This is the silent original, not the talkie remake
. This was a huge hit in 1925, putting Tod Browning back on the map after a period when he'd nearly killed his career with alcohol. It's also his first carnival movie. Carnivals and sideshows had been a huge part of Browning's life and they're in a lot of his best-remembered films, like The Unknown
(1927) and Freaks (1932).
The Unholy Three isn't quite as disturbing as those two, but they did have to delete a scene in which a midget murders a small child. Both this film and Freaks were based on novels by the same guy, Tod Robbins, so you needn't go expecting normality. They're both set among circus folk, but the difference between them is that here instead of forming a self-supporting community in which the regular people are the bad guys, here three of them have got together to make a criminal gang. "The Unholy Three" is the name they give themselves. It's a caper movie, basically. What makes it special of course is the fact that we're talking about a cross-dressing ventriloquist, a strongman and a midget who's pretending to be a baby.
The star of the show is of course Lon Chaney, who's well known for his collaborations with Browning and was a colossal star in the 1920s. Needless to say, he's magnificent. He's in a league above almost anyone else you'll see in silent movies and it's a joy to watch him work. His sweet old granny is incredible, since as well as giving an unmissable multi-layered performance in the role, he also looks convincing. On first seeing him in drag, I wasn't sure if that really was Chaney or whether they'd brought in an actress. If someone told you the plot of this film, you'd never imagine that anyone could buy it for a millisecond... yet both Chaney and Harry Earles, the midget, make you believe the impossible. Visually the least convincing of the three is the actor playing the strongman, Victor McLaglen, and ironically before World War One he'd been a professional prizefighter in circuses. He's certainly a big guy, I'll give him that.
Anyway, Chaney is immense. Harry Earles though almost steals the show from him, playing this vicious little psychopath who's almost hypnotic in his baby get-up. He's wonderful. He'd later go on to act in Freaks, The Wizard of Oz
, some Laurel & Hardy comedies and even the 1930 remake
of this very film, but what makes him particularly effective here is the fact that we can't hear him. That sounds horrible, but it's true. Of course it wasn't his fault that his voice was squeaky, but on top of that he wasn't even a native English speaker. He was one of the Doll Family, a group of four siblings from Germany who worked in circuses and sideshows from 1920 until the mid-fifties.
Victor McLaglen was British and ten years later would win a Best Actor Oscar, by the way. Oh, and the gang has a fourth satellite member, played by Mae Busch. She also did quite a few Laurel & Hardy films, as the shrewish wife of Hardy.
The story is mad, which is why it's great. Over and above the usual car-crash fascination of caper movies, here you've got this surreal cast putting into practice a truly loopy scheme. The weirdness just never stops coming. Lon Chaney has a killer pet chimpanzee, for instance. In any other film at least this would be a gorilla, but here they've taken a regular chimpanzee and shot it with camera trickery that fooled me completely to make it look about eight feet tall. I'm not convinced that the plot makes much sense, mind you, with no good reason I could see for the gang to be keeping Mae Busch around, let alone Matt Moore. Similarly everything involving the law is so ludicrous as to be unintentionally comedic, with both the trial and the acquittals being farcical. What had been their evidence in the first place? (Maybe it was connected with the shady past Moore had hinted at earlier.) More eye-popping yet though is the decision not to charge someone who'd confessed to organising a string of burglaries and to being an accessory to murder.
It's all important for the plot, though. Let's assume it makes sense in the novel.
The only problem is that it drags a bit. I had this problem with The Unknown
too. It takes a bit of willpower to make it through to the end, which is weird since it's full of freaks and criminals. It's a good story and afterwards you'll look back happily and wonder what the problem was, but I suspect it might be Browning shooting too naturalistically. It's shot and paced as if we could hear the actors' dialogue, which slows it down. However that said, I do like Browning's direction and he has some nice touches like a silhouetted shot of the shadows of Chaney and his gang. At one point the film even gives us speech bubbles, like a comic strip.
Whoops, no, I had one other gripe. I hate the way in which silent movies today will have often been tinted different colours, with one scene being red and the next green. What's the point in that? It's akin to the colourisation of ordinary black-and-white movies and that's been a laughing stock for years. Anyway, this practice is distracting enough when it's being done with a "fade to black", but it's downright annoying to be cutting from, say, red to blue and back again. That's not Browning's fault, though.
Apart from that problem of pace, this is a deliciously deranged film that's far more intelligent than you'd guess from the unbelievable plot. It's even aware of its own themes of lying and deception, as for instance when that granny says, "Never smoke cigarettes and you'll be a big strong man like him." Ten seconds later, McLaglen is having a puff. I also like the way that the film comes full circle with its carnival setting, with Chaney's heartbreaking little epilogue and its echoes of the opening scenes. The actors are hitting greatness, in particular Chaney and Earles, while the Busch-Moore romantic subplot in the end manages to earn all that screen time it's given.
It's even a Christmas movie, although hardly a traditional one. Now if only they could find the footage of Earles murdering a child and edit it back in...