A note from Lindsey: Welcome to the first installment of “One year, one film,” a new series in which I’ll be highlighting one film that I love from each year over a 40-year period, 1925 through 1965! I’ll also talk a bit about whether my pick ranked highly with contemporary viewers. This series will appear every other Sunday until I run out of years to cover. Hope you all enjoy it!
One year, one film: 1925
The Unholy Three, dir. Tod Browning
starring Lon Chaney, Harry Earles, Victor McLaglen, Mae Busch, Matt Moore
Recommended | Highly Recommended | MUST-SEE
The Unholy Three follows Lon Chaney as a ventriloquist who, after leaving the circus, poses as an elderly woman and runs a pet shop as a front for burglary ring. The film was remade in 1930 with Lon Chaney reprising his role in what became his only talkie. An as-captivating-as-usual performance by Chaney, nice photography, and an unusual twist on crime drama make this a great watch.
This film was not one of the top hits of the year. The three highest-grossing films of 1925 (estimated/unadjusted, via filmsite.org) were World War I drama The Big Parade, biblical epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Gold Rush. According to James R. Quirk of Photoplay, “It is more difficult to get seats for The Big Parade than for the most popular drama or musical comedy on Broadway” (February 1926 edition).
However, The Unholy Three does seem to have been well-received and successful, despite not making its way to the very top of the year’s box office charts. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times reviewed the film with glowing praise: “It is a stirring story stocked with original twists and situations, a picture that teems with surprises and one in which the suspense is kept as taut as the string of a bow” (August 4, 1925).
Audiences seem to have enjoyed the picture as well. J.E. Tompkins of America Theatre in Colorado Springs reported in Motion Picture News that the film opened “to capacity” at his movie house. The manager of Durham Amusement Co. in North Carolina wrote into the same magazine to congratulate MGM on the release of Lon Chaney’s best picture ever.
Both versions of The Unholy Three remain highly-regarded by Chaney fans. If you’re interested in viewing the fantastic 1925 version, you can catch it on TCM on occasion — keep an eye on their schedule. It is also available on DVD.