Echo the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) and his fellow dime museum sideshow performers, Hercules the strongman (Victor McLaglen) and Tweedledee the midget (Harry Earles), along with Echo's pickpocket girlfriend Rosie (Mae Busch), leave the carnival to start a bigger racket. They set up a phony bird
store that's stocked with parrots that don't talk, and Echo, disguised as an old woman named "Mrs. O'Grady," makes the birds seem to talk by ventriloquism. When a wealthy customer takes the bird home and later complains that it won't talk, "Mrs. O'Grady" brings her "baby grandson" Tweedledee to
the customer's house to case it for a later robbery, and makes the bird "talk" again.
When Hercules and Tweedledee pull a job on their own without Echo's permission, and end up killing a man, the police become suspicious of "Mrs. O'Grady" and Echo decides to frame the bird store's milquetoast clerk Hector (Matt Moore) for the crime. However, Rosie has fallen in love with Hector
and begs Echo to save him, promising Echo she'll stay with him if he does. After Hector is arrested and put on trial, Echo goes to court and confesses the truth, and both he and Hector are acquitted. Meanwhile, after Tweedledee hears Hercules plotting to steal their loot and run away with Rosie,
he sics Echo's pet gorilla on Hercules and it kills them both. Echo then lets Rosie go to Hector, and he sadly returns to the sideshow.
THE UNHOLY THREE is a rare example of a Chaney performance in which "The Man of a Thousand Faces" plays most of the film without grotesque makeup or horrific deformities or prosthetics, aside from his brief disguise as the elderly "Mrs. O'Grady." Yet he still manages to be truly frightening, using
his glowering stare to grab the audience in his first shot and never let them go, effortlessly shifting from creepy terror to genuine pathos (as in the final shot when he reluctantly lets Rosie go and his ventriloquist dummy says "Good-by, old Pal.") The story allows ample opportunity for Browning
to display his visual imagination, (such as the "word balloons" over the birds' heads when Echo is throwing his voice), as well as indulge his macabre predilections, starting with the opening scene in the carnival, featuring a fat lady, a tattooed woman, a sword swallower, and Siamese twins, which
seems like a preview of his 1932 classic FREAKS.
The diminutive Harry Earles, who plays Tweedledee (and was also the star of FREAKS), nearly steals the film from Chaney, and is alternately downright nasty--viciously kicking a little boy in the face after the kid mocks him--and hilarious, particularly in scenes where he's dressed as a baby and
"plays" with jewelry, which doubtlessly inspired an identical "Little Rascals" short as well as the classic "Bug Bunny" cartoon featuring a cigar-smoking "baby" gangster. The film was so popular that Chaney chose to make his talkie debut in a scene-for-scene remake in 1930, which is not quite as
good as the silent version, despite the return of Earles and the added attraction of being able to hear Chaney's voice (which was appropriately gravely and menacing). Unfortunately, it was the great star's first and last sound film, as he died from throat cancer only weeks after it was released.
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Tod Browning's THE UNHOLY THREE is not a horror film, but it is one of Lon Chaney's best movies and biggest hits, about a trio of sideshow "freaks" who become criminals to get revenge on "normal" society.