Saturday, 21 April 2012

Crawford, Chaney and the Circus… The Unknown (1927)

There’s only so much acting a guy can get through wearing the kind of make up Lon Chaney did in Phantom, Hunchback and many of his other roles. But, cast forward a couple of years on from these to Tod Browning’s The Unknown and you get a chance to appreciate his ability even more. Although he’s not exactly without dramatic make up…he is more restrained.

This is not a particularly pleasant film…but it's a memorable one; anyone who has seen Freaks or Browning’s other works, knows that he specialised in the unsettling and the grotesque. A former circus artiste himself, Browning knew the dark side of the business and the attraction it held for the outcast and outlandish. He also knew the transgressive fascination this all held for many in straight society

I don’t think that this style of story is necessarily fixed in its period. 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 (a young Joan Crawford, eyes glaring all the brighter behind her heavily-applied Spanish tan) 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.

Nanon loves Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry playing the hero again), the circus strong man. Yet Malabar longs to caress Nanon but she has developed an aversion to men’s’ touch. Flimsy plot device or proto-feminist artifice? It’s certainly unusual.

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.

Uncovered by the circus owner, Nanon’s father Antonioni, he kills him and Nanon witnesses the murder seeing Alonzo’s double-thumbed hands strangling the life from him all too late. But no one can accuse a man with no arms and Alonzo escapes, moving away with Nanon and Malabar.

As the two prepare a new act, Alonzo becomes determined to have Nanon. The only way he can see to truly win her heart is to lose his arms for real. He makes off to a doctor who owes him a favour and makes the sacrifice…

He returns to his “friends” but is devastated to learn that Nanon has overcome her fears and now accepts the warm embrace of Malabar. Driven almost mad that all has been for nothing, Alonzo sobers up to scheme a way of exacting revenge… Malabar has a new stage show in which his strength allows him to prevent two horses running away.

Will Alonzo sabotage the show and rip his rival apart or will Nanon save her lover and finally see Alonzo for what he’s worth.

Browning’s direction is pacey and he creates a superbly strange atmosphere and gives Chaney plenty of close ups to show the audience at least what a malicious presence he is.

Crawford later said that she learned a lot about cinema performance form watching Chaney and it is true that he was a mesmerizing presence who is not only physically committed – we see how painfully his arms are bound underneath a corset – but also a brave in his expression.

His bitter laughter at finding Nanon and Malabar in happy embrace is disturbingly well done…along with the lovers we wait and we wait for him to stop but he doesn’t and they begin to sense what we already know.

Kerry is steadfast, a good leading man as he was in the Phantom, but not in the same class as the other leads. Crawford is energetic and full of the quick-fire emotion you’d expect. Still learning, she none-the-less provides an even counter-balance to Chaney’s barely-diluted malevolence.

Coming in at just over 50 minutes, The Unknown is undiluted and unsettling. It still stands out for its odd storyline but especially the playing from a star being born and one in full bloom. Chaney was a genuine silent master whose one true face was actually his most frightening when he wanted it to be.

It's available as part of the TCM Chaney box set on Amazon.


  1. Well, this one sounds like it should be on a "must see" list just for the wacky story line!I'm intrigued.

  2. You really have to wonder what kind of person could dream up the storyline! But it's a cracker... maybe not for last thing at night though.