The Unholy Three is a silent crime film directed by Tod Browning and released in 1925. It was based on a book of the same name by Tod Robbins and starred Lon Chaney in the leading role. It was such a hit that it was remade as a talkie in 1930, directed by Jack Conway, with Lon Chaney once again in the lead role. The remake was Lon Chaney's first sound film, and, unfortunately, his only, as he died from throat cancer only weeks after the movie was complete. The two versions are almost identical to each other, except for the ending.
The story opens in a traveling carnival where a midget named Tweedledee (Harry Earles) a strongman named Hercules and a ventriloquist named Echo (Lon Chaney) are preforming their acts assisted by Rosie O'Grady, who picks the pockets of the rubes who see their shows. After the Midget starts a fight with a guest, Echo decides that they all should 'fade out' and aim for bigger prizes.
Cut to a corner pet store, headed by the darling Granny O'Grady, and her grandchildren, Herc, Rosie and baby Willie, and assisted by Hector. They sell parrots to guests and are about as adorable as can be. Until of course, they're alone. They are, of course, Echo, Hercules and Tweedledee, using the pet store as an excuse to get into rich people's homes before coming back at night to rob the place. Hector, their shop boy, has no idea of their secret identities and is falling in love with Rosie. One night, as they plan to rob a wealthy lady, Granny O'Grady notices Hector getting a little too friendly with Rosie and decides to stay home to keep and eye on them. Herc and the Midget rob the house as planned—but killing a man in the process. The Unholy Three, as they are now called, leave town, but not before planting the stolen necklace on Hector, framing him for the crime. Hector is arrested for murder, shortly after he asks Rosie to marry him, but she refuses, ashamed of herself.
The Unholy Three plan to let Hector take the fall, but Rosie, aware that Echo is in love with her, pleads with him to exonerate Hector by confirming his alibi of being with Granny the night of the robbery. In exchange, she promises herself to him. Echo agrees to the plan.
Meanwhile, Hecules offers Rosie a chance to take the loot and run off with him. Tweedledee overhears this and releases Echo's pet ape. Hercules strangles the Midget, and the ape kills Herc in return.
Here, the two versions differ. In the 1925 version, Echo goes to the trial and, by thowing his voice, makes Hector tell about the Unholy Three. Echo then confesses to being one of them, but with the actual perpetrators dead, he is let off the hook. He returns to his ventriloquist act, and Rosie shows up, true to her word. Echo, seeing Rosie loves Hector, lets her off as well, and the movie ends with Echo and his dummie bidding Rosie a sad goodbye.
In the 1930 version, 'Granny O'Grady' takes the stand in Hector's defense, but trips up and reveals herself as Echo. Echo is sentenced to one to five years in prison, and Rosie and Hector bid him farewell at the train station. Rosie, again, is true to her word and offers to wait for Echo, but once again, Echo releases her, realizing she loves Hector. The movie ends with him on the train to prison, and Lon Chaney smiling and waving at the camera while saying 'I'll send you a postal card.' If only he did.
Harry Earles, the little person probably best remembered for playing the lead in Freaks, plays Tweedledee in both versions.
Tropes found in both versions:
- Added Alliterative Appeal: The barker at the beginning introduces all his acts like this. 'The Marvelous Mastodonic model of masculinity!'
- Adorkable: How Rosie sees Hector.
- Affably Evil: Half of the time he interacts with Rosie, Echo acts like this; the other half, he acts like an abusive jerk toward her.
- Anti-Hero: Echo, Type V until the end where he drops the "anti" entirely.
- Ascended Extra: In the original novel, Tweedledee was the leader of the Three and Hector was the main character. In the movies, Echo takes over both roles.
- Bittersweet Ending: Both versions, although the silent film's is a little more upbeat than the talkie's.
- Canon Foreigner: Rosie and the gorilla.
- Creator Thumbprint: Tod Browning often made movies about creepy circuses, carnivals and freak shows. Also, this wouldn't be the last time Browning brought one of Tod Robbins's stories to the big screen.
- Chekhov's Gun: Echo's pet ape. In the sound version, Echo even says to Hercules ' You do that one more time and he'll tear you to peices" Guess how Hercules dies...
- Demoted to Extra: Tweedledee and Hector, due to Echo being made into an Ascended Extra.
- Depraved Dwarf: Tweedledee plays this trope to a T.
