Director/Story – Tod Browning, Screenplay – Waldemar Young, Titles – Joe Farnham, Photography (b&w) – M. Gerstad, Settings – Richard Day & Cedric Gibbons. Production Company – MGM
Lon Chaney (Alonzo), Joan Crawford (Nanon Zanzi), Norman Kerry (Malabar), John George (Cojo), Nick De Ruiz (Antonio Zanzi)
At the circus of Antonio Zanzi, the armless Alonzo is a star performer with a knife-throwing act where he uses his feet instead of his hands. In truth, Alonzo is a murderer at large who has both of his arms but hides them using a harness. Alonzo has a crush on Zanzi’s daughter Nanon. She dislikes the hands of men trying to touch her and Alonzo lives in hope that she will love him because of his ‘armlessness’. The circus strongman Malabar is also interested in Nanon and Alonzo urges Malabar to take Nanon in his arms, knowing that she will reject him. After Zanzi beats him, Alonzo is angered to strangle him. Nanon sees the murder out the window of her caravan and notes that the killer has double-thumbs, although she does not see Alonzo’s face. As Nanon begins to accept him, Alonzo realises that when they are together she will discover that he does have arms and in particular double-thumbs. And so he blackmails a surgeon into removing his arms only to find that Malabar has persuaded Nanon to overcome her fear of men’s arms and accept him.
The Unknown was one of the classic films made by Lon Chaney [Sr]. Lon Chaney was probably the greatest character actor of the silent era and became famous for the extraordinary lengths he would go to for a film, including placing on a twenty-pound harness as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and wires around his eyeballs as The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
The Unknown was the fourth of ten films that Lon Chaney would make with director Tod Browning. Browning was a former circus performer who became a director after working as an assistant to D.W. Griffith and would go onto make a number of other genre classics in both the silent and sound eras. (See below for Tod Browning’s other titles of genre interest). Many of Browning’s films were centered around circuses. He also made the classic Freaks (1932), a film similarly set in a circus and featuring a doomed love story between a deformed circus performer and an ordinary woman. Freaks has become a deserved cult classic, although the less well known The Unknown is actually a much better film.
What is so startling about The Unknown is its perverse freakishness. There is a wonderfully contorted melodrama of motivation to it all. Indeed, the 1920s was probably the only time when such contorted psychology could have worked. Joan Crawford hates men touching her – no motivation is ever offered for such, she just has a pathological fear of men’s hands. Enter Lon Chaney’s armless knife-thrower who believes that this means hope for him. However, he is a murderer who is just posing at being armless. When he realises that she will find out he is pretending if they ever consummate their relationship, he blackmails a doctor (who he just happens to have unspecified blackmail knowledge of) into severing his arms … only for Crawford to overcome her fear of men’s arms and accept strongman Norman Kerry (whom Chaney had earlier told to just take her in his arms and declare his love in the knowledge that this would drive him away). It is all conducted with marvellous dramatic flourish, reaching a fabulous climax where, as fitting with the arm/armless symbology, Lon Chaney tries to sabotage the strongman’s act that involves holding back two horses running in opposite directions on a conveyor belt so that they will tear his arms off.
Lon Chaney gives an amazing performance. For the part, Chaney actually learned how to use his feet as arms and throw knives. There is an amazing opening scene where he shoots Joan Crawford’s outer clothes off with a gun and then tosses knives at her, all with his feet. In one sublime scene, we see him sitting at a table, idly scratching his forehead and lighting a cigarette with his feet. You can guarantee none of today’s big name/big ego stars would ever go to such painstaking lengths for a performance.
Tod Browning other genre films are:– the lost vampire film London After Midnight (1927), also featuring Lon Chaney; the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931), the classic Freaks (1932); Mark of the Vampire (1935); and The Devil-Doll (1936). Also of interest is the documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000) concerning the fascinating career of Chaney.