The Unholy Three (1925) ***
Generally speaking, when the subject of Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three comes up, it is in the context of early American horror movies. The only real reason for this would seem to be that the film was directed by Browning, and starred Lon Chaney, both of them men who left a profound mark on the horror genre. For despite its associations, The Unholy Three really isn’t a horror movie at all, but rather one of the strangest, most dementedly off-kilter crime dramas ever filmed.
Even so, it really would be hard to talk intelligently about the origins of American horror cinema without at least touching on The Unholy Three; it is nothing if not a movie of firsts, most of which are directly relevant to the subject. For one thing, it marked Browning’s triumphant return to the director’s chair after a stretch during which his excessive drinking came close to killing off his career completely. Secondly, it was Browning’s first collaboration with Chaney, and Chaney’s first film for MGM, the progenitor of a lineage that includes such notable silent horror movies as London After Midnight and The Unknown. Finally, and of perhaps the greatest importance, The Unholy Three marks Browning’s first directorial delving into a subject that had deep personal resonance for him, and to which he would return several times in his later horror productions— the circus sideshow. Before he was a filmmaker, Browning had worked in an amazing number of capacities for a succession of circuses, carnivals, and sideshows, having run away from home to join his first roadshow when he was sixteen years old. Over the ensuing fifteen years or so, Browning had been a singer, a barker, a blackface minstrel, a contortionist, a trick rider, an escape artist— for a while, he even had an act with a medicine show in which he played a corpse that would be buried, dug up the next day, and then restored to life by means of some fraudulent healing elixir. Only in 1913 did Browning make the jump to the movies, and only four years after that did he switch from acting to directing. With a background like that, it’s remarkable that it took him until 1925 to make his first sideshow picture.
Actually, truth be told, The Unholy Three has less to do with the sideshow per se than with the extracurricular criminal careers of four sideshow performers. These are the ventriloquist Professor Echo (Chaney), the strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen), the midget Tweedledee (Harry Earles, of Freaks, who would reprise this role when The Unholy Three was remade five years later), and Echo’s girlfriend, Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch, who later played very small parts in Doctor X and The Mad Monster). Rosie’s contribution is to pick the pockets of the spectators who come to gawk at her three companions. But even with their income thus supplemented, the circus doesn’t exactly make for lucrative employment for any of them. One day, however, Echo has himself a brainstorm, and concocts a get-rich-quick scheme so bizarre that he figures no policeman would ever look close enough to catch on to it. After securing the cooperation of Hercules and Tweedledee, he pitches his plan to Rosie, who is arguably the key to the whole thing.
Soon thereafter, in a town somewhere along the sideshow’s itinerary, O’Grady’s Bird Shop opens for business. And yes, perceptive reader, that is indeed O’Grady as in Rosie O’Grady, but it isn’t Rosie who officially owns the store. Rather, the business belongs to her “grandmother” (really Echo in drag), who has an uncanny knack for training talking birds. Again you’ve guessed it— the birds don’t really talk at all. Their speech is merely the product of Echo’s ventriloquism, which enables him and his accomplices to sell parrots of comparatively cheap, non-talking species for the higher prices commanded by speaking birds. That’s only the beginning of Echo’s loopy plan, however. When Granny O’Grady’s unsatisfied customers inevitably call back to complain, she makes house calls in an effort to loosen the birds’ tongues, bringing her other grandchild, the infant Willie, along with her. Willie, of course, is really Tweedledee, and from his vantage point in the baby buggy, he cases the customers’ houses for valuables while Echo keeps the owners occupied with his Granny act. Then Echo, Tweedledee, and Hercules come back in the middle of the night and make off with whatever the midget’s reconnaissance turned up during the day. Rosie, meanwhile, is the distracting public face of the whole operation. You see what Echo means about this racket being so screwy that no cop would ever believe in it?
There are two problems, though. First of all, Echo thought it necessary to hire an outsider to work as a clerk in the store, so that there would be somebody around to take the fall on the off-chance that the authorities did get wise to his scam. But Hector MacDonald (Matt Moore, from the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) has complicated matters by falling in love with Rosie. That means MacDonald wants to hang around the shop after hours all the time (the “O’Grady family” lives in an apartment behind and above the store proper), disrupting the privacy that Echo and company need in order to plan and execute their midnight heists. Beyond that, Echo’s jealousy of Rosie is such that he can’t bring himself to leave her alone in the stock boy’s company, which further impedes his criminal activities. That leads us to the second big difficulty, the inevitable friction between the conspirators. Both Tweedledee and Hercules chafe under Echo’s dictatorial leadership, especially whenever the boss wants to postpone a break-in in favor of keeping an eye on Rosie and Hector.
