The Unknown (1927) A Silent Film Review

Lon Chaney plays a serial killer with two thumbs on one hand who hides out from the cops by posing as an armless knife-thrower in a traveling circus. He falls in love with Joan Crawford, who is afraid of men’s hands. After strangling her father, Chaney decides to cut off his own arms for real in order to win Crawford’s love, as one does. Chaos ensues. I did not make any of that up.

This is my contribution to the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Be sure to read the other great posts!

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Do you need me to lend you a hand?

The surest way to tell that someone has never seen a silent movie is when they start talking about soppy dramas and melodrama clichés. There’s only one way to handle such a person: sit them down and introduce them to Lon Chaney. Soppy? Ha! And while they could be melodramatic, fans of Chaney know that his films were unlike anything else made before or since.

No one had more fun being bad.
No one had more fun being bad.

Chaney was stuck in supporting roles interspersed with leading parts of varying quality until he hit it big at Universal with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. While these pictures showcased Chaney’s skill with makeup and had moments of genuine terror and creepiness, his work at MGM should not be overlooked. Even without makeup, he sent shivers down the spine of the roaring twenties and became one of the biggest box office draws of the silent era.

A big reason for the new level of creepiness was Chaney’s rekindled collaboration with director Tod Browning. Browning is famous today for Dracula and Freaks but nothing can top his insane silent body of work. (Chaney died before the duo could be reunited in talkies.)

Chaney as the Phantom, one of his signature roles.
Chaney as the Phantom, one of his signature roles.

Today, we are going to be looking at one of the most famous and popular of the Chaney-Browning collaborations. The duo spread their creepy pall over sunny Spain and indulged themselves shamelessly in the bizarre, grotesque and macabre. Let’s see if the film lives up to its reputation.

(Because this film is so popular, the review will be relatively spoilery, though I will not reveal the ending.)

The star of the show.
The star of the show.

Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) is a star knife-thrower at a travelling circus. He throws assorted sharp objects with stunning accuracy using only his feet. Alonzo’s assistant is Nanon (Joan Crawford), the circus owner’s daughter. Alonzo is obsessed with Nanon but she admires the brawny Malabar (Norman Kerry, who had played Chaney’s romantic rival in The Phantom of the Opera).

Part of Alonzo's act involves slicing off her dress. No disturbing connotations here.
Part of Alonzo’s act involves slicing off her dress. No disturbing connotations here.

Standard love triangle stuff? Yes, it is but wait a few minutes because things will start to get incredibly weird. You see, Alonzo is not really armless. He is a murderer who has two thumbs on his left hand. As his preferred killing method is strangulation, the tell-tale thumbprints on the necks of his victims will easily identify him as the perpetrator. To hide himself, he tight-laces his arms behind his back and lives as an armless performer. (Chaney’s antic were a combination of his own physical ability and the clever use of a foot double.)

Yeah, men with arms are totally awful and you should hate them.
Yeah, men with arms are totally awful and you should hate them.

Alonzo has managed to worm his way into Nanon’s confidence and his pretended lack of limbs is a big reason why. Nanon has been groped and pawed by so many men that she has developed a phobia of men’s hands. Obviously, she has nothing to fear from Alonzo or so she thinks. In fact, Alonzo is using his position of trust to increase Nanon’s fear. He privately advises Malabar that Nanon likes rough stuff and he should just grab her if he wants to win her love. This goes over about as well as you might imagine.

Nanon’s awful father, Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), is not a fan of Alonzo or his attentions to his daughter. Believing that Alonzo can’t fight back, Zanzi beats him but Malabar comes to the rescue. Later that night, Zanzi has the misfortune to see that the “armless” knife thrower actually has all his limbs and Alonzo strangles him to silence him. Nanon witnesses the murder from the window of her wagon. She does not see Alonzo’s face but she does see the double thumb.

Uh oh.
Uh oh.

After Zanzi’s murder, Alonzo convinces Nanon to leave the circus and stay with him. He hopes that he can nip the romance with Malabar in the bud and win her love but there is just one problem: if he gets what he wants and Nanon marries him, she will surely discover that he has arms and realize that he murdered her father. Alonzo’s only confidante, Cojo (John George), advises caution.

Later, Alonzo sits down for a cigarette and Cojo starts laughing. Even though Alonzo’s hands are free, he still lights his cigarette with his feet. He has forgotten that he has arms. This plants the seed of an idea. What if…

A little off the shoulder, please.
A little off the shoulder, please.

