Nether Regions 08.10.10: The Unholy Three
Posted by Chad Webb on 08.10.2010
Lon Chaney, Harry Earles, and Victor McLaglen form a memorable trio in Tod Browning's super rare, but outstanding, 1925 film. Also included are thoughts on the 1930 remake where Chaney speaks!
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
THE UNHOLY THREE
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Victor McLaglen, and Harry Earles Directed By: Tod Browning Written By: Waldemar Young (scenario) Running Time: 86 minutes Release Date: August 16, 1925 Missing Since: 1925 Existing Formats: None Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare - Hard to Buy and Watch
Lon Chaney Sr. was a performer that bestowed so many tremendously exciting, scary, and unforgettable characters onto the world. Of course he was the "Man of 1000 Faces", but it is important to take a minute and truly digest why he received that title. He could do almost anything for his time, and whenever he was on screen, the film was taken to another level. While he is mainly recognized for The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he has over 150 titles to his resume. He appeared in 10 films directed by Tod Browning, and one of the most popular is The Unholy Three. For those who have never seen a silent film, but always wanted to take the plunge, The Unholy Three is the perfect one to pop your cherry.
Lon Chaney smiling with a ventriloquist's dummy.
Many will say this is simply a dress rehearsal for Browning's Freaks, as both have a quite a bit in common, but dismissing it because of that is rather unwarranted. The mere inclusion of Chaney makes The Unholy Three different, but the opening sequence lets everyone know who is at the helm as the camera enters a room filled with sideshow performers that could only be found in a Browning picture, including Siamese twins, a fat lady, a sword swallower, and more. It's more of a foreshadowing of the future than a rough draft. Among the "freaks" are Hercules (Victor McLaglen), Tweedledee, and Professor Echo the Ventriloquist. Echo's girlfriend is pickpocket and fellow con artist Rosie (Mae Busch). One day the "freak show" performance of Tweedledee "The 20 Inch Man" and Hercules gets out of hand when a child is assaulted by Tweedledee. Ultimately a man's money is taken by Rosie.
This prompts Echo to engineer a scheme involving a pet store as a front. The plan will have Echo dressing up as Rosie's grandmother, Mrs. "Granny" O'Grady. Since the store sells parrots, Echo, er, Granny O'Grady will make them "talk" using his ventriloquism techniques. Tweedledee acts as the grandchild of the bunch. The customers soon report that the parrot does not talk anymore, which results in Granny visiting their home so they immediately speak in her presence. She brings Tweedledee along, and together they case the home, which is later robbed with the aid of Hercules.
Granny is staying in a room located next to the pet store, which is owned by the dorky Hector MacDonald (Matt Moore). Rosie is used to distract Hector as his girlfriend, but soon genuine feelings emerge between the two. Echo becomes incredibly jealous, and begins skipping out on the robberies so he can keep an eye on Rosie. Tweedledee cannot keep waiting for Echo, so he convinces Hercules that they can act as a duo. One of these nights out concludes with the murder of the wealthy Mr. Arlington, who had been an unhappy parrot owner that also had expensive jewels. To kill two birds with one stone, Hector is framed for the murder in hopes that they all can be free and Echo can win Rosie back.
Unfortunately Rosie's love for Hector reached the point where she is prepared to turn the Unholy Three in unless Hector is freed. The solution is to kidnap Rosie and take her to their mountain hideout cabin. Echo is forced to make a decision, and one could probably guess what that decision is, but the way he tries to make things right is a plot twist that could only work in a silent film, and only by a character played by Lon Chaney. On the surface it sounds formulaic, but I can assure you the execution is anything but hackneyed. The Unholy Three is a very silly film, but also a gripping and moving one at the same time.
Chaney prepared for his role by remembering a thief he met while traveling in his youth. He emulated the man's attitude and mannerisms. One of the many joys of this zany story is watching Chaney switch from Echo to Granny. He was 42 years old at the time, yet his rough chameleon like face manages to be convincing as an old woman. Chaney's facial structure was not his only asset. He was extremely expressive with his entire body, and looking at how he changes to assume the normal identity of Echo and the phony one of Granny is simply sensational. One of the qualities I find fascinating about movies dealing with ventriloquists is examining what the dummy represents to that person. In this case, Rosie falls for a very honest gentleman in Hector, a man who does not hesitate in unburdening his true feelings. That is precisely what Echo has trouble doing, thus he uses the dummy, or a disguise as a means of expressing himself. This commonly results in a distorted and disturbed mind, which is definitely Echo. This can also be observed in the 1978 film Magic.
Mae Busch was already a versatile actress by the time she filmed The Unholy Three. Having been directed twice by the infamous Eric Von Stroheim in The Devil's Passkey and the terrific Foolish Wives, she was unquestionably able to carve a notch in her belt. Nevertheless it would hard for anyone to hold their own in this eclectic cast. Luckily Browning affords some juicy scenes to Busch, most notably where Rosie finally acknowledges that she could be in love with Hector. She struggles with herself in an intense fashion, and it is one of the few moments where Busch has the opportunity to shine. Admittedly she possesses barely a speck of chemistry with Matt Moore's Hector, but she and Chaney are a perfect fit together. Her plea to Echo in the woods during the final portion of the story is mesmerizing.
