As someone always trying to steep myself in more and more silent cinema, I still have much to contend with when it comes to the careers of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. However, from everything I can gather, The Unknown is a wonderful melding of their talents, Browning drawing on his penchant for the outcasts of humanity and his own past on the carnival circuit.
Meanwhile, though he would die in 1930, up until that point, Chaney really was a standout in the fledgling movie industry for how he approached the acting profession. He was the “Man of a Thousand Faces” because he went against the prevailing current — the desire to promote an image — and he succeeded by promoting many. He was the era’s beloved chameleon. The Unknown is little different.
It’s a story of old Madrid. The tale is set in a gypsy circus and involves an armless knife thrower (Chaney) and the love of his life: his boss’s daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford). At first, it seems like an immediate oxymoron. Sure enough, we see Alonzo the Armless doing his art with the dexterity of his feet. It’s the marvel of the movies watching it play out in front of us as the ringmaster’s daughter plays his daring assistant.
But once the crowds are gone and after hours we come to understand some of the other dynamics behind the Big Top. Nanon is a young woman with an almost obsessive fear of men. She trembles when the male performers in the company try to lay their hands on her. She’s left with this lingering fear and an aversion to their very touch.
It goes beyond a mere sense of harassment, verging on an elemental level at the very core of her being. It becomes the film’s primary metaphor and sadly this metaphor maintains its relevance almost a full century later. In one summative line, she cries out: “Men. The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands of all of them.” Her distaste is stated quite plainly.
That’s part of the reason she has a special place in her heart for Alonzo, being vulnerable and kind to him because, with his physical disability, he cannot take advantage of her.
Chaney does so much to make the reality of his character’s disability supremely evident. There’s actually some sense of the suspension of disbelief. It’s a habit of movie magic and the subsequently projected illusions, we want to see how they do it.
Is it possible to see true signs of Lon Chaney’s able body? And yet The Unknown shocks us by stripping away everything. Behind closed doors, he loses his normal attire and gains a pair of arms because you see, he’s not actually armless.
It’s not just part of his act. He’s pulling it over on everyone in the troupe aside from his closest confidante Cojo (John George). He discloses to him, “There’s is nothing I will not do to own her!” Because he too secretly has his sights on Nanon, wanting to have her for his own through this act of sophistry.
Like the best silent cinema, The Unknown feels so emphatically poetic, where the characters represent more than themselves. They shed the mere realms of reality to speak to something far more, at times, both terrifying and tender. Suddenly, the movie morphs, building into a wicked tale of irony. I wouldn’t think of divulging all of it here, although such sordid things like murder, amputation, and blackmail abound.
Also, be prepared for the finale. The world is literally being ripped apart at the seams, and it becomes the film’s gloriously chaotic crescendo back out on the circus Big Top. The carnival strong man, Malabar the Mighty ( Norman Kerry), Nanon’s suitor, looks to show off his feats of strength; they are rapturously in love. Joan Crawford snaps a whip from the platform up above as she rallies the horses galloping on their giant treadmills. Alonzo looks on poised for revenge against his romantic rival.
It conjures up indelible images of performed chaos leaving a starling impression even after all these years. If nothing else, it proves silent cinema is far from rote, often brimming with all sorts of memorable even perverse bits of storytelling. The Unknown’s overall impact is not to be taken lightly.
Viewers would do well to seek it out if only as an act of appreciation of Browning, Chaney, or Crawford. The picture, in its current form, is missing some of its original exposition, but what a fantastic relic it is. However, it’s far from a museum piece. It feels fiercely alive even after all these years. I did take some issue with the cut I’ve seen if only because of the typically off-putting soundtrack that feels too modern and incongruous to make me truly appreciate what is on-screen.
But the title cards have a pleasant lyricism to them accentuating the story’s dramatic situation so we can fully appreciate its implications. Likewise, Joan Crawford, as a recognizable entity, isn’t fully flourished into her full-bodied image of stardom even as glimpses of her emerging persona flash upon the screen. However, it’s absolutely a testament to why Lon Chaney was a revered talent of the silent generation right up until the end of his life.