Alonzo has a former accomplice who is now a surgeon. Suppose he were to… Yup, they go there. Alonzo has his arms sliced off. What he doesn’t know is that while he is recovering from the surgery, Nanon has been seeing Malabar. The strongman has finally pieced together why she is afraid of him and vows to help her overcome her phobia by treating her with respect and keeping his hands out of sight.

Our truly armless knife-thrower returns home with stars in his eyes, truly believing that the object of his obsession is within reach. Nanon greets Alonzo with a hug and kiss but immediately notices that his frame, no longer padded out by his hidden arms, is much slimmer. Has he been ill? I should note that the title card at this point (Alonzo says he hasn’t been sick but has “lost some flesh”) would not have sounded nearly as ominous to 1920s audiences without the arm-cutting background. Film magazines of the period frequently talk about stars putting on flesh, losing flesh, etc. the way modern celebrity news talks about putting on and losing pounds. The joke is much slicker if you are familiar with the writing style of the period.

She found a cure! Isn't this splendid?
She found a cure! Isn’t this splendid?

Nanon declares that they can get married, much to Alonzo’s delight. He realizes his mistake when Nanon calls Malabar. The pair then demonstrate in front of Alonzo how completely cured Nanon’s hand-o-phobia is. Twang! Sanity snapped! Well, what was left of it.

We’ll stop here but it’s not spoiling anything to say that things get a bit violent.

A bit much for 1927.
A bit much for 1927.

Chaney and Browning were kindred spirits with a taste for the macabre and The Unknown is probably their most popular collaboration. While audiences of 1927 were not entirely sure what to make of the picture, modern audiences can’t seem to get enough of Alonzo and his twisted idea of romance.

Chaney and Browning both entered films in the early 1910s and first teamed up for 1919’s The Wicked Darling, a crime picture in which Chaney plays a bestial gangster. It was a match made in hell that would be repeated throughout the 1920s. In his book An Evening’s Entertainment, Richard Koszarski writes that Browning was the most sympathetic of Chaney’s collaborators. He intimately understood the appeal of the Man of a Thousand Faces and used his own background with carnivals and circuses to help create off-kilter worlds that showcased his star to perfection.

We're all mad here, I'm mad, you're mad...
We’re all mad here, I’m mad, you’re mad…

While West of Zanzibar is undeniably sleazier and the lost London After Midnight contained more traditional horror elements, The Unknown is the craziest film from an actor-director team that excelled at climbing on the crazy train.

The lead performers seem inspired by the mad story they have been given. Chaney’s performance dives right into ham territory but I’m not sure what other route he could have taken since he is playing a double-thumbed murderer. Alonzo is certainly one of Chaney’s more unlikable characters, though the actor’s natural charisma does show through and we probably sympathize with him more than he deserves.

But not enough to actually wish that Joan would choose him.
But not enough to actually wish that Joan would choose him.

Joan Crawford is appealing and flirtatious, her star quality readily apparent at this early point in her career. (She described Lon Chaney as an utter sweetheart to work with and found his intense acting to be an inspiration.) Even Norman Kerry, who generally mailed in his performances from another continent, manages to be believable and sympathetic as the cheery Malabar.

Nanon and Malabar’s relationship is handled with more care than many romances of the silent and classic film era. Often, older films would reward the male suitor who least respected the heroine’s boundaries, described as the “caveman” approach in the silent era. (However, this was nothing compared to the oh-so charming 1950s. That decade wins the Icky-Patooey “Romance” Prize but that’s okay, apparently, because poodle skirts!)

A little problem with the romance.
A little problem with the romance.

While Malabar starts out as a grabby guy, he soon realizes that Nanon finds him frightening. However, she also seems to like him. Instead of taking Alonzo’s dubious advice and becoming more aggressive, Malabar backs off and observes. As soon as he realizes that Nanon has a phobia, he adjusts his behavior to respect her boundaries. Good fellow! (And, just to be clear, Nanon is extremely attracted to Malabar from the beginning but her phobia holds her back. This is not a case of “bully her until she dates you” but rather a man who is confused because a woman he likes draws him closer and then shoves him away seemingly at random.)

Nice. Dumb but nice.
Nice. Dumb but nice.

