I first learned about the silent film THE UNHOLY THREE (1925) in the pages of, what else, FAMOUS MONSTERS. I don't recall which issue (or issues, to be precise) but when I was a kid and a regular reader of FM Forry ran many stories devoted to the incredible Lon Chaney and his films. THE UNHOLY THREE was often mentioned, along with the occasional still from the film. I so desperately wanted to see this film (and many others that I read about) but the odds of having access to a silent film anywhere in the 1960s were pretty slim. Nevertheless, I had an itch that went unscratched until a couple of nights ago when, thanks to TCM, I finally got to see it.
Despite being ballyhooed in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS and the one-two punch of genre director Tod Browning and star Chaney, UNHOLY isn't a horror film. It's weird, bizarre and creepy in parts but the film is more of a crime thriller mixed with a love story.
Chaney plays Echo, a carnival ventriloquist who teams up with strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen) and pure evil little person Tweedledee ( Harry Earles) to form the title trio. They're aided by the lovely Mae Busch who plays the sweet pickpocket Rosie O'Grady. The three set up a pet shop as a front for their criminal activities and hire unknowing sap Hector McDonald (Matt Moore) to run the store. The scheme concocted by Chaney is brilliant. He poses as a kindly old woman who can communicate with the birds the shop sells (he's really throwing his voice, a neat trick in a silent film). Rich customers buy the birds who of course, do not talk once they're in their new homes. Mrs. O'Grady (Chaney) is then called to the homes of their customers to make the birds talk and, to use the vernacular "case the joint". The trio return later to rob the homes. But things take a deadly turn when Hercules and Tweedledee pull a job without Echo and end up murdering the wealthy owner of a fabulous ruby necklace.
Chaney is outraged at the blood on their hands and when a police detective comes calling, they decide to foist Hector off as the fall guy by secreting the gems in his apartment. To complicate matters further, Hector and Rosie have fallen in love while Echo is burning an unrequited torch for the young lady. Hector is arrested, the trio flees, taking Rosie and a hitherto unseen very large ape (!) along to their country hideout. Rosie tells Echo that if he'll do something to exonerate Hector she'll stay with him forever. Echo goes to the courtroom and uses his ventriloquism to help Hector. Hector is acquitted and Rosie keeps her promise to stay with Echo.
In a final scene, Echo tells Rosie she's free to go with Hector. As she leaves, Echo uses his dummy to say "goodbye pal" to her. She stops, turns around and looks at him and Chaney's performance in this short scene is nothing short of miraculous. He uses his eyes, his face and his whole body to convey the emotions that he's feeling and the result is one of the most heartbreaking moments I've ever seen in films (silent or sound). It brought a genuine lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. And here I thought I was going to see a horror film!
THE UNHOLY THREE was a huge hit for MGM and it was remade in 1930 by Browning and Chaney in what was Chaney's only "talking" picture before his untimely death due to throat cancer. Anyone who thinks silent films are too old and outdated to be worth watching needs to see this film. It is pure cinema using images, story and most importantly, actors using all of their skills to create three-dimensional characters that you genuinely care about. The result is a compelling, engaging film that earns my highest recommendation. It took me more almost fifty years to see THE UNHOLY THREE. It was definitely worth the wait.