The Unholy Three (1925)
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Perhaps the greatest talent of director Tod Browning was his ability to make even the most preposterous story somehow plausible. Throughout his early career he specialized in crime melodramas that were tinged with the unusual but The Unholy Three (1925), his first of sixteen films for MGM, allowed him to plunge headlong into the perverse.
In a plot that would have been played for slapstick by any other director, a trio of dime museum oddities - Hercules the strongman (Victor McLaglen), Tweedledee the midget (Harry Earles) and Echo the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) - join forces to perpetrate a series of nocturnal burglaries. Shedding their carnival personages, they reinvent themselves in a warped reflection of the traditional family. Donning granny wig and black dress, Echo becomes the elderly Mother O'Grady, while Tweedledee climbs into a cradle to become her toddling grandchild and Hercules stands by as her muscle-bound son. Rounding out Echo's larcenous troupe are a beautiful pickpocket (Mae Busch) and a monstrous ape, which is inevitably unleashed in the film's suitably outrageous final reel.
In publicity stories, Browning exaggerated the ferocity of the primate. "Every shot that was taken of this animal was taken at great personal risk," said Browning in the original press book, "We were in momentary dread that he would break from his cage and kill everybody connected with the taking of the scenes." In reality, the ape was nothing more than a large yet docile chimpanzee, which was made to appear bigger than life through the use of miniature sets and optical effects. To accomplish the illusion in one scene, a child was costumed as Echo so that the ape would loom large in comparison.
Though The Unholy Three has moments of visual brilliance - the shadow of the dark triumvirate hatching their plans, the oft-parodied image of the infantile Tweedledee wearing a criminal scowl and smoking a fat cigar - Browning's primary accomplishment was shaping the macabre story and coaxing the proper degree of melodramatic abandon from his cast. Chaney's performances have, at times, been criticized as excessive, but his fire-and-brimstone acting style was ideally suited to the aggrandized plots that Browning and his screenwriters fashioned around him.
The Unholy Three's peculiar subject matter inspired a great deal of behind-the-scenes tomfoolery. To test the effectiveness of their disguises, Chaney (as Mrs. O'Grady) took Earles (as Little Willie) to the studio's wardrobe department for a diaper change. Just before the undergarments were unpinned, Earles shouted, much to the wardrobe lady's surprise, "You will like hell, madam!" On another day, McLaglen filled Earles's baby bottle with Scotch, which was quickly swiped by the costumed Chaney. "You should have seen Lon in a wig and a false front and big false keister sucking on that nipple," recalled Earles, "You'd have died laughing!"
So popular was Browning's twisted tale that MGM made The Unholy Three, conceived as nothing more than a low-budget melodrama, one of their high-profile releases of the season, alongside such monumental films as King Vidor's The Big Parade, Ben-Hur and Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow. It scored a multi-picture contract for Browning and enabled him to direct seven more films with Chaney, surprisingly unique thrillers populated by twisted bodies and criminal minds. In 1930, The Unholy Three was remade by director Jack Conway (Browning had left MGM for Universal, where he would direct Dracula in 1931). The talkie version, a scene-for-scene duplicate of Browning's original, would be Chaney's first and only sound film before his untimely death on August 26, 1930.
Earles would reunite with Browning in 1932 for the director's most notorious production, Freaks, while McLaglen (former heavyweight boxing champion of the British Army and Navy) would become known as a character actor in the films of John Ford, including The Informer (1935) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Producer/Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Waldemar Young, Based on the novel by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins
Cinematography: David Kesson
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons and Joseph C. Wright
Editing: Daniel J. Gray
Cast: Lon Chaney (Echo), Harry Earles (Tweedledee), Victor McLaglen (Hercules), Mae Busch (Rosie O'Grady), Matt Moore (Hector), Matthew Betz (Regan), Edward Connelly (The Judge).
by Bret Wood