One of the toughest criteria for Hooptober this year was the Lon Chaney requirement. I originally read it thinking his son and planned to watch Spider Baby again until a friend pointed out my mistake. When I started looking for a replacement and one that was Phantom of the Opera, that proved difficult since 102 of the 157 films Chaney starred in are now lost. Thankfully I found The Unknown and geez louise, this movie is intense.
The film centers around Lon Chaney as circus performer Alonzo the Armless. Alonzo performs all types of tricks using only his feet. He’s usually accompanied by Nanon, daughter of the circus’s owner and played by a very young Joan Crawford. Unsurprisingly, Alonzo is in love with Nanon who has a very unusual fear; she hates being touched. Being armless, this is convenient for Alonzo. However, strongman Malabar keeps trying to woo Nanon, something Alonzo doesn’t want.
Directed by Tod Browning, who also directed 1933’s Freaks, I went thinking I knew where story would go. Clearly, Malabar must be a villain and Alonzo, the grotesque but empathetic hero, will have to enact vengeance on him. Except the horror of the film comes from what Alonzo will do to win Nanon’s love. You see Alonzo isn’t actually armless. Only his aid, the diminutive Cojo, knows this secret. He hides his arms in a kind of corset during performances and is a criminal after hours. He murders the owner of the circus knowing that police won’t suspect a man who famously doesn’t have arms. Safe in this knowledge and believing Nanon now loves him, Cujo points out the obvious; what happens when Nanon finds out he has arms?
Saying this is an upsetting film is an understatement. Browning is a director now known for his grotesque leads and subject matter. The Unknown hinges on us thinking Alonzo won’t do something before he does it. Browning and screenwriter Waldemar Young craft a character truly willing unspeakable acts that top one another. Alonzo is a truly depraved character and the strength of that lies in Chaney’s performance. Chaney, famously known for his make up abilities, doesn’t need that here. He embodies all of Alonzo’s various identities. He’s lovestruck around Nanon, and villainous when no one is around. When Chaney loses it midway through, he truly looks like a man who will do anything to get what he wants. This is an actor in total control of the tools of his craft.
Tod Browning and Lon Chaney collaborated on eight films together. It’s an early example of a director and actor combination where one brings out the best in the other. Of those films, only five still exist and of them only The Unknown is a horror film. Chaney’s relatively brief career made more collaborations impossible (supposedly Browning wanted Chaney as the lead in Universal’s Dracula), it truly is a loss that we don’t have all of these films.
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