Tuesday, 7 August 2018

All Tomorrow’s Crawfords… The Unknown (1927) with Costas Fotopoulos

Joan’s eyes… so reflective they almost show the director and crew illuminated by the Klieg lights. So laser sharp, a flick of the lashes glancing so pleadingly towards the camera or in soft-focus, delivering a glistening tear as heartbreak turns her soul.

This was the film when Crawford truly hit her stride as she paced Lon Chaney’s own exhausting rigour and fed of the insane energies fueling his performance. There are those who like Joan and others who like Norma Shearer but whilst the latter had warned her pal about the Chaney experience, the younger actress clearly had a better balance with the man of a thousand grimaces; a face like a talking book. This might say something or nothing about Shearer vs Crawford, but the latter grabbed it as an opportunity to focus her career with the same energy, commitment and ruthless dedication she applied to her dancing and everything else.

Joan Crawford
There’s a great quote she gave after the film was released: “I want the Joan Crawford I am this year, to be only a building block for the Joan Crawford of next year. I want to be prepared for those years that come when youth is gone. I haven’t done a single thing, not a single thing, with which I’m content.”

And, that’s all it takes to become the biggest star in Hollywood and to build a career that lasted for a lifetime.

The first time I saw this film I thought it striking but quite unpleasant and that’s not only par for the course for writer/director Tod Browning, but also for a long line of films that came after him from David Lynch to Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Roger Corman, Quentin Tarrentino and many more; tales to unsettle. But not many can do this with the style of Lynch or Browning who, a former circus artiste himself, knew the dark side of the business and the attraction it held for the outcast and outlandish. He knew the transgressive fascination the tented world held for the mainstream; clowns, jugglers, strongmen and horses – we all like a freak-out.

Lon Chaney and Nick De Ruiz
But The Unknown is unsettling not just because of the setting but because of the intensity of Chaney’s character, his lack of morality and his willingness to do anything, to himself and others, in order to get what he wants. Chaney manages to convey all of this with skill, he’s scaringly true. He is maybe even more frightening than he is in the Phantom as his motivations are easier to read and believe: there is no mask to hide the real horror of the man without care. And you really – really - wouldn’t want him throwing knives at you with his feet, let alone on a moving podium…

Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a circus performer who is extraordinary skilled at using the only limbs he apparently has left: his legs and feet.

He loves Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford) and she is part of his act, stripping down to a skimpy costume as he throws those knives at her and shoots the straps of her dress off… The male gaze is all over Joan and, indeed the male gauze for the love scenes… Crawford’s legs should have been down for a best-supporting role they’re featured so thoroughly and there’s not a dress that’s not tailored to within a half-inch of her figure. Those eyes are given ample chance to shine and her young face – always slightly not-Joan… shown in close-ups crafted with all the care of Brown’s Garbo or Sternberg’s Marlene.

Her physicality is a match for Chaney’s own and that’s one thing Shearer couldn’t match: Crawford has a dancer’s athleticism and she’s fearless. Ferocious in fact. She had to be with a story like this… there were a few twenty first century sniggers in a packed NFT 2, although they quickly died away. The idea of a two-thumbed man, hiding his arms for profit is bizarre as is the woman who is not just frightened of male intimacy but, specifically, their arms and hands. The sheer commitment of the performers carries all before it until you’re sitting in shock watching the lengths to which mad love can drive man and beast…

Norman Kerry’s circus strongman Malabar the Mighty seems a mite luke-warm next to his co-stars, he’s handsome, muscular and noble but here reduced to the role of love interest – a benign corner of the triangle, a sweet-hearted mirror to better reflect Chaney’s fire. Malabar longs to caress Nanon but she has been the victim of unwanted male contact too many times: she cannot bear the embrace of his manly mits and fulsome forearms.

Norman Kerry and his, um, arms...
Alonzo being armless, Nanon feels less threatened and gives her affection knowing that there’ll be none of the advances that unsettle her so. Alonzo uses this to try force her and the muscle man apart and it seems to be working… Then, out of the blue, we discover that Alonzo is far from harmless: he is a fully-armed escaped killer whose malformed thumbs have meant that he hides his hands in order to avoid detection by the police. The moment when his tightly strapped corset is opened is all the more shocking for our imagining what discomfort the actor had to endure during filming… every bit a shocking as the revelation of the Phantom’s face.

Soon he has more to hide after killing Nanon’s father Antonioni, the circus owner with his double thumb spotted by Nanon: he must keep his arms to himself and yet how can he have his love without revealing himself.

The most frightening laugh you will ever see...
By now the story has developed a cast-iron logic of its own and we believe everything even Alonzo’s last desperate leap of faith makes total sense…  but we are caught up in his fevered World and as if to illustrate the extremes, the young lovers are filmed behind a gauze by Browning, as if to emphasise the fairy-tale quality of their love. Desperation and devotion will collide in the shocking ending which still makes me shuffle uncomfortably in my seat as innocence unravels as perceived friend attempts the most dastardly revenge for the loss of his lover…

Costas Fotopoulis accompanied with assured lyricism and relishing every startling twisted nerve. He played along to the dramatic excess with restrain and period charm, gothic chords and yearning lines back-dropping the intense, bizarre, emotion on screen.

Mordaunt Hall reviewed the film of release for the New York Times and was reservedly ecstatic: “The narrative is a sort of mixture of Balzac and Guy de Maupassant with a faint suggestion of O. Henry plus Mr. Browning's colourful side-show background… Mr. Chaney really gives a marvellous idea of the Armless Wonder… he even scratches his head with his toe when meditating.

Miss Crawford is not only beautiful, but she gives a most competent performance...”

So… not just a pretty face. “Competent”, oh Mordaunt, she’d have you for breakfast mate!

The Unknown was screening as part of the BFI’s Joan Crawford season: Fierce – it runs until October and features many of her classic roles but maybe they all started here; the Joan Crawford of tomorrow, next year and after youth.

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