Monday, June 10, 2013

The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)


  Alonzo The Armless is a circus freak who throws knives using only his legs. His partner for the show is Nanon, the circus owner's beautiful daughter. Alonzo is in love with Nanon, willing to do anything to get her. However, Nanon has feelings for Malabar, another member of the circus,, who is renowned for his strength. Malabar reciprocates Nanon's feelings. There is only one problem and --wait for it, it's perfectly cheesy, you guys-- Nanon has a phobia of hands! See what they did there? All her life, she says, men have been groping at her. Unfortunately, Malabar does not know that and just can't keep his hands off Nanon, played by noneother than wily Joan Crawford. Who can blame him really?

Joan Crawford  publicity shot for The Unknown
     If Hollywood legends are to be believed, Joan Crawford was the one who had trouble keeping her hands off people. But you see, not in this film. In The Unknown, Joan is a beautiful but sullen girl who yearns for love but cannot get over the hangup of being touched. She is guileless and has no ulterior motive. That's not the Joan we know! Read: she was boring in this film. But guess who can't (and as such can) touch her though? Yep, Alonzo The "Armless".

   The wedding bells would be ringing by now except for the fact that Joan really has no feelings for Alonzo and Alonzo is not who he appears to be. Get this, Alonzo is a criminal on the run. His hands are easily identified because he has two thumbs on one hand. So to hide, he pretended to be armless and landed a job at the circus. This plot keeps getting better and better. Alonzo is hellbent on making Joanie/Nanon his wife. When his midget assistant remarks that on their wedding night Nanon will realize that Alonzo has other ~functioning members~, Alonzo is determined to not let this problem stop him. Nothing will stand in his way of making Nanon his wife, not even his hidden arms. Not his past, not his subterfuge, and certainly not Malabar.

Malabar, you in danger gurl
   This film is an enjoyable watch from start to finish. My expectation for the plot was that Lon Chaney as Alonzo would be the hero or at the very least an anti-hero. Yet, this film refuses to be a complete cliche. Alonzo is the bad guy, plain and simple. He's also the main character. In fact, he is the only character we are allowed to identify with because all of the other players in the film are so vanilla. Joan as Nanon is allowed to sulk around and look damn gorgeous doing it, but she really doesn't have much else to do. I was also annoyed that her character could not just explain to Malabar her phobia of hands so that they could work on it together. Instead, when she is touched (eek!), her eyes widen, her body stiffens and she backs away like Vampira from Plan 9 From Outer Space, only backwards. If Nanon won't tell Malabar, then you betcha Alonzo (who has been told her deep, dark secret) will use that to his advantage. In that respect, some puzzles in the plot fit together too conveniently

    Thankfully, a great performance by Chaney saves and makes the film. We watch Alonzo scheme and plot, all in order to get what he wants. He has no scruples. As played by Lon Chaney, Alonzo becomes one of the most chilling villains I've ever come across. Chaney is beyond amazing in this role. There is a scene later in the film where he receives some not-so-pleasant news. He goes from laughing maniacally to crying hysterically to being visibly upset/looking physically ill and then to slump down defeated. And the scene only lasts for less than five minutes. It was one of the best five minutes of my life.

    Lasting only 50 minutes, The Unknown makes for a short and satisfying watch bearing a wonderful performance from Chaney and a slightly cheesy albeit fascinating plot. While I didn't like some of the elements of the plot individually, as a whole all the cheesiness creates a great mood and atmosphere for the film. The Unknown does not take itself too seriously. It's neither the story of two star-crossed lovers or a look inside the mind of a madman. It's just good old, unadulterated fun. It is definitely a film worth checking out.

A Star Was Born

Ludovico Rating


  1. Never heard of this one but I am a sucker for anything to do with carnies. will have to try and give this one a watch.

  2. Definitely give it a chance. The time goes by quick and it's actually good old fun.

  3. What an interesting plot! I also have never heard of this film, but will keep my eyes open. It just sounds so intriguing.

    1. This plot has so many things thrown in it all at once. It's bound to be a fun ride.