Thursday, December 22, 2016

Season of Silents: The Unknown (1927)

I am kicking things off with a Lon Chaney movie I've been wanting to see for awhile, The Unknown. It can be found on The Lon Chaney Collection from TCM Archives.

If you are still on the fence about whether silent films will interest you, then a Lon Chaney flick is a good place to start. Phantom of the Opera is a film that appeals to many people and is one that you may want to see first. That was all I knew of Lon Chaney for a long while until I saw He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three and The Penalty, and truly developed an appreciation for his fine work. I confess that I have not yet seen the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is another highly praised film of his, and on my list of films to acquire.

This movie is one of ten that Chaney did with Tod Browning, the director known for Dracula and Freaks. Tod Browning worked at one time in the circus, which is the setting for quite a few of his movies, including this one. Chaney's first movie with Browning as director was The Wicked Darling, which I hope to watch soon.

This movie also has Joan Crawford in an early role before her flapper films, and she reportedly said that she learned more about acting from seeing Lon Chaney at work than from anyone else. They work very well together.

The musical score was composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra. It's serviceable and plays well to the action on screen. Quite a few people enjoy their scores, but I am not a big fan. I find them completely competent, it's just that I prefer a more traditional sounding score that's more in keeping with what may have been presented at the time the movie was released.

The picture quality is pretty fair, though there are some scenes that look as though we're seeing them through a burlap sack, and quite a few lines and debris are running through much of the film. I didn't find that it hampered my enjoyment of the film or obscured the action on screen too much. Most of the time I didn't notice these imperfections as I was too busy looking at Chaney's face.

"Men! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!"

The film opens at a circus with ringleader Zanzi introducing his gypsy circus and the wonder of wonders, Alonzo, the Armless, and his beautiful assistant and daughter, Nanon. Alonzo proceeds to fire a gun with his feet to shoot the dress off Nanon. Impressive! To top that off, he picks up knives in his toes and throws them at her. Malabar the Mighty then takes the stage and shows off his burly muscles and awesome strength as he bends an iron bar around his neck.

Backstage, Nanon tells Alonzo of her distaste and fear for men putting their hands on her and he encourages her to maintain those feelings, letting her know he's always near and ready to help her. As she leaves his trailer, Malabar accosts her and tells her if it takes ten million years, he'll keep telling her he loves her until she believes him. Alonzo, who is watching, states that no one will get her but him.

Malabar shows off his biceps to impress her with his strength, but when he grabs her, she looks frightened and retreats into the trailer, crying about how much she hates men's hands, claiming God would show wisdom if he took hands from them. Clearly she isn't thinking about who would have to take out the garbage or mow the lawn if that were to happen, or of the armless man who's standing in front of her while she is saying this.

Zanzi finds out his daughter is hanging out with Alonzo, who is gifting her with a beautiful shawl. Her angry papa shows up at his trailer and tears it off her and sends her away, while warning Alonzo he'll settle it. He then proceeds to beat him until Malabar shows up and stops him, sending him on his way with a kick in the seat of his pants. Alonzo thanks Malabar and says he'll try to repay him some day. He asks Malabar about his feelings for Nanon and encourages him to go take her in his arms, which he does, with the expected result of her yelling at him and storming off into her trailer alone.

Meanwhile, Alonzo's young assistant Cojo is helping him to undress and we see that Alonzo wears a girdle, which not only helps him look trim, but also hides his well defined, muscular arms. Cojo asks if he's afraid they will find out he has arms, and we then see his double thumb deformity as he asks what the police would give to know he has hands and who he is. Alonzo is apparently a criminal mastermind who's thought of a clever way to hide in plain sight. By the way, did I mention that Alonzo has some really nice guns? Wowza!

Alonzo is out walking with Cojo when he is accosted by Zanzi, who tears off his cloak and sees that he has arms, which prompts Alonzo to put them to good use around his neck. Nanon sees her daddy being strangled by a man with two thumbs on one hand, though she doesn't see his face.

The local constables are standing around watching the gypsies burn clothes in a ritual to save souls and discussing how the same hands that strangled Zanzi committed the robberies in other towns where the circus played, leading them to believe that the murderer is a part of the circus troupe. Cojo is directed to get his finger prints taken and Alonzo, who's been strumming a guitar with his feet, offers his toes to be printed and is dismissed. Nanon worries what will happen if the circus is sold to pay her father's debts and Alonzo tells her he promised her father he'd take care of her.

The following day, the circus troupe packs up and leaves without Alonzo and Nanon. She asks why they did not travel with them and he tells her he wants to take her away from the things she hates. At that time, Cojo opens the door for Malabar, who has returned to offer her flowers and let her know that he will always love her. Alonzo is sneering until Malabar tries to grab her and she pushes him away, putting a grin back on his face.

When he leaves, Alonzo tells her how sorry he is that Malabar put his hands on her again, and she puts her arms around him and plants a big kiss on his cheek, which causes him to get a big, silly grin on his face. Cojo warns him not to let her touch him that way again or she might feel that he has arms.

Nanon is in her own room, gazing at her flowers, while Malabar watches, unbeknownst to her. He doesn't understand why she shrinks from him but kisses his flowers when he is gone. He realizes she is afraid of his embrace and says that some day that fear will die and he will be near her waiting, loving and hoping.

