Unholy Three, The (1925)

“There was an old woman who was a man, and two others — the Unholy Three.”

Synopsis:
Three sideshow performers — Echo the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney, Sr.), Hercules the strongman (Victor McLaglen), and midget Tweedledee (Harry Earles) — team up as con artists, calling themselves “The Unholy Three”.

Genres:

Review:
This silent thriller — remade as a talkie in 1930, starring Lon Chaney, Sr. in his final role — is primarily known today as Tod Browning’s thematic precursor to Freaks (1932). Both star midget Harry Earles; both feature a strongman named Hercules; and both deal with sideshow performers who decide to take revenge on “normal” society. Beyond these surface similarities, however, the films differ quite a bit: while Freaks celebrated its circus misfits as a collective group who were content as long as they were respected, The Unholy Three presents the performers as exploited and dissatisfied, eager to use their skills or differences for criminal gain.

While it’s not an entirely successful film, there is much to recommend about The Unholy Three: Earles is particularly creepy here (and more effective than in Freaks) as a twenty-year-old man who can easily pass as a squalling baby; and Lon Chaney turns in yet another stellar performance as both Echo and the stoop-backed, bespectacled “Granny O’Grady”. Unfortunately, however, some major flaws detract from the film’s overall impact. While the trio’s decision to open a parrot shop is a clever play on Echo’s ventriloquism skills, it’s ultimately a silly and contrived way to go about scamming money. In addition, meek shop assistant Hector (Matt Moore) plays an essential part in the film’s plot, yet his presence in the parrot shop doesn’t make logical sense. Finally, a giant chimpanzee emerges for no good reason at the end of the film, other than to kill a key character. Despite its problems, however, this remains an eminently watchable, well-acted thriller, one which showcases Browning’s unique vision, and is thus worth viewing at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lon Chaney, remarkably convincing as both Echo and “Granny O’Grady”
    Lon Chaney
  • Harry Earles, effectively creepy as a twenty-year-old “baby”
    Earles
  • A brief glimpse at Browning’s fascination with circus sideshow performers
    Fat Woman

Must See?
Yes. Though it’s not nearly as compelling as Browning’s later masterpiece, this movie holds a special place in film history.

Categories

Links:

One Response to “Unholy Three, The (1925)”

  1. A once-must. As the years go by, silent films seem to be shown and talked about less and less. I rarely hear film fanatics mention silents. (TCM remains a champion of them.) To a degree, this is understandable–many of them require much patience just to get through. This version of “The Unholy Three’, however, is among the exceptions. Helmed by Chaney’s masterful performance–with solid support by McLaglen and esp. Earles (watching him pass himself off
    as a baby is priceless), this is, for a silent, an exciting if flawed and obviously creaky film. (It’s actually hilarious to see Chaney and Earles momentarily panic when they’re about to be caught out-of-”character’.) I just watched this at TCM and it had a very fitting music score (the one thing that can vastly improve a silent film experience).

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.