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MGM Silent. 65 minutes.
US release: 6/4/27.
Cast: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford (as "Nanon"), Norman Kerry, Nick de Ruiz, John George, Frank Lanning.
Credits: Story: Tod Browning. Scenario: Waldemar Young. Titles: Joseph Farnham. Director: Tod Browning. Camera: Merritt Gerstad. Editors: Henry Reynolds, Errol Taggart. Sets: Richard Day, Cedric Gibbons. Wardrobe: Lucia Coulter.
Plot Summary: As a group, the silent-movie collaborations between director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney hardly represent the best work of either man, though each film definitely has its moments. One of the best, and weirdest, of the batch is The Unknown. Chaney plays a carnival performer known as the "Armless Wonder," who performs near-miraculous stunts with his bare feet. In fact, he is in possession of both his arms, but keeps them strapped to his side to maintain the illusion of being limbless. Chaney's beautiful assistant Joan Crawford has a pathological fear of being touched by any man. This leads Chaney to believe that he is attractive to Crawford so long as his keeps his arms hidden. Halfway through the film, Chaney murders the circus manager--a crime witnessed by Crawford, who was only able to glimpse Chaney's distinctively mutated thumb. To cover up his crime, and to make himself the perfect mate for Crawford, Chaney blackmails a doctor into amputating his arms. Upon returning to the carnival, the now-genuinely armless Chaney learns to his horror that Crawford has overcome her aberration of being touched, thanks to handsome circus strong man Norman Kerry. Enraged, Chaney plots to kill Kerry in a horrible fashion...but guess who ends up seriously dead? ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times (June 13, 1927)
The Armless Wonder
Although it has strength and undoubtedly sustains the interest, "The Unknown," the latest screen contribution from Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, is anything but a pleasant story. It is gruesome and at times shocking, and the principal character deteriorates from a more or less sympathetic individual to an arch-fiend. The narrative is a sort of mixture of Balzac and Guy de Maupassant with a faint suggestion of O. Henry plus Mr. Browning's colorful side-show background.
The rôle of Alonzo, who poses as the Armless Wonder with a Spanish circus, is one that ought to have satisfied Mr. Chaney's penchant for freakish characterizations, for here he not only has to go about for hours with his arms strapped to his body, but when he rests behind bolted doors, one perceives that he has on his left hand a double thumb. Mr. Chaney really gives a marvelous idea of the Armless Wonder, for to act in this film he has learned to use his feet as hands when eating, drinking and smoking. He even scratches his head with his toe when meditating.
This tale is prefaced as if it were a circus legend, and soon one realizes that Alonzo is not only expert in the use of his feet when serving himself, but he is also supposed to be a crack shot and an unerring knife thrower. The girl who risks her life daily before Alonzo's bullets and knives is Estrellita, impersonated by Joan Crawford. She becomes interested in Alonzo because most men in the circus without provocation invariably want to caress her.
Estrellita even recoils from the attentions of Malabar, the handsome young strong man, whom Alonzo soon regards as his romantic rival. The only man with the show who knows Alonzo's secret is Cojo, who unlaces Alonzo's leather jacket when the knife-thrower goes to his little cabin. Alonzo's reason for posing as the Armless Wonder is because he is wanted by the police, and as he happens to have a weird double thumb on one hand, he thinks the only way to avoid capture is to appear without arms.
In one episode Alonzo is mercilessly beaten by the circus manager, and that night the manager is throttled by a man with a double thumb. Estrellita sees a flash of the deformity from her window, not knowing, of course, that the strangler was Alonzo. Hence, Alonzo realizes that if Estrellita ever discovers that he has a double thumb, not only will his chances of winning her be lost, but he will also stand in danger of being apprehended for murder.
In one very clever scene Alonzo is perceived sitting in his cabin with his arms free. He is, nevertheless, using his toes to pour out wine to drink and to hold a cigarette. Cojo calls Alonzo's attention to the fact that Alonzo is so accustomed to using his feet that he has forgotten that his arms are not strapped to his body. Alonzo has an idea of his own. He is trying to find out whether he could not do without arms. Not long afterward Alonzo insists that a surgeon amputate both arms, and some time later he finds Estrellita. Malabar, the man of strong arms, has won the affections of the girl and she is his wife.
