The Unholy Three (1925 film)

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The Unholy Three (1925)
Poster - Unholy Three, The (1925) 02.jpg
1925 The Unholy Three, theatrical release poster
Directed byTod Browning
Written byWaldemar Young (scenario)
Based onThe Unholy Three
1917 novel
by Tod Robbins
Produced byTod Browning
Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
StarringLon Chaney
Victor McLaglen
CinematographyDavid Kesson
Edited byDaniel Gray
Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer[nb 1]
Release date
  • August 16, 1925 (1925-08-16)
Running time
86 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)

The Unholy Three is a 1925 American silent crime melodrama film involving a trio of circus conmen, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney. The supporting cast features Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen, and Harry Earles. The Unholy Three marks the establishment of the notable artistic alliance between director Browning and actor Chaney that would deliver eight outstanding films to M-G-M studios during the late silent film era.[2][3][4]

The film was remade in 1930 as a talkie directed by Sam Conway. Chaney and Earles repeated their performances as Professor Echo and Tweedledee.[5]


The Unholy Three (1925 film) L to R: Victor McLaglen, Harry Earles, Mae Busch, Lon Chaney.

Three performers leave a sideshow after Tweedledee (Harry Earles), a midget performer, assaults a young heckler and sparks a melee. The three join together in an "unholy" plan to become wealthy. Prof. Echo, the ventriloquist, assumes the role of Mrs. O'Grady, a kindly old grandmother, who runs a pet shop, while Tweedledee plays her grandchild. Hercules (Victor McLaglen), the strongman, works in the shop along with the unsuspecting Hector McDonald (Matt Moore). Echo's girlfriend, pickpocket Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch), pretends to be his granddaughter.

Using what they learn from delivering pets, the trio later commit burglaries, with their wealthy buyers as victims. On Christmas Eve, John Arlington (an uncredited Charles Wellesley) telephones to complain that the "talking" parrot (aided by Echo's ventriloquism) he bought will not speak. When "Granny" O'Grady visits him to coax the bird into performing, "she" takes along grandson "Little Willie". While there, they learn that a valuable ruby necklace is in the house. They decide to steal it that night. As Echo is too busy, the other two grow impatient and decide to go ahead without him.

The next day, Echo is furious to read in the newspaper that Arlington was killed and his three-year-old daughter badly injured in the robbery. Hercules shows no remorse whatsoever, relating how Arlington pleaded for his life. When a police investigator shows up at the shop, the trio become fearful and decide to frame Hector, hiding the jewelry in his room.

Meanwhile, Hector proposes to Rosie. She turns him down, but he overhears her crying after he leaves. To his joy, she confesses she loves him, but was ashamed of her shady past. When the police take him away, Rosie tells the trio that she will exonerate him, forcing them to abduct her and flee to a mountain cabin. Echo takes along his large pet ape (who terrifies Hercules).

In the spring, Hector is brought to trial. Rosie pleads with Echo to save Hector, promising to stay with him if he does. After Echo leaves for the city, Tweedledee overhears Hercules asking Rosie to run away with him (and the loot). Tweedledee releases the ape. Hercules kills Tweedledee right before the ape gets him.

At the trial, Echo agonizes over what to do, but finally rushes forward and confesses all. Both he and Hector are set free. When Rosie goes to Echo to keep her promise, he lies and says he was only kidding. He tells her to go to Hector. Echo returns to the sideshow, giving his spiel to the customers: "That's all there is to life, friends, ... a little laughter ... a little tear."



In 1924, Universal’s vice-president Irving Thalberg departed to join Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios as production manager. Director Tod Browning followed him to M-G-M after producing a number of unimpressive independent films.[6][7]

At M-G-M he proposed adapting author Tod RobbinsThe Unholy Three and Thalberg accommodated Browning by purchasing the rights and enlisting Lon Chaney to play the lead; Chaney may have requested that Browning direct, having worked with him effectively in 1921 on Universal’s Outside the Law starring Priscilla Dean.[8]

With The Unholy Three, Thalberg, Browning and Chaney established a highly creative and profitable collaborative trio that produced seven more films at M-G-M, marking the zenith of both Browning’s and Chaney’s careers.[9][10]

