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Starring: Lon Chaney, Sr., Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, John George
Story: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Waldemar Young
Director: Tod Browning
One of my favorite books as a kid was, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Monsters (But Were Afraid to Ask), which I didn’t realize at the time was a spoof on the title of a well-known book (and then Woody Allen movie) about sex. It was basically biographies of famous movie monsters and the actors who played them, accompanied by great still photographs. This is where I first came to admire Lon Chaney, though it would be many years before I actually saw any of his movies. But those pictures stayed with me, as did some famous movie quotes reprinted in the book, like, “Feast your eyes, gloat your soul, on my accursed ugliness,” from The Phantom of the Opera.
The Unknown isn’t a monster movie, though Chaney does play a frightening villain. It’s the story of Alonzo (Chaney), who does an armless circus act, throwing knives with his feet. He loves Nanon (a nubile young Crawford), who also performs in the circus, as it’s owned by her father, Antonio. Nanon has issues with men touching her, which is why she keeps rebuffing the advances of the good-hearted strongman Malabar (Kerry). She likes Malabar, but recoils from his touch, and confides in Alonzo, who assures her her fears are justified, as it keeps Nanon close to him.
Alonzo is afraid to confess his love (he’s in the dreaded “friend” status), but he has another secret: he has arms. Only his diminutive friend Cojo knows the secret. Alonzo keeps his arms bound and hidden, due to a double thumb on one hand. When Antonio discovers the secret, Alonzo kills him, and Nanon witness the murder, but only the hands. When detectives start fingerprinting the circus performers, they leave Alonzo alone, because they believe he has no arms.
Alonzo does his best to keep his arms a secret, convinced eventually he can reveal it to Nanon and she will forgive him, but both Cojo and the blossoming love between Nanon and Malabar present problems. In fact, in order to confess his love to Nanon (and remove any evidence of his guilt), he has a surgeon remove his arms, only to find that Nanon and Malabar are now in love. This leads to him finally dropping his facade, melting down in front of the couple, in a performance actor Burt Lancaster, who saw the film as a teenager, claimed was one of the most powerful he’d ever seen on film. And he’s right; even in the playing-to-the-cheap-sets melodramatic style of most silent film acting, it’s quite effective.
The climax is a visually ambitious and rather demented revenge plot where Malabar has to hold two horses at bay while they are trying to run in opposite directions. If the treadmill is stopped, he could have his own arms torn off, and so, that’s just what Alonzo tries to make happen, only to be trampled to death by one of them.
Browning is rightfully known for horror films Dracula and the lost London After Midnight, but this one is more in line with the demented classic, Freaks, also a circus story (Browning grew up in the circus). He sides with the monsters who don’t get the love they want. Crawford is good here, and acting alongside Chaney not only helped her reputation, she would always say afterwards that it was the most instructive experience of her career. But it’s Chaney’s film, and though we now know that some of the actions we see are not actually him (a real armless actor was rigged underneath him to make it look like he was throwing knives or lighting cigarettes with his toes), the deep hurt and rage at the heart of the performance was all him.
Note: the easiest way to see this one is probably on TCM.