The dissention in the ranks has disastrous results come Christmas Eve. Hector comes over to the store with a Christmas tree right when the Unholy Three (as Echo, Hercules, and Tweedledee have dubbed themselves) are gearing up to pull their biggest heist yet. Fearing both discovery and infidelity on Rosie’s part, Echo changes into his Granny O’Grady disguise and tries to hurry Hector’s visit along. But the other two crooks get sick of waiting; when Echo still hasn’t rejoined them more than an hour later, Hercules and Tweedledee take the car and drive off to the house they staked out the day before. Its owner is awake when they break in, and the two criminals kill him when he tries to stand in their way. The story is all over the newspapers the following morning, and Echo is furious; he may be a thief, but he prides himself on being nothing worse than that. Because the dead man’s butler remembers that Granny O’Grady had been in the house just yesterday, and had seen the jewels that were stolen after their owner was murdered, a police detective named Regan (Matthew Betz, from The Terror and The Mystery of the Wax Museum) starts poking around the store looking for the connection his instincts tell him must be there. At the urging of his accomplices, Echo tries to frame Hector for the theft and murder (after all, that’s what they hired the guy for), but then Echo’s “foolproof” scheme hits its final snag— Rosie, it seems, really has fallen for Hector, and can be expected to do whatever is in her power to save him from the electric chair.
Heh. And I thought I wasn’t going to do a Christmas movie this year... Amazingly enough, The Unholy Three was a huge success. Not only did it make a metric shitload of money and thereby put Tod Browning back in the good graces of his old bosses at MGM, it was hailed by the New York Times as one of the ten best movies of 1925. It may seem implausible that such praise (and such grosses) could accrue to a fucked-up caper flick about a strongman, a midget, and a cross-dressing ventriloquist, but the fact is that The Unholy Three was something close to a surefire hit. Chaney had just transferred from Universal, where he had starred in the awesome The Phantom of the Opera, and he was just about the biggest movie star in the country in 1925; nobody in Hollywood today enjoys anything close to the nationwide cult of personality that developed around Lon Chaney in the 1920’s. Beyond that, the novel from which The Unholy Three was derived (written by Tod Robbins, who, interestingly enough, also wrote the story on which Browning’s later masterpiece, Freaks, was very loosely based) had been a best-seller, and the 20’s were just generally a big decade for outlandish crime stories— as the immense popularity of authors like Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer demonstrates. With the deck stacked so heavily in its favor, it would have been more surprising if The Unholy Three hadn’t gone through the roof.
So how does the reality stack up against the now mostly forgotten hype? Fairly well, actually. I haven’t seen nearly enough movies from 1925 even to guess at what the year’s ten best might have been, but The Unholy Three is certainly quite a ride. Those viewers who come to it expecting a horror film on the model of subsequent Browning-Chaney collaborations will surely be disappointed, but those who are willing to let the movie be what it wants to should find few obstacles to their enjoyment. For me, it’s a little odd to see Chaney playing a character who isn’t a tortured, obsessive outcast (Echo may be an outcast, but he doesn’t have enough scruples to be truly tortured or obsessed), and his performance is missing a bit of the power I generally associate with his work. On the other hand, Harry Earles will come as a pleasant surprise to anyone whose only previous exposure to him was in Freaks. It turns out Earles was quite an actor when he didn’t have to worry about dialogue (English was his second language, and he never spoke it fluently enough to act in it with any success), and he steals practically every scene that he is involved in. But as is so often the case in movies with outrageous premises, it’s really the premise itself on which The Unholy Three mostly depends. This is one of those films that just keep getting weirder, and by the time Echo’s pet gorilla (startlingly portrayed by a live chimp performing on 2/3-scale sets) makes his appearance, you’ll have seen so many things come out of left field that you’ll probably just take it in stride: “Ah, yes. A killer ape. Naturally.”