The Unknown (1927) – reviewed by George

Tod Browning had a really clever idea and he wrote a story outline which was turned into a screenplay by Waldemar Young, which Browning then directed. The idea is this: Nanon, a young woman who has grown up being pawed at, hates men’s hands and hates to be touched by men – and she works in her father’s traveling carnival as the target for an armless sharpshooter/knife thrower, Alonzo. The pair are played by Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney, and they seem to be a natural couple, one that you can root for.
But her father Zanzi (Nick De Luiz) wants no man around his daughter, not even the strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry), who is gentle and kind. And anyway Alonzo has a plan to get Malabar out of the picture – he tells him that he should throw his arms around Nanon and let her feel his the strength of his love. And this does work; she is revolted. At least until Malabar comes to understand her. When he does, he tells her, “I know now what you fear. Someday that fear will die. You will find me near you always – waiting – loving – hoping.” So we are set for a clever, possibly tragic, triangle story, which gets even better as we learn more about Alonzo’s past.
You might think that an armless man, even if he can throw knives with his feet and also aim and fire small rifles, and light his own cigarettes, would still need a helper, a kind of faithful servant to help him get dressed, and he has one. This is Cojo (John George), who knows all of Alonzo’s secrets, and actually seems to take pleasure in encouraging bad behavior.
I saw the movie and believed entirely that Chaney had learned how to do these things with his feet, but in the Commentary by Michael F. Blake, I learned that an actual armless man did all the stunts. The convincing shots include a sequence where you see Chaney sitting in a chair holding a cigarette between his big and second toes, and putting it in his mouth. Then he gets a match and strikes it, and lights the cigarette and smokes it. The stunt performer, who was a circus performer, if I understood correctly, is partly under the chair, as are Chaney’s legs. The chair is a large overstuffed thing, perfect for fooling a theater audience (and me).
Alonzo’s obsession with Nanon results in murder, maiming, and attempted murder. This is a really good film, with a lot of twists that I did not see coming.

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One Response to The Unknown (1927) – reviewed by George

  1. nita166 says:

    I have to see this film! I love Browning’s film “Freaks”. It is so creepy. When we were less worried about being politically correct and put it on the screen. The last movie to feature real circus freaks. I understand MGM almost didn’t do the film because of how totally uncomfortable it is. The smoking stunt in that film is a legless, armless man rolls a cig and lights it with a match then smokes it! It is amazing. I am going to add this to my list of must see. Thank you for sharing it.

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