Monday, November 26, 2012

The Unknown (1927)

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife thrower in a travelling gypsy circus. He is in love with the owner's daughter, the hot Nanon (Joan Crawford). Lucky for Alonzo, Nanon has a terrible fear of being embraced by men, and therefore feels safe around him. But he has a competitor: Malabar the strong man (Norman Kerry). Surely she would never fall for him.

Here is where we learn some secrets. Alonzo is not who, and what, he appears. The cops are searching for a man with two thumbs on one hand who has been committing thefts wherever the circus goes. And as Alonzo's obsession for Nanon grows we learn more of what he is willing to do to get her.

Here is the best silent movie I've ever seen.

Sound, I feel, is essential to telling a story. Silent cinema is a serious handicap that is almost impossible to overcome. But Lon Chaney was it's master. Dialog is unnecessary when looking at his expression. There is no doubt what is going through his mind. I wish I hadn't deleted it from my DVR.

Apart from Chaney's uncanny acting talent, what else is interesting? Until 1973 the only copies that existed were very poor quality bootleg versions, when it was revealed that a quality copy was found five years earlier but was hard to find because it was marked "Unknown". There are a couple scripted scenes that I'm unsure were ever filmed. If they were, I would love to see them. The movie is barely an hour long. Crawford long said that watching Chaney is where she truly learned to act.

There is not much more to say. Had Lon been born ten years later, and lived twenty years older, he would have been the undisputed king of Hollywood, but his lifestyle would be the end of him. Lon Chaney died of lung cancer three years after the movie's release. Director Tod Browning intended on using him in the title role of Dracula. The 6'2" Creighton wasn't a shadow of his 5'9" father. AMRU 4.5.
"Hands! Men's hands! How I hate them!"

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