|Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower in Tod Browning's The Unknown. Some of the stunts were performed by real-life armless foot double Paul Desmuke, who went on to perform for years billing himself as "Lon Chaney's Feet."|
I was intrigued by The Unknown long before I ever saw it, all because of an anecdote related to how the film went missing for decades. Researching and writing a book about lost films means I’ve heard about a lot of different ways that films are lost—fire, earthquakes, destruction by Nazis, being left on the subway, or being dumped into a mining pool, to name a few—but this one is in a class of its own. The Cinémathèque Française ultimately found a 35mm print of The Unknown in their very own archives, where it had become lost among all of the hundreds of reels of unidentified film similarly marked “Unknown.” (Well, technically marked L’inconnu.) This is the only instance I know of in which a film’s title caused it to be lost.
Man, am I glad they found it. I’m about to fall victim of the problem I have where the more I like a film, the less capable I am of talking about it. I just want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them as I drool and say, “Watch this! Watch this weird and wonderful thing, right now!” Let me just begin by saying that this is a Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration in which Chaney plays an armless carnival knife-thrower. That should be enough right there, and as much as I’d love for you to read the rest of my post, if that is enough to intrigue you, then go … go and watch it now, because I’m going to lay down some spoilers. (Come back and read the rest later!)
And if that’s not enough for you? Well, this film is going to get a lot weirder. And then it’s going to get weird some more. And I’m not talking about weird for 1927—this is weird for the ages.
Lon Chaney is a circus performer known as Alonzo the Armless, and the film’s first scene shows us Alonzo in action, throwing knives, with his feet, at Joan Crawford. Now, silent film fans know better, but there are a lot of people in the world who only know Crawford from her later work—in other words, as the scary hag of Mommie Dearest fame—but in the 1920s, she was an ingenue. Here, she is eighteen years-old and luminous as Nanon, the circus manager’s daughter. Alonzo’s talented toes alternately hurl knives and shoot bullets around the outline of her perfect figure, and as each weapon penetrates the board, she loses a piece of her clothing, revealing a skimpy costume underneath. As if this psycho-sexual act doesn’t have enough psycho in it, the whole thing takes place on a huge, rotating platform, Alonzo flinging and grinning and shooting, and Nanon getting nakeder and nakeder as she spins by.
|Alonzo the Armless prepares to entertain.|
After the show, we learn that Alonzo is desperately in love with Nanon, who feels safe around the only man she knows who doesn’t try to grope her. In fact, she has a near-pathological aversion to masculine meathooks: “Men, the beasts! God should take all their hands.” Also in love with Nanon is Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus strong man with a wispy mustache, who seems a bit of a scuzz. He skulks around her caravan after the show and seems intent on doing some of the groping she so despises, and tells her he loves her, and that he’ll tell her so every day (in other words, expect him to drop by for some harassment on the regular). Alonzo enjoys watching Malabar rebuffed, and even gives him the advice to take Nanon in his arms, knowing that she’ll recoil from him even more.Malabar is the anti-Alonzo, all strong and handsy. Good, safe, armless Alonzo is clearly the one who will win her hand-hating heart.
|Malabar the Strong Man can't figure out that Nanon doesn't like to be touched.|
Alonzo heads back to his caravan, where his dwarf assistant Cojo (John George) then unstraps him from a torturous-looking corset contraption, revealing … Alonzo’s arms. He’s a faker! Alonzo the Armless is really Alonzo With the Conventional Number of Arms. (As you’re taking in this plot twist, it’s impossible not to think about the fact that Lon Chaney is spending so much of the movie with his arms confined in this thing, which doesn’t look fun at all—a sign of his dedication as an actor. He also looks lean and muscular and pretty damn good, and I’m thinking that while he’s certainly an unconventional romantic lead, it’s working for me.) Alonzo mutters something about the police and what they’d give to know who he really is. Oh no, I think. The good guy is sinister. Am I still supposed to root for him? I love flawed lead characters, so I figure that it’s safe to still consider Alonzo the good guy. Surely the “what he’s done” has some good explanation or is something noble, like stealing from the rich.
