“Every time Browning thinks of Chaney he probably looks around for a typewriter and says ‘let’s get gruesome.’” – Variety review of the film
“This delirious, outrageous l’amour fou – a chilling, genuinely disturbing and haunting melodrama – is what cinema should be all about: a suspension of belief in the face of a story that defies all logic yet rings true to the deeper human emotions.” – Michael Koller in a Senses of Cinema analysis
“[In my pictures] I’ve tried to show that the lowliest people frequently have the highest ideals. In the lower depths when life hasn’t been too pleasant for me I’ve always had that gentleness of feeling, that compassion of an underdog for a fellow sufferer. The Hunchback was an example of it. So was The Unknown…” – Lon Chaney in a 1928 issue of Photoplay
Tod Browning and Lon Chaney Sr. had one of the most fruitful and (mostly) satisfying collaborations in Hollywood history. Both attracted to material featuring the macabre and antagonistic characters who still had a chance to be redeemed by love, they were of a like mind, artistically if nothing else. The best-loved products of this actor-director teaming are The Unknown and The Unholy Three, both set in Browning’s favorite sort of atmosphere: the side show and circus, though The Unholy Three is more concerned with crime than circus tents. The Unknown, on the other hand, is entirely set in the show business world of the circus, one which is much more seedy and sinister than the one briefly depicted in The Unholy Three. With circus performers as the leads, Browning delves into a distinctly pre-code atmosphere filled with murder, mutilation, and madness.
Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a knife thrower with a shady past and a powerful obsession with Nanon (a luminous Joan Crawford), the lovely daughter of the circus’s leader who is terrified of male sexuality. The origin of her aversion to the male touch is never explained, though the movie implies her cruel father has been pimping her out. Nevertheless, it causes her to reject the romantic advances of the strong man Malabar (Norman Kerry, appearing opposite Lon Chaney for the third and last time) and run to Alonzo for support; since he has no arms, she never worries that he might try to paw her and Alonzo uses this trust to keep her to himself as much as he can. He hopes that even one day he will be able to reveal to her his biggest secret: that he is not armless at all, but a criminal who keeps one of his abnormal thumbs hidden beneath an old school straightjacket in order to keep the police off his scent.
Of course, Nanon’s bullying father discovers this and Alonzo is forced to strangle the life out of him to save his own skin. And of course, Nanon gets a glimpse of the murder, though she only knows that the man who killed her father had a double thumb. Afraid of losing the woman he is willing to possess at all costs, Alonzo makes a major sacrifice, only for Malabar to help Nanon through her trauma, which results in the two falling in love. Will Alonzo have his revenge? Will Nanon ever be his at last?
It’s a Lon Chaney movie—what do you think?
Like many of the Browing-Chaney films, The Unknown is off-the-wall insane and full of dark themes and humor. Contemporary critics were unfavorable toward the film, finding it too creepy and shocking for general audiences, and the film wasn’t one of Chaney’s best-grossing at the time. Nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone who has seen the film and found it anything other than a masterpiece. Clocking in at a spry fifty minutes (though this is because some footage is missing; luckily the story does not suffer much because of it, save for Alonzo’s partner in crime Cojo disappearing without explanation in the last third), the pace never lets up for a moment and the atmosphere remains suffocating throughout. While many Browning films usually suffer a bit in the final act, this one has one of the finest climaxes of his oeuvre, all breakneck editing and unbearable suspense. Cinematography-wise, it’s one of Browning’s most uncharacteristic pictures, with a little more camera movement and flair than he usually allows.
One thing which always stands out in a Browning film is his focus on the theme of illusions versus reality. Think of the strongman lighting up a cigarette after handing out health manuals to a gullible audience in The Unholy Three—there are a billion moments like that here, except they’re even more fused into the story and its themes. We see all the behind the scenes action in the circus, the way Malabar’s strongman schtick is a façade cleverly upheld by hidden devices like treadmills underneath the feet of the horses he’s supposed to be holding back in the movie’s climax, the way Nanon’s father uses her when the show is finished. This theme extends to the characters themselves, from Alonzo’s secret straightjacket to his scheming nature concealed behind his supposed kindliness toward the young lovers.
Out of Browning’s work, The Unknown may be his most erotically fixated, even more-so than Dracula. From the first reel, Browning displays how Nanon is sexualized and put on display by the men around her; in her knife-throwing act with Alonzo, he starts off by using the knives to cut off her skirt as she poses in front of him. Her father wrenches a shawl from her bare shoulders when he chastises her for listening to Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men’s embraces. The arm motif throughout the films is used as a symbol of power, particularly masculine power. You could write a whole paper in the vein of Linda Williams’s feminist essay “When the Woman Looks,” where the fear-induced frigidity of the female Nanon and Alonzo’s initially presumed lack of arms (not to mention his three thumbs) mark them as freaks in comparison to the strong sensuality of the “normal” Malabar, but I don’t want to go into that kind of territory here.
Chaney had a lot of damned good performances in his cinematic career and more than one could be argued to be his best, whether it’s the Phantom, Sergeant O’Hara, Professor Echo, HE the clown, or Quasimodo. As for me, I’ll go with his turn as Alonzo in this movie, which is just miraculous when you think about it: Chaney is able to make this monster sympathetic. The Phantom may have been a murderer and obsessive in his love for Christine, but his mistreatment at the hands of a shallow and cruel society made him that way. The Blackbird and Blizzard the gangster are redeemed by the endings of The Blackbird and The Penalty, but Alonzo is a fiend to the end, never apologetic for the cruel things he is willing to do to have Nanon. This desire goes beyond mere lust, but Alonzo’s wish to possess Nanon are fueled by a twisted, possessive affection. To be blunt, Alonzo is a scary fellow and one that never quite repents of his evil ways by the end title card.
Yet somehow, someway, Chaney makes us feel sorry for him. The most celebrated scene in the movie, where he realizes Nanon is marrying another and that he has sacrificed his own physical prowess for nothing, is nothing short of intense, a tour de force of film acting, one that is chilling and terribly sad. One almost feels as though Chaney’s anguished, angry eyes are burning through the screen at the audience itself. That he could take someone so loathsome and make us wish the best for him—that’s the mark of a fabulous, rare talent.
Some Chaney films suffer from the love interest being rather bland, like Eleanor Boardman’s nurse in Tell It to the Marines, Renee Adoree’s showgirl in The Blackbird, or Lila Lee in the sound remake of The Unholy Three, leaving you to wonder why he goes to the lengths he does to try to win them over, but Nanon is one of the most interesting leading ladies for him. The character is more than a pretty face; she has suffered great trauma and possesses psychological hang-ups of her own, ones that come from being objectified and used. We may feel sorry for Alonzo and his frustrated passion, but it is made clear that he perceives Nanon as something to be possessed, declaring that he “must own her.” Malabar comes on strong at first, but he eventually comes around and helps Nanon through her pain by seeing her as a person and not an object, keeping his hands to himself until Nanon is comfortable with him. Crawford’s breakout role might have been Diana the flapper in Our Dancing Daughter (released a year after The Unknown), but for me, this early role is the first to really show her potential as an actress. As for Norman Kerry… well, it’s still clear that acting was only a hobby for him, not a passion, but he’s adequately handsome and loving toward Crawford, so he gets the job done. It’s a rare romantic subplot in a Chaney film which is actually interesting and not saccharine at all, so kudos to everyone in that aspect.
The Unknown is so haunting, proof that melodrama need not be fodder for tired soap operas. When you have folks like Chaney and Browning at the helm, melodrama can even be transcendent, dare I say art.
Check out more posts for the Backstage blogathon at the Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid blogs!