Having been awed and amazed by previous Lon Chaney films that I’ve seen, I was a little disappointed in the one I’d heard most about: The Unholy Three (1925.) Learning now that it was the first collaboration between Chaney and director Tod Browning at MGM, it stands to reason that each film would only become stronger. (I’ll soon continue to test that theory.)
Chaney’s famous physical altering of his body is minimal here as he simply dresses in drag to become the elderly Granny O’Grady. By day, he’s Echo, the Ventriloquist, one-third of the titular crime gang that calls itself, “the Unholy Three.” The other two are Hercules (Victor McLaglen), the strong man, and Tweedledee (Harry Earles), the little person.
They’re performers at a side show and their collaboration is formed as an extension of Echo’s relationship with pickpocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch.) She’s in essence a fourth member of the gang as they set up shop in an apartment behind the pet store owned by Hector McDonald (Matt Moore.) Echo/Granny uses his/her ventriloquist skills to sell parrots.
How does that make them riches? Well, oddly enough, when Granny is around, the parrots talk, and that’s a huge selling point. When someone buys one and takes it home and it doesn’t talk, Granny and her grandchild in a buggy, Tweedledee posing as a cute little baby, pay a visit and stake out the place for the future robbery that they and Hercules will later perpetrate.
Their con goes out of control when Echo’s jealously toward an apparent romance between Rosie and Hector causes him to sit out from a planned robbery at the Arlington home. Without his guidance, Mr. Arlington is killed, leading the police to question Granny because they find out she may have seen the killer when she was there earlier that day.
I will admit, I’m putting some of the pieces together myself. The Unholy Three doesn’t do too good a job with the connective tissue of its plot-heavy individual scenes. It’s not hard to figure out, but it does take some time every once in a while to understand exactly what is happening. One surprise that does evolve organically is that Echo had good reason to be jealous.
Rosie has indeed fallen in love… deeply in love… with Hector. He becomes the fall guy for the murder and, following a moment of cruelty between Echo and Rosie, she begs him to help prove that he’s innocent. If he will help him, she’ll spend the rest of her life with Echo instead of Hector. What will Echo do?
For me, we don’t know enough about Echo to fully accept why he makes the decision he does. This isn’t for Chaney’s lack of trying. In most of his movies, we talk about his grotesque characters. Here, he does most of his acting au naturel. We can see his anguish and the painful decision he makes. It's missing just a little plot point to help support it.
The Unholy Three was a huge hit and was remade at a talkie in 1930. It was Chaney’s last film and his only talkie. I haven’t seen it, but at almost 20 minutes shorter, I wonder how it handles my story quibbles. Don’t get me wrong, this one is good. In comparison to Chaney’s others, though, I don’t think it’s great.
Written by Waldemar Young
From the novel by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen, Harry Earles
RT 86 min.
Released Aug. 16, 1925
Recorded on Oct. 14, 2020 (TCM)
Rating 6 Phantoms (out of 10)
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