Oh, and it is also revealed in this scene that he has two thumbs on one hand.
|Alonzo the Non-Armless, with sidekick Cojo. Note the double thumbs.|
Soon after, Alonzo’s status as Good Guy goes from cloudy to non-existent when he murders the circus manager. I can’t help but recall something a theatre professor once told me as we were reading Corneille’s Le Cid: “If you want to win a girl’s heart, don’t murder her father.” Alas for Alonzo, a flash of lightning illuminates his double-thumb as Nanon witnesses the murder. While she then knows that someone with two thumbs is the killer, no one suspects Mr. The Armless. In fact, as the cops arrive to question and fingerprint the gypsies, Alonzo is nonchalantly strumming a guitar with his feet.
Alonzo convinces Nanon to stay behind with him as the circus moves on, and Cojo witnesses a bit of intimacy between the two. The dwarf is not amused, and warns him that he can never let her touch him that way again lest she notice he has arms. He also reminds him that she saw the weird thumbs of the man who murdered her father. In other words, there’s no sane way the two can ever really be together. Alonzo, who has unstrapped his arms, is now so flustered that he’s lighting up and puffing away at a cigarette held between his toes. “You are forgetting you have arms,” Cojo laughs, but there may be more to it than that. Alonzo has reasoned out that while there may be no sane way the two can be together, there may be an insane way.
|Chaney's intensity shows in every single frame.|
A word here about Lon Chaney’s acting: it’s among the best I’ve ever seen. He manages to convey both anger and anguish in these scenes. Everything about this whole story is absurd, yet I’m buying it, because Chaney is convincing me that every bit of his emotions are real. And that’s why I continue to buy it, to believe it, even though the next turn of events is shocking.
Alonzo tells us of his plan, though the title cards don’t let us in on it. They only show us Cojo’s horrified response: “No! Never do that!” But Alonzo does do that, which turns out to be blackmailing a surgeon to actually remove his arms. It’s the most over-the-top solution to a problem that could probably be conceived, but here, it sort of has a twisted logic. The only thing that Alonzo doesn’t consider is his recovery time, and during that time, Malabar, who it turns out isn’t such a bad guy after all, has continued to spend every day telling Nanon he loves her. When Alonzo returns from his surgery, with nothing new to report, because no one knew he had arms to begin with, Nanon and Malabar have news of their own. They’re engaged! Not only has Nanon gotten over her fear of hands, but she loves Malabar’s big, strong hands.
In one fell swoop, Alonzo has lost the woman he loves to a man with arms, when he has just had his own removed in order to be with her. It’s like a perverted Gift of the Magi. Chaney’s response is one of the best moments in all of silent cinema. He smiles the biggest, fakest, most twisted smile you’ve ever seen, then breaks down into laughter. They laugh along at first, but the laughter becomes more and more maniacal until Chaney completely implodes. It’s the greatest visual meltdown I’ve ever seen.
|No longer afraid of his arms.|
While I’ve revealed most of the plot, I’ll hold back a little of the ending which is deliciously twisted, and involves a circus act and horses on treadmills.
It’s hard to know what to make of all of this, but I do know The Unknown is one of the most amazing silent films I’ve ever seen. As ridiculous as the set-up is, there’s something very modern and universal about it. The themes of obsession, sacrifice, loss: they’re things we all know, and Chaney’s performance makes us feel every bit of it along with him. Joan Crawford’s Nanon may at first seem silly with her fear of being touched, but it’s similar behavior to anyone who has suffered abuse.
Chaney and Browning would ultimately collaborate on ten films, and while it’s often remarked upon that each of their greatest works were outside of that collaboration, this is undoubtedly the best film they made together. The Unknown most certainly deserves to be known.
The Unknown is available on DVD via Amazon, and streams in various spots around the internet (it’s in the public domain, though soundtrack quality varies).
One of 31 silent horror films I'm watching this month. See the link below for the complete list (some with full reviews).