Alonzo tells Cojo that he's got to marry Nanon, but he tells him she would see his arms on their wedding night and hate him. Alonzo thinks she would forgive him, but Cojo reminds him that she saw her father strangled by a hand with two thumbs. Alonzo looks pained and starts smoking a cigarette while using his feet. Cojo brings to his attention that he's forgotten he has arms to use and Alonzo is struck with an idea as Cojo looks horrified and tells him not to do it.

We see a note with instructions to leave the operating room door open and be there at midnight, alone. Alonzo and Cojo enter the operating room where a man waits. The man asks Alonzo who he is and why he's sent the letter. He shows him his two thumbed hand, and the man understands he's being blackmailed, and Alonzo informs him the price is for him to amputate his arms. He cautions him to not allow him to die from the operation because he's left a letter behind, telling who the man is.

Nanon is out strolling with Malabar, and when she accidentally takes a fall from some steps and lands in his arms, she realizes that his arms are not such a bad thing after all, and all her foolish fears are gone. Wait until Alonzo hears this piece of good news.

Alonzo is clad in his bandanna in a hospital bed and the surgeon tells him that he is recuperating rapidly from his surgery and he'll be able to leave in a few weeks. Meanwhile, Nanon tells Malabar they have to wait for Alonzo to return to have their wedding since she wants him to be there for it. More good news awaits Alonzo.

Alonzo returns home and sends Cojo off to ask the landlady where Nanon is. He stares at the shawl he gave her, which is draped over a chair. Nanon is with Malabar and is telling him that it's strange that she hasn't heard from Alonzo since he went away. Alonzo is twiddling his toes as he waits for Cojo to return and inform him that Nanon is at the theater.

Alonzo finds her on the stage at a theater with tears in his eyes. She embraces him and gives him another smooch on the cheek. She starts feeling the sides of his body and notices he's become thinner and asks if he's been sick. He tells her he's not sick but has lost some flesh. She asks how Cojo is, and remarks that he loves him best of anyone, which he denies. She says she's happy that he's returned since now they can be married.

She calls Malabar over and Alonzo realizes what she means. She asks if he remembers how she used to be afraid of Malabar's hands but claims she is not now and she loves them. Alonzo seems to laugh and cry at the same time, and they all laugh together. Malabar tells him he took his advice and took her in his arms and Alonzo's laughter turns to a look of rage and he throws his head back, howls and collapses.

Alonzo composes himself and says he was told that Malabar was rehearsing and asks about his rigging. He describes how he will have a horse hitched to each hand and that they will pull in opposite directions as they run on treadmills. Nanon further explains that the way his hands are bound, he will be unable to let go, even if he wanted to. Alonzo notes that it's very dangerous and asks him what would happen if the treadmills broke or suddenly stopped, to which Malabar replies that the horses would tear his arms from his body. Nanon tells him not to say that and make Alonzo worry about him, but reassures Alonzo that they've been rehearsing for weeks.

It's the night of the show and we are all waiting to see Malabar get his arms ripped off. Alonzo waits in the wings, scowling. Malabar is attached to the horses and the treadmills are turned on as Nanon whips the horses to make them run faster. Alonzo tells the guy at the switch that he couldn't get Nanon's robe and asks him to get it for him. Oddly, he leaves the armless man in charge of the switch while he goes off to do it. Alonzo uses a foot to close and lock him in a room.

He gets his back to a switch and throws it, causing one of the treadmills to stop, while the horse on it rears up and pulls on Malabar's arm. The curtains are drawn and the stagehands approach Alonzo until he picks up a screwdriver in his toes, threatening to impale them with it. Nanon sees what he's doing and yells at him. She jumps down and puts herself in front of the rearing horse and Alonzo throws himself in front of her and moves her out of the way as the horse comes down and stomps his chest.

We are informed that death has ended Alonzo's hate while love has ended Nanon's. The movie ends with Nanon telling Malabar that if she lives ten million years, she will always say she loves him, and they gaze into each others eyes as he puts his arms around her.


Chaney has been called the Man of a Thousand Faces and we may have seen many of them in this movie even though he wasn't using any transfiguring make up. He is capable of displaying a range of emotions on his face with seeming ease, and it's fascinating to watch. Joan Crawford is also quite expressive, and it's too bad these two didn't get to make more pictures together.

We don't really know what Alonzo did in his past that has the police after him, we're not really sure why Nanon has such a fear of man hands, we don't know how the little guy Cojo came to be in Alonzo's service, and we don't know what the doctor did that allowed Alonzo to blackmail him. There seem to be a lot of unknowns in this movie.

It's pretty horrifying for a character to choose to have his arms amputated in order to have the girl he loves, however there is a sense of poetic justice that Alonzo should lose his arms after using them to murder Nanon's father. It's difficult not to feel just a tiny bit of sympathy for Alonzo after seeing the pain and heartbreak in his face when he finds out that Nanon is going to marry Malabar, but after he attempts to make Malabar an armless guy too, he seems deserving of having his chest caved in by a horse while protecting the girl he loves. This is an impressive piece of work that I'll want to watch again, and another fine example of why Lon Chaney is still revered 90 years later. It would be wonderful to see this film restored some day. There are some really beautiful shots that would be breathtaking if they were cleaned up.

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