“There was an old woman who was a man, and two others — the Unholy Three.”
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, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Con Artists
- Falsely Accused
- Lon Chaney, Sr. Films
- Silent Films
- Tod Browning Films
- Victor McLaglen Films
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”
- Harry Earles, effectively creepy as a twenty-year-old “baby”
- A brief glimpse at Browning’s fascination with circus sideshow performers
Yes. Though it’s not nearly as compelling as Browning’s later masterpiece, this movie holds a special place in film history.