Nov. 3, 2009
The Unholy Three (1925)
Grade: 78/100

Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Harry Earles

What it's about. A typically strange collaboration between horror director Tod Browning (Dracula) and the Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney. Chaney is a ventriloquist at a "freak show", where he is featured with, among others, strong man Victor McLaglen and midget Harry Earles. Chaney's would-be girlfriend is pickpocket and fellow con artist Mae Busch.

Chaney concocts a criminal scheme using a bird store as a front. The store sells parrots, which "talk" to customers courtesy of Chaney's ventriloquism. The marks, er, customers, take the parrots home, but alas, they no longer talk. Chaney, in the guise of an old lady named O'Grady, then pays a house call to make the parrots "talk" again, sometimes accompanied by the "infant" Earles. Chaney and Earles case the joint, which if found suitable is later robbed by McLaglen.

"Granny" Chaney lives in a room attached to the bird store, along with "her" "granddaughter" Busch, "baby" Earles, and McLaglen. One would think that Busch and McLaglen would pretend to be the parents of Earles, but the branches of the mock family tree are unclear. This is so that Busch can be the girlfriend of Matt Moore, an honest dufus who manages the bird store.

Chaney soon becomes jealous of Moore, and hangs around the shop to check Busch's budding romance. His absence in the night burglaries leads to reckless McLaglen's murder of a wealthy jewelry owner. Clueless police suspect innocent Moore, who is promptly set up by the Unholy Three (Chaney, Earles, McLaglen).

But by now, Busch is in love with Moore, and threatens to turn in her confederates to free him. So, Busch is kidnapped by McLaglen and company. Things look bleak for Moore and Busch. However, the veteran film viewer suspects that, ultimately, love conquers all and crime doesn't pay.

How others will see it. Since it was made in 1925, The Unholy Three is of course a silent movie. It also has moderate preservation issues. At one point, a thick white vertical line dances near the left margin, and there is no shortage of brief supernova spots. However, the preservation of the film never really detracts from enjoying the movie, unless one is obsessive about such quality control.

The surprise here for the classic film viewer is a young Victor McLaglen, best known for his colorful supporting roles in many John Ford-John Wayne movies, e.g. the bully in The Quiet Man. The McLaglen character in The Unholy Three is a fairly young man, and he is more menacing than comic.

Those amenable to ancient silent movies will cherish the antics of midget Harry Earles, who plays a most larcenous, murderous, and cantankerous character. One scene he is smoking a cigarette and threatening bodily harm against someone twice his size. The next moment, he is pretending to be a year-old infant. Midgets were certainly exploited by early cinema (most notably in The Terror of Tiny Town), as well as the carneys that Tod Browning knew as a young man. But I suspect that Harry Earles in 1925 relished his role here, and felt much more like a moviestar than a victim.

How I felt about it. The story has obvious problems. Why should Busch fall for Moore, a blatant mark, to the extent that she risks her life on his behalf? What, exactly, is the O'Grady family tree? Would Chaney risk his own freedom (and his share of the loot) for the possession of Busch? And what police detective worth his salt would be fooled by the disguises of Chaney and Earles? Can ventriloquist Chaney really throw his voice halfway across a courtroom? A scene that takes place in the woods has an obvious painted forest backdrop, something one would expect from a play instead of an MGM film.

Fortunately, none of these plot holes are sufficiently gaping to take away from the pleasure of watching these actors at work. The fact that the pieces don't quite fit may actually work in the film's favor, since the attempt to put them together provides all the fascination.