- Dogged Nice Guy: Hector.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Echo seems to be adverse to the idea of murder, and yells at Herc and the Midge for making fun of the dead man's final moments.
- Frame-Up: on poor Hector
- Greed: The motive behind the Three leaving the carnival and turning to a life of crime (noteworthy because greed was, at best, merely a secondary motive in the original book).
- Harmless Lady Disguise: Echo dresses up like an old grandma.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Echo lets Rosie be with Hector in both versions.
- Love Redeems:
- Echo's love for Rosie allows him to save Hector AND let Rosie go.
- Rosie's falling for Hector makes her want to give up her life of crime.
- The Napoleon: Tweedledee. He's easily the most vicious and evil member of the Unholy Three.
- Nice Guy: Hector
- Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Despite the fact that Echo generally treated her well, Rosie just can't resist the sweetness and awkward charms of Hector.
- Sole Survivor: In both versions, Echo is the only one of the three who is still alive by the end.
- Spanner in the Works: Hercules and Tweedledee, who couldn't pull off a simple burglary right. If it wasn't for them, nobody would have died and Echo's scheme wouldn't have gone nearly so badly, if it'd gone bad at all.
- Spared by the Adaptation: Echo. He drowned at the very end of the novel.
- Title Drop: A rather awkward one after Echo explains his scheme.Tweedledee: 'I like it. It's...unholy!'Echo: That's us! The Unholy Three!
- Took a Level in Jerkass: Echo. In the book, he was a well-meaning, albeit completely-insane, person who was basically forced by the other two into committing crimes. In the movies, he's abusive, selfish, has a Hair-Trigger Temper, knows perfectly well what he's doing, and is anything but well-meaning, although he gets better by the end. This also applies even withing the context of the movies themselves: at first, he is very patient and gentle with Rosie; in the subsequent scenes, he keeps treating her worse and worse.
- Took a Level in Kindness: In the book, Hector is something of a sarcastic wiseguy with a bit of an ego. In the movies (especially the 1925 version), he's sincere, kind-hearted, and utterly-guileless
- Verbal Tic: Everyone in this movie seems to say 'sure' a lot.
- Villain Protagonist
- Villainous Crush: Con artist Rosie towards the square but sweet Hector. In the end, this is what redeems her and helps her turn from a life of crime.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Hector.
- Wig, Dress, Accent: Echo as Granny.
- Would Hit a Girl: Echo. Leads to a Heel Realization, which in turn leads to him completing his HeelFace Turn.
Tropes found in the 1925 version:
- Book-Ends: Begins and ends with Echo doing his ventriloquism act for the crowd.
- Covers Always Lie: One of the Film Posters for the 1925 version makes it seem as though the titular 3 consists of Echo, Rosie, and Hector instead of Echo, Tweedledee, and Hercules.
- Hollywood Law: In the silent version, not only is Echo's confession taken in open court after Hector's jury is filing out to deliberate, but they let Echo go after he has confessed to multiple robberies and being an accessory after the fact to murder.
- Ironic Echo: "Gee, but you've made this a great Christmas, Rosie" (from the silent version)
- Karma Houdini: Echo, unless one counts losing the love of his life as sufficient karma. He does escape the authorities.
- Speech Bubbles: Has a rare use of these in a live-action film. Echo is tricking a woman at the pet store into buying parrots by throwing his voice so the parrots appear to talk. To demonstrate this to the audience, the film shows speech bubbles popping up onscreen with "Pretty Polly" and such inside, representing the (fake) parrot speech.
Tropes found in the 1930 version:
- The Cast Show Off: Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, learned basic ventriloquism for the talkie, and did five different voices: his own as Echo, Granny, a dummie, a parrot and a girl in the crowd.
- Establishing Character Moment: Hector in his first scene. He refuses when a carnival barker tells him to stop scowling and smile for the crowd, saying "I'd like to poison them all."
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: How we find out that Tweedledee and Hector wound up murdering Mr. Arlington in the course of their robbery.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Echo is berating Hector for mistreating the gorilla. Rosie admonishes him, "Not in front of the boobs!" Echo shoots back "Never mind the boobs!" Later they consistently refer to poor Hector as "the boob."note
- Hypocritical Humor: After Rosie has an attack of conscience and produces a second watch that she stole, Echo thanks her, saying "Money you get that way will never do you no good." She's a thief to begin with!