The Unholy Three (1925)
Not often does one see so powerful a photodrama as "The Unholy Three," the offering with which Major Edward Bowes initiates the "Greater Movie Season" at the Capitol. It is a stirring story stocked with original twists and situations, a picture that teems with surprises and one in which the suspense is kept as taut as the string of a bow. After viewing this production the figures that have passed upon the screen still cling to one's mind, and one feels like talking about the strange and unusual tale.
"The Unholy Three" is at first concerned with the sideshow of a circus, but the whole plot is quite different from any other narrative with such a background. The atmosphere, inside and outside the freak's tent, is wonderfully impressive, and the characters and their actions are so realistic. Tod Browning, the director of this film, and the scenarist have cooperated magnificently on this effort, which was adapted from a story by C. A. Robbins. Added to this, the cast is one in which the players are thoroughly suited to their respective rôles. The principals are Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen and a midget, Harry Earles.
The trio referred to in the title are Echo, a ventriloquist, played by Mr. Chaney; Hercules, a circus strong man, impersonated by Mr. McLaglen, and Tweedledee, the midget, acted by Harry Earles. Their avocation is picking pockets, in which light-fingered pilfering they are aided by Rosie O'Grady (Miss Busch). There are singular contrasts in the mentality of the three, as Hercules, the man of muscle, is a coward; Echo is eager but cautious, and Tweedledee is a vicious, ill-tempered little person. They adopt the usual tactics of their ilk on the show grounds by taking advantage of the concentration of the crowds to steal from their victims. Sometimes Tweedledee will create a fuss in the tent and the onlookers will press toward his stand. Echo and Rosie profiting by the throng's curiosity.
This trio, with Rosie's connivance, decide to go out for bigger game. They abandon their circus profession and engage in the business of selling birds, principally parrots. Here the tale becomes absorbing, for one sees Echo, with a wig and gown, disguised as a good-natured old lady, and Tweedledee clothed as an infant. Hercules officiates as a sort of helper. Hector McDonald is employed as a, clerk in the bird shop. He is a dolt who suspects nothing, believing the selling of parrots to be a curious but honest pursuit. Actually it is an amazing plan whereby the thieves or robbers can enter houses and purloin valuables.
A customer buys a parrot, thinking it can talk because Echo, the ventriloquist, has made it appear so. A complaint comes over the telephone to the effect that the bird won't say a word, and the old lady of the bird shop, with her infant in a perambulator, goes to the customer's house to find out why the parrot won't talk. The midget uses his nimble little legs when he sees the opportunity and he does the stealing while his "mother" keeps the purchaser engaged. There is one scene in which the "mother" and "child" go to a house at a most opportune moment, as the occupant is examining an emerald necklace. The costly string of precious stones attracts the "baby," who cries for it, and the owner laughingly dangles it before the supposed child, being astounded when the "baby" clings to the necklace with strange strength and only reluctantly parts with the jewels.
The strong man, urged on by the hapless, greedy, cruel midget, commits a murder, which is a shock to Echo. There is the detective who comes to the bird shop, and while he is there one sees the old "lady" and the "infant." As soon as he goes away the midget raises his child's clothes and puts his hands into his trousers pockets, and Echo is seen without his wig.
There is nothing ludicrous or slap-stick about a single scene. It all seems plausible, and the way in which the story is worked out, with the possible exception of the introducing of a giant gorilla, is a credit to the director. Even this particular stretch is quite effective.
The midget's acting is remarkable. First Earles is the crying baby, and then he is the vindictive, tiny specimen of manhood. While he is being watched his face is that of a child in arms, but the second he is safe from strangers he turns like a Dr. Jekyil into a Mr. Hyde. Mr. Chaney gives a brilliant, restrained and earnest performance, and Mr. McLaglen is the personification of bulk and brawn with an apparently cowardly mentality. He gives a very fine performance in a rôle which is not an easy one. Miss Busch is appealing as Rosie, and Matt Moore is effective as the simpleton, Hector McDonald.
This pictorial effort is a startling original achievement which takes its place with the very best productions that have been made. It is encouraging to witness something so different from the usual run of films.
An Excellent Drama.
THE UNHOLY THREE, with Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen, Harry Earles, Matthew Betz, Walter Perry, John Merkyl, Charles Wellsley, Percy Williams, Marjorie Morton, Violet Crane, Lou Morrison, Edward Connelly, William Humphreys and A. E. Warren, adapted from a story by C. A. Robbins, directed by Tod Browning; overture, "Maritana"; male quartet, divertissements with songs and dances; brass sextet; "special prologue to the feature; organ recital. At the Capitol.