Three sideshow performers leave their lives of captivity and become "The Unholy Three." Echo the ventriloquist assumes the role of a kindly old grandmother who runs a bird shop. Tweedledee, the "twenty inch man," becomes her grandbaby, and Hercules is their assistant. Soon an incredible crime wave is launched from their little store. Written by
David Ezell <email@example.com>
"The Unholy Three" (MGM, 1925), directed by Tod Browning, is the kind of movie only Lon Chaney could do best, playing a tough guy with a good heart, donning a disguise or two, and coming out with one of the film's famous lines, "That's all there is to life, folks, just a little laugh, just a little tear." In reality, it's a change of pace for Chaney from his previous efforts, playing a tough but sympathetic character in a crime drama.
The story features three museum freaks, Hercules, the strong man (Victor McLaglen), Tweeledee, the dwarf (Harry Earles), and Professor Echo, the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney), performing in a sideshow while Echo's girl, Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch) goes through the crowd picking pockets. When Echo comes upon an idea of a get-rich-quick scheme, he, Hercules, Tweeledee and Rosie become partners in crime as THE UNHOLY THREE. They then open a store stocked with parrots that will not talk, but Echo, disguised as Granny O'Grady, the proprietress, arranges to have the parrots "talk" only in his presence. His gal Rosie acts as "Granny's grand-daughter," with Tweeledee is disguised as Rosie's infant son and Hercules as the "infant's" uncle. With the shop as a front, THE UNHOLY THREE rob the homes of their well-to-do customers, especially when they telephone to complain that the parrots they brought does not talk, thus, having Granny and the "baby" paying them a visit and casing the place for a possible late night robbery. Also working in the shop is Hector McDonald (Matt Moore), who becomes interested in Rosie but is unaware of the operation.
Watching Lon Chaney disguised as a sweet little old lady is priceless, almost reminiscent to Tod Browning's latter melodrama of the sound era, "The Devil Doll" (MGM, 1936) in which Lionel Barrymore appeared as an escaped convict dressed as an elderly woman to elude the law, a role Chaney would have done, I'm sure, had he lived. Chaney would play Echo again in his one and only talkie of 1930 bearing the same title. With both films readily available for viewing on Turner Classic Movies, one can see and compare both versions, in spite of some changes in parts in the continuity. Along with Chaney, midget Harry Earles also repeats his Tweeledee performance.
When "The Unholy Three" was presented on public television's 13-week series tribute to MGM, "Movies, Great Movies" in 1973, its host, Richard Schickel mentioned that this 1925 version was Lon Chaney's personal favorite of all his movies and one of MGM's biggest hits of that year. It's a grand performance worthy of the "master of disguises." Although a silent movie, one would wish to hear how the Echo character would throw his voice around to fool his customers. (Watch the 1930 talkie and find out).
Also interesting is seeing a young Victor McLaglen, the future Best Actor winner of 1935's "The Informer," still rugged but a little thinner; Mae Busch (famous for her variety of roles in several Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts and features for Hal Roach in the 1930s), usually playing a tough gal, here playing against type as a co-starring love interest; and Matthew Betz as Inspector Regan. Tod Browning's direction should not go unnoticed, with one interesting scene having Chaney discussing his future plans in forming THE UNHOLY THREE to his supporters, as presented on screen in silhouettes, looking something like a "film noir" crook drama of the 1940s.
The 1925 version of THE UNHOLY THREE, clocked at 86 minutes, currently includes the same orchestral scoring on Turner Classic Movies that was composed and originally chosen for the October 12, 1973, public television presentation of "Movies, Great Movies" a 13-week series tribute to MGM's 50th anniversary of its silent movies from the 1920s, as hosted by Richard Schickel. A worthy rediscovery to Lon Chaney's filmography of MGM successes (1924-1930). (***)
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