Alonzo's nature changes, but his plot to cause Malabar's death fails.
Miss Crawford is not only beautiful but she gives a most competent performance as Estrellita. Norman Kerry is splendid as the strong man.
THE UNKNOWN, with Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick de Ruiz, John George and Frank Lanning, based on a special story by Tod Browning, directed by Mr. Browning; overture, "Second Hungarian Rhapsody"; "The Pirate's Frolic," with Richard Hale, baritone, and Capitol ensemble; "A Holiday in Sweden," a scenic; "The Newlyweds' Surprise," a comedy. At the Capitol Theatre.
Langdon W. Post in the New York Evening World (1927):
When Lon Chaney is in a picture, one can rest assured that that picture is worth seeing. When Joan Crawford and Norman Kerry are also present to help Mr. Chaney put it over, its value is that much enhanced....Joan Crawford is one of the screen's acknowledged artists and each picture seems to merely justify this characterization. Certainly her performance in this picture is a most impressive one.
If you've seen The Unknown and would like to share your review here, please e-mail me. Feel free to include a photo of yourself to accompany your review, a star-rating (with 5 stars the best), as well as any of your favorite titles from the film.
Robert Larroque (January 2013)
Rating: -1/2 of 5
I chose to review "The Unknown" because it is one of my favorite of Joan Crawford's movies. In it, she plays Nanon, performing partner to the armless Alonzo (Lon Chaney) in a traveling gypsy circus. Nanon is the target that Alonzo tries to miss as he throws knives or shoots bullets at her. Of course, since he is armless, he accomplishes all of this by using his feet. Alonzo harbors a not-so-secret love for Nanon. That love remains unrequited, though. For some reason which is never explained, Nanon has an irrational fear of men’s hands. This might make Alonzo a perfect match for her, since he has no hands. But Nanon is not attracted to Alonzo, except perhaps in a sympathetic, almost patronizing way.
The circus strongman, Malabar, is wildly in love with Nanon as well. He makes no secret of his love, constantly approaching her and constantly being rebuffed by her. Malabar tries unsuccessfully to make Nanon enjoy his unwelcome groping and hugging. Alonzo, all too happy about this situation, encourages Malabar in his advances toward Nanon, hoping they will disgust her more and more, turning her against Malabar.
We soon find out that Alonzo does, in fact, have arms. Not only arms, but a double thumb on his left hand. The reason for his ruse as an armless man becomes evident. Nanon witnesses Alonzo committing a crime but does not see his face. She does, however, see the double thumb.
As his passion for Nanon grows and the possibility of his secret being found out becomes more dangerous, Alonzo hatches a plan that he thinks will solve all of his problems. The plan is quite strange and disturbing. While Alonzo is away, carrying out his plan, Malabar manages to break down Nanon’s resistance. All of these developments lead to a climax that is both thrilling and unsettling.
This film was directed by Tod Browning, who had directed several other films with Chaney. He would go on to direct the similarly-themed, better-known “Freaks,” which has become a cult classic. Perhaps his greatest triumph was the original "Dracula” with Bela Lugosi. In some ways, “The Unknown” foreshadows those two films.
The narrative of this film is incredibly spare, making possible its short running time of less than an hour. The audience is given only the facts it needs to follow the story. It is an excellent example of highly efficient storytelling. At times, I wished it had given us a few more details (the source of Nanon’s fear of men’s hands, the reason Alonzo was able to blackmail the doctor, etc.), but in the end, we get what we need and the story moves along quickly.
Some of the scenes are unforgettable. The keening mourners burning the clothes of the deceased to keep his soul from going to Hell, Alonzo lighting his cigarette using his feet while his healthy arms lie limp at his sides, Alonzo’s reaction to Nanon’s devastating news… And perhaps the most unforgettable of all, the stunning climax involving Alonzo, Nanon, and a raging horse. Just how that was filmed is beyond me. That Chaney and Crawford were able to escape that scene alive is a miracle. It just goes to show what people did with a little imagination and talent in the days before computer-generated special effects.
