Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen, Harry Earles, Matthew Betz, Edward Connelly, William Humphrey, E. Alyn Warren
Written by: Waldemar Young, based on a story by Clarence Aaron 'Tod' Robbins
Directed by: Tod Browning
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86
Date: 08/16/1925

The Unholy Three (1925)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Trio Brio

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This silent-era Tod Browning classic, starring his favorite actor Lon Chaney, is one of his best, although it's not specifically a horror film. Chaney gives a rock-hard performance as "Echo," a ventriloquist with a carnival who teams up with the strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a dwarf (Harry Earles) for a clever crime scheme. Posing as a family, with Chaney -- of course -- dressed in drag as "Granny O'Grady," they open a pet store that specializes in talking birds. Echo provides the "voices" for the birds (they appear in word balloons on the screen). Then, when the victims complain that the birds aren't talking, Granny goes to their homes and cases them for future robberies. Sadly, Echo's plan goes awry when his pal Rosie (Mae Busch) falls in love with the schnook they've hired to run the shop (Matt Moore); Echo is jealous, although he has never made his feelings for Rosie known. Browning directs the crime story with straightforward expertise, dropping in superb little moments of suspense here and there, and all the while letting his dark subversive streak run right under the surface. You have to step back and think about the film twice before it hits you just how twisted it all is. The film also contains strong hints at Browning works to come, notably Freaks (1932), with Earles in a more poignant role and The Devil Doll (1936), with another in-drag performance. (And author Robbins would likewise provide the source material for Freaks.)

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