A favorite topic of cinephiles is blindspots, i.e. what haven't you seen that will enrage, surprise or flummox another movie lover. I have a lot. Maybe the biggest, embarrassing, gaping hole in my cinematic education is my lack of knowledge (and interest?) in the silent film era. Thanks to my dear husband, K, I have seen a handful of silent films (he is quite the connoisseur, well, also he had a goal to watch 365 feature films in a year and there comes a point where a sixty minute silent film makes reaching that goal a lot easier.). I've seen one Buster Keaton movie (Sherlock Jr.), some Charlie Chaplin shorts and Modern Times, and that’s about it unless you count The Artist. So let's just say that K was shocked when I recorded Todd Browning's 1927 The Unknown around Halloween.
I had become interested in The Unknown because of a fantastic podcast, You Must Remember This. What intrigued me about this film? Well, host Karina Longworth, described the young Joan Crawford in a way that surprised me, instead of the harsh Mildred Pierce (and lets be honest Mommie Dearest) Joan I knew and loved, young Joan was in fact, an ingenue yet still a tough as nails chick. And so I saw it on TCM and it was only sixty minutes, what did I have to lose?
Lon Chaney is Alonzo the Armless, a circus freak in a traveling show who throws knives with his feet. He is traveling with a gypsy circus and obsessed with the beautiful daughter of the circus' owner, Nanon (that's Joan, in case you didn't guess). Nanon likes Alonzo because she is terrified of men and their "arms" that can possess her and assault her. Although she has another suitor, the good natured Malabar (Norman Kerry, dashing AF), she rejects him time and time again because of those pesky arms.
I was hesitant about writing this next part because I was worried it was a spoiler. But I had been thinking about the difference between a plot twist / spoiler and a reveal. A spoiler would be a twist ending or something that if you know could ruin the surprise of the film. A reveal is more a plot point, something that you have to know for the story to make sense. I think a reveal can also be something the characters don’t know but we as viewers do and have to know in order to understand what is happening onscreen. Early in the film it is revealed that Alonzo the Armless isn’t so armless after all. I went into The Unknown ignorant of the plot so I was shocked after the introduction of Alonzo, to see that he was hiding his arms because he is a murderer on the run and he has two thumbs on one hand so in order to hide himself from the authorities, he masquerades as a circus freak.
As far as plot, I think you can guess where where this is going, but it doesn’t mean that Browning doesn’t do a marvelous job getting there. Much like his best known film Freaks, Browning is the master of creepy atmosphere but showing the humanity of people on the outskirts of society. Crawford is luminous and at once innocent and shrewd as Nanon. Unlike many female characters of the silent era, Nanon is not just a passive vehicle for the desires of the male characters. Instead, in so many ways, she uses her own agency to make her choices. Lon Chaney is astounding as Alonzo, he is ostensibly the the villain of the film but is incredibly sympathetic. He is terrifying but also kind, he is nothing but sweet to Nanon, never trying to harm her or intimidate her, even when she is beginning to reject him. And the fact that neither of them speaks makes the deep character development even more amazing.
Sometimes as a movie lover, I think our prejudices can stop us from enjoying great films. I am so glad I gave The Unknown a chance.