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!
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.
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.)
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.)
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).
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.)
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.)
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.
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.