The Unknown (1927)
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford
Synopsis: A criminal on the run hides in a circus and seeks to possess the daughter of the ringmaster at any cost.
Before commenting on The Unknown, I should note that I watched the 49 minute version. Apparently, there’s also a 63 minute version out there somewhere, but it’s difficult to see what those missing fourteen minutes could add to the movie. It does begin a little abruptly, and offers little in the way of back-story for its characters but, to be honest, what story there is in The Unknown barely justifies its truncated running time as it is.
The great Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless knife thrower with Zanzi’s circus. His act involves throwing knives with his feet at an impossibly young and skimpily-clad Joan Crawford who plays Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner. He performs with skill and accuracy because Nanon is a kind soul who is not put off by his missing appendages. It’s hardly surprising that Alonzo has developed a major crush on her — after all, how many young women would show affection to a rough-hewn middle-aged man with no arms?
Alonzo has competition, however, in the imposing form of Malabar, the Circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry, who looks a little like a buff Kevin Kline). It seems like the strong man in silent circus movies always plays a prominent role, and The Unknown is no different. Malabar is young and handsome, and has arms like tree trunks. You’d think this would be a major selling point when it comes to impressing the ladies, but for some unexplained reason the lovely Nanon has a phobia about men’s hands touching her. Aware of both Malabar’s interest in Nanon and her fear of men’s hands, Alonzo slyly encourages the strong man to sweep her into his arms, which the slightly dim Malabar duly does, with predictable results.
Alonzo dreams of getting closer to Nanon, but as his faithful midget sidekick Cojo (John George) points out, if that was to happen she would discover that Alonzo is actually living a lie. He’s not armless at all, you see, but is only pretending to be so afflicted because he’s on the run from the law and knows that the fact he has two thumbs on one hand might be a bit of a giveaway for any snooping police. Realising Cojo is right, Alonzo blackmails a surgeon into amputating both of his arms so that he can continue his wooing of Nanon (This may be another section of the film which is fleshed out in the longer version, as just what damaging evidence Alonzo has on the eminent surgeon is never made clear). However, he doesn’t count on the perseverance of Malabar who, while Alonzo is recovering from his surgery, cures Nanon of her phobia of men’s hands — and no doubt has a lot of fun doing it.
For such a bizarre and unusual tale, it’s quite disappointing just how predictable The Unknown is. However director Tod Browning does well to capture the Bohemian lifestyle of his cast of circus performers. Chaney is phenomenal in the role of Alonzo, delivering a finely modulated performance and avoiding the temptation of indulging in melodramatic histrionics that such a role provides. He appears so comfortable performing tasks with his feet that it’s possible to believe he’d being doing it his entire life. Crawford doesn’t have a lot to do but she looks gorgeous while she does it. Slim and alluring, she spends a lot of time sashaying around with her hands planted provocatively on her hips, which is fine by me. She lost that earthy sexiness somewhere along the way, which is a shame, snd performances like this present a more vivacious image than the one we remember.
As with most silent movies, and despite its brief running time, the pacing of The Unknown might prove a little too leisurely for many. But for those who enjoy this kind of thing, The Unknown is well worth checking out, even though it’s not quite deserving of the classic status some have bestowed upon it.
(Reviewed 5th July 2012)