind to make the ape look massive but it’s never quite believable, neither are the forced perspective shots. Without giving too much away, I was also disappointed that so many interpersonal conflicts were wrapped up with ape ex machina.
The Unholy Three is a flawed film but there is plenty to like about it, particularly for fans of Chaney and/or Browning. The all-around excellent performances and bonkers plot will keep everyone entertained and you really can’t ask for more, can you?
Where can I see it?
The Unholy Three has been released on DVD by Warner Archive. In an unusual move for this quality label, the film is accompanied by a cobbled-together score of preexisting recordings. The results are pretty poor and, frankly, I am shocked that this sort of thing was allowed be released under the Warner banner. Orchestra scores are spendy but surely Warner or TCM would have had the resources to at least hire a professional accompanist on an organ or piano. That being said, the image quality is quite good.
When it became obvious that sound films were the wave of the future, studios were left in a pickle. Would they crank out star-helmed talkies and have done with it or would they wait and craft sound vehicles around the talents of their top performers? No two talkie stories are alike but Lon Chaney’s sound debut was of the carefully crafted variety, released nearly three years after The Jazz Singer sparked the sound craze.
Of all his hit films, a remake of The Unholy Three was selected for his talking picture debut; it had been a solid moneymaker but not as profitable as his other pictures. However, it did have a few factors in its favor. First, the Mrs. O’Grady disguise did not require false teeth or other makeup or prosthetics that would interfere with Chaney’s speaking voice. Second, the part also allowed Chaney to expand his brand; he was not just the Man of a Thousand Faces, he was the Man of a Thousand Voices.
The Unholy Three (1930)
The story of the talkie remake, as well as more than a few shots, are lifted directly from the 1925 version and there are not enough changes to make for an interesting discussion so let’s dive right into the question that most people will be asking: How is Lon Chaney’s voice?
Just fine. Deep, a little gravelly, has a bit of that nasal gangster sound, exactly right for the rough-around-the-edges Echo. But a thousand voices? I’m afraid I am not quite as impressed with his vocal contortions as others have been. Chaney’s Mrs. O’Grady voice passes muster and the ventriloquist act is okay but Man of a Thousand Voices is just a bridge too far, at least for me. I’m very sorry to Chaney fans but there it is. Chaney’s performance overall is quite good, though, and he clearly understands the need to pull things back a bit in a sound film.
One unforeseen consequence of sound is how the Unholy Three’s accents change the narrative. Instead of a trio of ex-carnies whose pasts are mysteries, we have a German and a Russian teamed up with an American; a pair of violent foreigners kept in check by a common, decent local criminal. Echo was already divided from his compatriots in that he could physically blend in with the populace sans disguise, the sound film makes this distinction all the stronger and adds a slight whiff of xenophobia. This is not helped by the fact that both Harry Earles (Germany) and Ivan Linow (Russia) were born in countries traditionally used as villains in American pop culture. It’s highly unlikely that this was intentional but the result is the same.
Jack Conway doesn’t have the name recognition as Tod Browning these days but his direction is solid. The sound film has tiny little narrative touches that make the film glide along more smoothly. We are shown Hercules teasing the giant ape and the closing of the sideshow, which helps motivate the formation of the Unholy Three. Further, the trial scene has far better pacing in the sound film. The silent was basically ten minutes of Lon Chaney trying to attract Matt Moore’s attention while the sound film gets to the point fairly quickly.
Tod Browning was never the most visually sophisticated director, preferring strong atmosphere to carry things along. However, the atmosphere is surprisingly weak in the 1925 version of the film. The sideshow looks like a school auditorium and the hideout in the deep wilderness looks like a Craftsman bungalow overlooking Griffith Park—which it could have been for all I know. Things are only slightly better in the 1930 film but Conway is a little more imaginative with the cinematography.
The endings of the two films are pretty similar but (again, not trying to give anything away) I prefer the intimacy to the 1925 version with just Busch and Chaney. To say more would be telling.
Style, atmosphere and the novelty of hearing Lon Chaney speak all work in the 1930 version’s favor but the 1925 film has its own advantages. Namely, the casting of Busch, McLaglen and Moore. Lila Lee takes over the role of Rosie O’Grady in the sound film and she lacks the streetwise toughness that Busch conveyed so easily. Frankly, I can’t see her taking mini shampoo bottles from a hotel room much less being an accomplished pickpocket.
The role of Hector requires a certain “gee whiz” quality but Elliott Nugent lays it on a little thick. Further, he lacks the charm that Matt Moore brought to the role and it is not at all surprising that his later career was dedicated to directing rather than acting. (Nugent co-wrote the screenplay for the film with his father.) Ivan Linow is imposing as Hercules but his performance lacks the nuance that Victor McLaglen managed to convey. The two holdovers from the silent, Chaney and Earles, both regulate their performances to adapt to the talkie medium. Chaney, of course, has better acting chops overall but Earles is fine.
Finally, the question of the ape. This film goes the stuntman-in-a-monkey-suit route and it isn’t a whole lot more convincing this go-round. Really, this is one area where being unfaithful to the original would have been a big bonus.
And the winner is…
While the sound film has much to recommend it, the silent is put over the top thanks to the winning performances from the supporting cast. However, I recommend that Chaney fans watch both films back-to-back in order to appreciate his unique artistry and to see how he regulates his performance between the silent and sound films.
Of course, the final, tragic plot twist in this tale is that Chaney did not live to enjoy his successful transfer to talkies. He passed away a month after the film opened.
Availability: The Unholy Three (1930) is available on DVD from Warner Archive.
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