Harry Earles gazes at a cop with a puzzled expression.
I doubt Lon Chaney took a back seat to many people in his career, but Harry Earles nearly accomplishes that feat as Tweedledee. There is no doubt that he rivals Chaney's Echo as the paramount reason to watch The Unholy Three. 1925 was a different time for dwarf actors, but Earles totally and completely relishes in the part. Captivating and hilarious, Earles goes from smoking a cigarette and threatening a man twice his size to dressing like a toddler and playing with a toy. A more conniving and murderous dwarf cannot be found anywhere. Tweedledee is the member of the group that accentuates the problems. He is an untrustworthy and dangerous little rat, but Earles is fantastic as such. One of the best sequences has Tweedledee unlocking the cage of the pet store gorilla, and letting him loose on everyone in sight. The scene is staged in a most brilliant way since the gorilla is actually just a chimpanzee. Earles doubles for Chaney so the gorilla appears gigantic.
The Unholy Three does contain an Oscar winner oddly enough, and he is British star Victor McLaglen, recognizable for his numerous turns in John Ford films, particularly Irish speaking parts such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man, an exquisite film earning him a second nomination. As Hercules he is simply the strong brute of the trio, the one being taken advantage of since he is all muscle. As intimidating as he is intended to be, it is Earles' Tweedledee that does most of the bullying towards Hercules. That combination of opposites is a pleasure to view in action. As for Matt Moore as Hector MacDonald, his Harold Lloyd like traits are meant to be exaggerated so that seeing Echo get increasingly aggravated is more funny than chilling.
Tod Browning was known for many talents, but his visual prowess never gets enough praise. He integrates quite a few neat tricks, such as the word balloons over the birds heads. He also succeeds in the pacing of his films, and the delivery of certain scenes. At a brisk 86 minutes, The Unholy Three has the best running time for this type of story. Browning adapted Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins' novel with Waldemar Young, but made sure that it did not overstay its welcome, which some respected silent filmmakers tended to forget. The fact that the viewer and the unholy three themselves know more than the victims make the concept a blast. The best scene is when a police office starts playing with Tweedledee's elephant toy, which holds the stolen jewels. No one knows what they should do while this cop gets warmer and warmer. It is suspense in the finest sense of the word.
Deception, secrets, and irony infuse The Unholy Three as if those elements were going out of style. Multiple situations are blown because of characters overhearing others through doors. Exactly how thin were doors constructed back then anyhow? It seems almost everyone except Hector is hiding something from another person, but Browning juggles each character's thoughts and attitude splendidly. He also is adept at communicating the ventriloquist illusion despite the fact that we cannot hear Chaney's voice. The spectacular acting from Chaney, along with brilliantly timed reactions from the supporting cast, reinforces this artifice.
Another of the many posters.
I saw The Unholy Three in New York City for a rare screening at the Walter Reade Theater where Grammy nominated musician Gary Lucas was on hand to perform his own score for the film. Apart from the distraction of watching him juggle various guitars, I admired Lucas' enthusiasm and creativity in giving the characters their own themes, and injecting the macabre thriller with an added layer of humor. He is a talented guitarist with approximately 20 acclaimed albums to his name, and he even fielded questions following the movie. He was grateful have the opportunity to compose a score for the film, but admitted some of it was improv and fresh depending on what sprung to his head as it played.
The Unholy Three was immensely popular, so much so that Earles' irreplaceable character influenced a Little Rascals episode and a Bugs Bunny short involving a cigar smoking gangster child. If that wasn't enough, Lon Chaney remade the film 5 years later in 1930 as a sound picture. It was Chaney's first and only talkie as he died of throat cancer weeks after the release. That version was directed by Jack Conway, who attempts to duplicate Browning's style, but the subtle changes are noticeable, and thus many of Browning's striking compositions are gone. Elements of surprise and suspense are slightly altered, such as Earles playing with the toy elephant just to name one.
What is truly sad is that Chaney translates to talkies with superlative results. He sounds like a natural star of that era, and who knows what he could have accomplished had he lived longer. His legacy ended with the line "I'll send you a Postal Card." Overall it is only marginally below the original. It is just as rare as the silent version, and has never been released on VHS or DVD, unless you include bootlegs from the super rare TCM airings. For movies like these that hardly ever see the light of day unless it is in a big city, the only way you will be able to enjoy it yourself is by petitioning for a DVD release.
The Unholy Three is blend of comedy, horror, and suspense about misfits striking back at normal society. It is also about how one mean conceals his true nature under the guise of someone who is evil. It is far from a flawless film. Many unanswered question will pop into your head. For instance, how can Echo disguise his voice so that it sounds as if it is emanating from a person halfway across the room? There are more, but not one is annoyingly bothersome. This is a fun movie that is well worth checking out. Keep checking the IMDB page for showtimes and air dates.
The Unholy Three (1925): 8.0/10.0
The Unholy Three (1930): 7.5/10.0