Browning arrived at M-G-M well-versed in the techniques of “trick photography.”[11] The "ape" that dispatches the strongman Hector (Victor McLaglen) was actually a three-foot-tall chimpanzee who was made to appear gigantic with camera trickery and perspective shots. When Echo removes the ape from his cage, the shot shows Echo (with his back turned to the camera) unlocking the cage and walking the ape to the truck. The ape appears to be roughly the same size as Echo. This effect was achieved by having Harry Earles (who played "Tweedledee" in the film) play Echo for these brief shots, and then cutting to Chaney, making it seem as though the ape is gigantic. (In the 1930 remake, the ape was played by Charles Gemora.) [12]

Release and reception[edit]

The Unholy Three

The Unholy Three enjoyed tremendous success, adding luster to Chaney’s reputation as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and revealing Browning as a remarkable film stylist.[13][14]

On August 15, 1925  The Billboard published a list of five short reviews for the movie. This featured such critics as Mordaunt Hall (Times), George Gerhard (Evening World), Richard Watts Jr. (Herald-Tribune), and W.R. (World).[15]

The movie was such a success upon its debut that at its release at the New York Capitol Theater, it maintained a strong audience attendance for at least two weeks. Major Edward Bowes, who was the managing director at the time, took steps to ensure everyone who didn’t get to see the movie the first week of its viewing would get to by extending the movie's stay. An article written about this event noted the movie as “acclaimed as the best crook drama on the screen and one of the most entertaining motion pictures ever made”, which speaks, along with its apparent popularity, for the movie’s quality.[16]

Sherwood of Life magazine praised the movie for its photography and providing a more psychological horror film rather than relying on movie effects to scare its audience. Noted by Sherwood is how the film was shot great attention given to scenes as individual pieces rather than as parts of one greater project, causing continuity errors. This is explained by the writer as an acceptable outcome considering the overall quality. The review is concluded with Sherwood declaring The Unholy Three to be "the best picture of its kind since The Miracle Man."[17]

The Unholy Three was released for the first time on DVD by Warner Bros. Digital Distribution on October 26, 2010. The company would later re-release the film as a part of its 6-disc Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection on November 22, 2011, and on June 23, 2015.[18]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 83% based on 6 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 6.8/10.[19] Author and film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film two and a half out of four stars. Although Maltin noted that the film contained aspects that were less satisfactory, he commended its strong basic idea and Chaney's performance.[20]


As is common of a Tod Browning film, circus life and unusual bodies play a central role in this movie along with great use of trompe-l'œil optical illusion.[21] Trompe-l'œil is exercised and played with as the illusion of Dr. Echo as "Mrs. O’Grady" and Tweedledee as "Little Willie". The main plot of the movie revolves around the character’s abilities to pass themselves off convincingly as something they are not, an illusion the movie peels back and reasserts for both the other characters and for the audience themselves. Contrary to the usual use of this effect, Browning makes it a point to disillusion the audience and display the workings of the illusion to create a different sort of viewing stimulation.[22]

In most Browning films, his opinion of the deformed and different becomes evident. The Unholy Three's plot plays directly with another of Browning’s favorite topics, dealing with identity, doubles, dual roles, and deformity. This film is unique in that the character Tweedledee is the only one of this group of that is played by a deformed character and is malicious in nature.[21]


  1. ^ Loews was the parent company of MGM.[1]