Lon Chaney as Alonzo, of course, dominates the film. His stunts using his feet to throw knives, light a cigarette, etc. were reportedly accomplished with the cooperation of a man who really was armless. But Chaney’s acting is superb. Without the grotesque makeup of some of his earlier films, he was able to use his real face to convey numerous emotions, sometimes in an instant. I went from feeling sorry for him to being afraid of him to hating him.
Norman Kerry, as strongman Malabar, is a standard-issue Hollywood handsome man from that period. Nothing against him as an actor; he does his best with what he’s given to work with, which isn’t much. His character is perhaps the weakest in the entire film, no pun intended.
John George, as Alonzo’s dwarf companion Cojo, is excellent. He conveys emotions beautifully without making his character clownish or stereotypical.
And finally, Joan Crawford. This is said to be her leap from ditzy flapper roles into the realm of serious acting. I can believe that. She is almost unrecognizable as Nanon. Her makeup is understated, her hair cut in an uneven bob. If you’ve never seen the film, check out the publicity photos and stills on the "Best of Everything" website. In the middle of the movie, Nanon’s look suddenly changes. I don’t know if that was intentional, but in the scenes where she is alone with Alonzo and kisses him, she doesn’t look much like the same girl in earlier and then later scenes. It’s just in that middle where her lips are bee-stung and her hair seems slightly different, making her forehead appear wider. It’s an attractive look, but different.
Alas, although this was at the height of Crawford’s flapper career, she does not dance in this film. That’s probably for the best, however. I find that her acting is very subtle. She still conveys her tough-girl persona, but more surreptitiously. The moment she appears in the circus ring and takes her place, you know she’s not to be trifled with. The swagger, the way she kicks her foot out with each step, the smirk on her face… all perfect. And she keeps that swag throughout the entire film. No wide-eyed mugging here. It’s said that she decided to become more serious about acting when she saw how Chaney practiced and perfected his performance. Sounds plausible to me. In this film, she takes what could very well have been a throwaway role and makes it her own.
All in all, an excellent film. I give it four-and-a-half stars out of five. The main reason for the half-star deduction is that the film asks us to accept a whole lot of things without question. You’re familiar with the concept of “suspension of disbelief.” Well, in order to enjoy this film thoroughly, you may want to send your disbelief to day camp. Otherwise, the sparse narrative, the wonderful performances, the stunts, and the sets add up to a beautiful, tense, silent black-and-white gem.
Mike O'Hanlon (October 2007)
Rating: of 5
The Unknown was the turning point in 's career. She was paired with the already legendary in one of his most interesting films. I have yet to view many of her movies before this, but her acting is highly credible. She gives an excellent performance. Years later she confessed that it was Chaney who inspired her to take her acting seriously. Thanks, Lon!
Unfortunately, Joan is very much a supporting player. She has few scenes in this short movie, but she makes the most of it. is the star, and therefore most of the movie’s success if because of him and the director, Tod Browning. He was probably one of the greatest Actors of the silent screen. Even without make-up, he is excellent. I’ve seen about ten of his movies, and in every single performance he gives his all.
Here he plays Alonzo, a fake-carnival freak who hides his arms for his knife throwing act. gives a great performance as the strong man, and as usual, Joan is the love interest. Joan’s character has some fear of men’s hands, which was the 1920s version of implying she had been sexually abused. Lon visits a doctor and black mails him into removing his arms. In the scene where Chaney returns to Joan, who has gotten over her fear and has fallen in love with Kerry, Lon learns he has undergone a painstaking surgery for no reason at all. His reaction is so believable; one imagines how he knew exactly what emotional reaction would have worked. has always been one of my favorite actors of the screen, no matter if his work was silent or not.
I purchased the Chaney boxed set over a year ago, and would consider it an excellent opportunity for Joan fans to discover the that was just struggling to make it before her star-making-smash a year later, Our Dancing Daughters (1928).
Above: US publicity material. Below: French publicity material
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