Alonzo, on the other hand (heh heh heh), wants to increase her fearfulness in order to draw her closer to him. During the first act, naïve Malabar plays right into his hands by trying to steal embraces with Nanon (the assault-by-proxy aspect is disturbing) but Alonzo underestimated his romantic rival. Malabar ain’t going to split the atom but he is basically a nice guy and he genuinely cares for Nanon, which allows him to uncover the truth. Alonzo doesn’t really love Nanon, he just wants to possess her, which leads the film to its bizarre amputation scene.

The movie also works well when the three points of the triangle share the stage. One of the best scenes in the film is Nanon’s engagement announcement when she announces that her phobia is cured and she loves hands now. Malabar paws at Nanon’s body and she giggles as Alonzo laughs, his mind quite gone. The happy couple assumes that their friend is laughing with delight and so they laugh along with him. It’s glorious, sick dramatic irony.

I cut my arms off for nothing! Hilarious!
I cut my arms off for nothing! Hilarious!

If you have never seen The Unknown but all of this sounds like a kick to you, go ahead and check it out. The Chaney and Browning collaborations are definitely not for the easily offended but if you put aside squeamishness, you will find a truly unique picture. There has never been another film like The Unknown. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on your point of view.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½

Where can I see it?

The Unknown was released on DVD as part of TCM’s Lon Chaney Collection.

25 Replies to “The Unknown (1927) A Silent Film Review”

  1. When you speak of Lon Chaney’s “natural charisma” it is so true. I am convinced I have heard the man speak, he is such a presence on screen.

    Being a nice, normal to the point of boring sort of person, I always thought that one viewing of “The Unknown” would be all I could handle. You have made me want to brave those waters again and shout “bravo” at the screen.

  2. The love triangle is handled so well in this one. One issue with many of the Chaney films is that the other two ends of the romantic triangles he finds himself in aren’t as interesting as he. But here, everything is so perfect. Such a twisted little film, definitely my favorite Chaney picture.

    1. Yes, I have to agree that it’s a very refreshing change. West of Zanzibar is still my favorite but I definitely see the appeal of this film. I hadn’t seen it in ages.

  3. I love this movie so much. For a while it was my favorite of all time. It’s still in my top 3. I love how imaginative it is. It’s one hell of a roller coaster ride, and I’m a sucker for a cinematic roller coaster ride.

    Another thing that I really love about this movie is that it’s a truly shocking film(specially the first time around) even though it comes from a much more bashful era. No blood, not jump scares, no on screen sex, etc. Yet it will catch anyone off guard. Many modern story tellers could learn a thing or two from this movie.

  4. Sounds like a lot of weird stuff going on in this film. And it’s about the circus! Count me in for a ticket to the big show. I’m down for this film!

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  5. Hi Fritzi ~ Thank you for contributing to my Star – Director Blogathon. And your post is right on time too because TCM will be showing a morning FILLED with the works of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. Looking forward to reading your post.

  6. If you love Freaks, in theory you should love this one. I happen to love Freaks, but have be in the mood to watch The Unknown. It’s a truly disturbing film- perhaps why it has survived, to preserve its uniquely disturbing aspects. What must contemporary U.S. audiences have made of it, I wonder.

    Personal favorite Chaney films: what’s left of The Miracle Man (SO many currently lost featuring Chaney), The Penalty, Tell it to the Marines (that incredible face sans makeup).

    1. The critical consensus seems to be that the film was acted extremely well but its sordid subject matter was a bit much for some. Of course, critics and audiences do not always align so take that with a grain of salt. I really love The Penalty, another absolutely crazy story.

  7. I think Chaney was one of the creepiest actors ever to have lived, to the point that I haven’t seen many of his films (including this one) because I’m a bit too *scared*. Luckily I have your review to cover all the gaps in my knowledge!

  8. It sounds like Chaney and Browning really “got” each other. I haven’t seen any of their films, but they sound like unique, original projects. I am a bit of a squeamish person, but these films sound well worth it. Thanks for this fab introduction!

  9. I love Lon Chaney and I love the under-rated Tod Browning so I know I will enjoy this nutty picture. The thing is you believe the character would cut off his arms because Chaney is so good. Now, the Crawford character needs a shrink:)

  10. Why not just slice just THE THUMB off?

    Oh,what am I talking about, wanting logic in a Tod Browning affair?

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