  1. ^ Gomery, Douglas; Pafort-Overduin, Clara (2011). Movie History: A Survey (2nd ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 144. ISBN 9781136835254.
  2. ^ Sobchack, 2006 p. 35: "Lon Chaney’s influence on Browning seems considerable...their significant collaboration began at MGM and with The Unholy Three."
  3. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 19: “The ten films that Browning and Chaney make together [eight of which made at MGM] were the most successful of either's career. In these films one can sense a personal rapport between the actor and the director which must have been deeper than a mere professional respect."
  4. ^ "Progressive Silent Film List: The Unholy Three". Retrieved March 2, 2010.
  5. ^ Eaker, 2016: “Chaney died shortly after filming the [1930 remake]...the only film to feature the actor’s voice...Under Conway, who had no feel or vision for the eccentric, the remaining cast in the sound remake are sanitized, hack versions of the far more eccentric and genuine cast in the Tod Browning directed silent film.”
  6. ^ Sobchack, 2006 p. 34: “Browning had been drinking heavily for two years prior to coming to MGM, and, during that time had directed only a few films for independent production companies.”
  7. ^ Eaker, 2016: “Browning had languished for ten years as an assignment director who rarely had a feel for the mostly banal material handed him.”
  8. ^ Sobchack, 2006 p. 34: Sobchack, reports that Browning (who produced the film for MGM), convinced Thalberg that the story by Tod Robbins was suitable for adaption, and Thalberg purchased the rights. And: The Unholy Three “the first film at MGM for both Browning and Chaney.”
  9. ^ Robinson, 1968 p. 125: “In 1925 he was taken on by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and began a series of films with Lon Chaney that must rank among the most extraordinary pictures ever made.”
  10. ^ Sobchack, 2006 p. 34: “Certainly, Browning’s best work was for MGM...all his films for Universal were made before 1924 and his maturity as a filmmaker...some credit must go to Irving Thalberg who, a vice-president at Universal while Browning was there” brought Browning along “when he [Thalberg] left in 1925 to join the newly-formed MGM.”
  11. ^ Sobchack, 2006: p. 34
  12. ^ Blyn, 2006 p. 124-125: “Of all the strange elements in this film, the chimp is perhaps the most bizarre...when he transforms into a gorilla.”
  13. ^ Eaker, 2016: “The original, silent Unholy Three (1925) catapulted Browning into star director status.”
    Sobshack, 2006 p. 34: “The film was , of course, a huge success.”
  14. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 19-20: “...only in Browning's films is [Chaney] endowed with substantial human complexity...Chaney demonstrated great sensitively to the feelings and drives of the characters that Browning devise for him to play.” And p. 7: Browning’s “style”.
    Eaker, 2016: “The Unholy Three is not, on the surface, as macabre as later Browning-Chaney films, it has retained its delirious edge well into the 21st century.”
    Robinson, 1968 p. 125: “In 1925 he was taken on by M-G-M and began a series of films with Lon Chaney that must rank among the most extraordinary pictures ever made.”
  15. ^ "AS THE N. Y. REVIEWERS SEE THE FILMS: "The Unholy Three"." August 25, 1925. ProQuest. The Billboard. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  16. ^ ""The Unholy Three" to Remain at the Capitol." August 9, 1925. ProQuest. The New York Herald, The New York Tribune. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  17. ^ Sherwood, R E. "The SILENT DRAMA." August 27 (1883-1936). ProQuest. Web. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  18. ^ "The Unholy Three (1925) - Tod Browning". AllMovie. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  19. ^ "The Unholy Three (1925) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Flixer. Retrieved March 12, 2018.
  20. ^ Leonard Maltin; Spencer Green; Rob Edelman (January 2010). Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide. Plume. p. 715. ISBN 978-0-452-29577-3.
  21. ^ a b Thomas, Randal Kerry. "Symbolic Structure of the Circus in the Films of Tod Browning." June 1977. ProQuest. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  22. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 14; “The ability to assume control of another being is vital to The Unholy Three. Echo the ventriloquist delivers testimony in court through the mouth of the words pour from the witness stand, Browning repeatedly dissolves Echo onto Hector and vise-versa, establishing the performers complete responsibility for what is being said.”
    Manon, Hugh S. "Seeing Through Seeing Through: The "Trompe l'Oeil" Effect and Bodily Difference in the Cinema of Tod Browning." 2006. ProQuest. Retrieved October 24, 2018.


  • Blyn, Robin. 2006. "Between Silence and Sound: Ventriloquism and the Advent of the Voice in The Unholy Three in The Films of Tod Browning", in The Films of Tod Browning, ed. Bernd Herzogenrath, 2006 Black Dog Publishing. London. pp. 117-127 ISBN 1-904772-51-X
  • Eaker, Alfred. 2016. Tod Browning Retrospective Retrieved 26 February, 2021.
  • Herzogenrath, Bernd. 2006. The Films of Tod Browning. Black Dog Publishing. London. ISBN 1-904772-51-X
  • Sobchack, Vivian. 2006. "The Films of Tod Browning: An Overview Long Past in The Films of Tod Browning" in The Films of Tod Browning, editor Bernd Herzogenrath, 2006 Black Dog Publishing. London. pp. 21-39. ISBN 1-904772-51-X
  • Rosenthal, Stuart. 1975. Tod Browning: The Hollywood Professionals, Volume 4. The Tantivy Press. ISBN 0-498-01665-X

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