It’s really hard to get younger people to watch black-and-white movies, let alone silent movies, but limiting what you’re willing to watch is the best way to miss out on the fantastic. It’s certainly true that those unwilling to watch older films don’t really love movies. How can you love something if you don’t care about its history? Black-and-white images are some of the most beautiful ever put to film, and without the element of sound, you’re forced to focus on the image alone — this is one of the best ways to learn about the art of cinema.
That said, it’s not all about education. It’s also about enjoyment. Some of the weirdest, craziest, funniest stuff you’ll ever see on film comes from the earliest days, the days of wild invention, when filmmakers were creating the very language of cinema and pushing the boundaries of possibility to see what worked. Some of the oddest of the lot came from two wonderful talents in particular. THE UNKNOWN (1927) is one of the strongest, most fantastically bizarre collaborations between the great director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney, “The Man Of A Thousand Faces.” In it, Lon Chaney plays an armless knife thrower named ‘Alonzo The Armless,’ secretly a criminal who is hiding out in a circus sideshow. When he becomes obsessed with a female member of the troupe, his more evil instincts start to show.
Armless vengeance erupts.
For real now: Doesn’t that make you want to skip the rest of this article and go watch this movie right away?
All of the Tod Browning/ Lon Chaney collaborations I’ve seen are exactly this level of crazy. These two artists were, for a while there, as perfect a match as Leone and Eastwood, Kurosawa and Mifune, Scorsese and De Niro, Jack Hill and Pam Grier. Besides his command of eerie and ominous atmosphere behind the camera, Browning had been a circus performer himself, a clown and a daredevil, so he knew these worlds. Chaney was a master of pathos and the macabre, fully able to meet any of the bizarre physical demands Browning needed from him.
Needless to say I’m a Tod Browning fan. Nobody else made movies like his. The closest you could come, for that mix of playful and menacing, is arguably early Tim Burton, or recent Alex De La Iglesia. I spent time studying Browning’s movies, most notably 1932?s FREAKS, for one of the comics I wrote. (Which, for the record, is still available in stores and online!)
But FREAKS came a few years after THE UNKNOWN – FREAKS is better-known because it has sound and because the titular “freaks” were actually deformed, whereas Chaney was only playing at it (albeit doing so while in excruciating pain, if you read up on the history.) THE UNKNOWN also comes before 1928?s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH in the Lon Chaney chronology. This is a much more depraved character, in a much more depraved movie.
Chaney plays Alonzo The Armless, a sideshow freak whose act is flinging knives at his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford) using only his feet. He can do other things with his feet, such as play guitar…
…But the main thing to look out for is that knife-throwing. Alonzo’s not that nice a guy, and he’s also a fake. Turns out he has both his arms — he’s only hiding out in the circus because he’s a career criminal, who is easily identifiable because he has two thumbs on one hand.
Told you this movie is wild. Okay, so Alonzo is technically a genetic aberration, only not the kind he purports to be. It’s the perfect cover story! Because not only does he need to hide his identity from the authorities, but he’s trying to not let on to Nanon, the woman he loves, that he is THE SAME TWO-THUMBED MAN WHO KILLED HER FATHER!
Alonzo’s only confidante is a little person named Cojo.
It really just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?
Alonzo fumes to Cojo as his beloved Nanon gets closer to the circus strongman — but not too close, as since her father was killed, she has developed a phobia of being held. This in turn leaves the door wide open for the romantic advances of Alonzo, as long as he doesn’t reveal to her that he actually does have arms. (It’s a little bit like TOOTSIE!) Alonzo gets so wrapped up in his babe that he makes the spectacularly bad decision to go get his arms amputated. Fellas, don’t make this mistake with your lady, and I’ll tell you why: While he’s recovering, Nanon gets over her arm phobia. Not only that, but she announces that she’s marrying the circus strongman. Well, Alonzo doesn’t take this news well at all, and that’s where everything gets really Tod Browning all over everybody.
What’s so compelling and so unusual about THE UNKNOWN, and about so many of Tod Browning’s films, is that it begins on a malevolent note and that only intensifies, until the typically violent climax, where the movie’s villain gets a karmic comeuppance so horrible that it’s barely even gratifying to watch. And of course what’s so uncommon, never more than today, is how the movie’s villain was the main character and the biggest star. It just shows how very much Lon Chaney brought to the movie, and to movies in general.
How many stars are brave enough to allow themselves to be shown in so ugly a light? Alonzo is an evil, angry, murderous character, only occasionally sympathetic, but clearly that doesn’t keep him from being interesting. Tod Browning’s movies were provocative, profound, and truly valuable because his bad people were truly nasty brutes, and the so-called “freaks” were the most human out of anyone. Then again, being human doesn’t always mean being good either. The world is a complicated place.
THE UNKNOWN is playing on TCM tonight, at 8:00pm EST. Check your local listings for possible variations.
And you can find me on Twitter, rarely silent:
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