The Unholy Three is the third film by Tod Browning starring Lon Chaney, as well as their first together at MGM and the start of their collaboration as purveyors of the tragic and the bizarre. The two could not have been more different. Chaney was a model of American “bootstraps” discipline—hard work was his path to success—and he learned his craft on the legitimate stage. Browning also worked hard but learned the tricks of a con artist while a carnival showman. Together, they made ten features that explored the tension between two American philosophies: Benjamin Franklin’s “God helps them that help themselves,” and P.T. Barnum’s “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Browning ran away from his Louisville, Kentucky, home in 1898 to join a carnival at the age of 16, although he often told people he was 12 when he hit the road. The traveling carnival is at the core of The Unholy Three and many of Browning’s other films. For Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, carnivals were major entertainment venues. Agricultural fairs grew to accommodate traveling ropewalkers, jugglers, acrobats, and freaks. The vagabond carnivals were both welcomed and met with suspicion by the communities they visited. Games of chance were often rigged. Pickpockets were drawn to crowded midways and were often employed by carnival operators, who saw nothing wrong with a little larceny to augment their bottom line.
Recalling his carny career, Browning claimed that he worked as a barker promoting a “‘Wild Man of Borneo’—the ‘wild man’ being a Mississippi Negro in makeup.” Browning was frequently buried alive for as much as 48 hours at a time as “The Hypnotic Corpse,” according to a July 25, 1914, issue of Reel Life. He also appeared in blackface as part of a minstrel act.
By 1913, Browning had graduated to vaudeville, appearing in a touring show called The Whirl of Mirth. During a stopover in Brooklyn, he met filmmaker D.W. Griffith, joined Griffith’s crew as an actor and followed the director to California that fall. Browning appeared in as many as 50 now-lost comedy shorts between 1913 and 1915. He directed his first short early in 1915.
During this same period, Browning developed a fascination with fast automobiles and a thirst for alcohol, which resulted in tragedy when he crashed into a railroad car on June 16, 1915. The accident killed one man and left Browning hospitalized for months. Afterward, unable to handle the rigors of directing, Browning wrote screenplays for Griffith’s Triangle Films, including the bizarre Douglas Fairbanks romp, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916). Coincidentally, his first directorial effort after his recovery was called The Fatal Glass of Beer (1916). In 1917, Browning married Alice Houghton, an actress he had met on the vaudeville circuit. In 1918, he worked with Lon Chaney for the first time in The Wicked Darling (1919), a well-received melodrama.
Born in 1883 to a deaf woman whose father had founded the Colorado School for the Deaf, Chaney learned from an early age how to communicate without sound. At the age of 15, his attraction to the theater led him to a job as a stagehand at the Colorado Springs Opera House, where he also began his acting career. He started touring with musical comedies in 1904. By 1911 Chaney was living in Los Angeles. He received his first screen credit in 1913 and began building a reputation for portraying believable crooks.
By 1922, Chaney and Browning were both ascendant. Universal announced that Browning would direct Chaney in its big-budget adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But a hard-drinking Browning was later yanked from the project and replaced by Wallace Worsley after Browning delivered an unreleasable final cut of the crime melodrama The White Tiger. Universal dropped Browning when his contract expired in 1923. He restored his reputation with two films at the minor studio FBO Pictures, thereby earning the opportunity to direct The Unholy Three for MGM.
Browning convinced MGM executives that the 1917 pulp novel by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins, about a trio of carnival performers who set up an elaborate burglary operation, was tailor-made for Chaney. Starting with The Unholy Three, Browning and Chaney created dark, complex characters who often combined venality and virtue. In The Black Bird (1926), Chaney plays a master criminal who surprises himself by helping others while disguised as a crippled bishop. In The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928), Chaney plays men obsessed by love whose desperation ultimately leads to grief when they recognize the pain they’ve inflicted upon the women they love. Browning exploited Chaney’s ability to transform his appearance by having the actor appear paralyzed in The Black Bird, legless in West of Zanzibar, and armless in The Unknown. Collectors today continue to purchase figurines and posters based on Chaney’s vampire makeup for London After Midnight (1927), a film unseen since a 1965 warehouse fire destroyed the last known print. Their last film together, Where East Is East (1929) is generally considered their most formulaic and least successful collaboration.
The Thirteenth Chair (1929) was Browning’s first foray into synchronized sound and also the first time he worked with Bela Lugosi. Chaney’s first talkie was the second version of The Unholy Three (1930), directed this time by Jack Conway. The sound version allowed Chaney to demonstrate his vocal abilities that easily matched his physical performances. MGM played on Chaney’s trademark promoting the film with the phrase “The Man of a Thousand Voices.” Unfortunately, the remake was also Chaney’s final film. Stricken with lung cancer, Chaney died at the end of August, two months after the premiere of his only talking picture.
Browning made two more landmark films. Dracula (1931) was the first in a series of profitable horror pictures from Universal that achieved legendary status when they were sold to TV stations in 1957. Freaks (1932), based on a novel by The Unholy Three creator Robbins, allowed Browning the chance to luxuriate in the dark secret at the heart of the carnival: the sideshow. Freaks caused a commotion that quickly led MGM to withdraw all prints, remove its logo, and lease distribution rights to exploitation impresario Dwain Esper, who retitled it Forbidden Love.
Browning’s final film as a director is The Devil Doll (1936). He remained at MGM, working in the story department, where he contributed to Miracles for Sale (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), until he was dismissed in 1942 because the studio felt he wasn’t productive enough. Settling in Malibu, he and Alice lived off of the income produced by investments in real estate. Afflicted with cancer of the larynx, Browning died at the age of 80 on October 5, 1962, unaware that a receptive audience at the Venice Film Festival had acclaimed Freaks that August, and that Dracula was being resurrected through constant TV broadcasts. Legend has it that Browning requested that the only memorial service be an all-night vigil by a house-painter friend who was asked to drink a case of Coors beer in the company of the corpse.
Presented at SFSFF 2006 with live music by Jon Mirsalis