The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

29 Jul

PosterunknownusxI was going to call The Unknown a horror story, but that doesn’t exactly capture the essence of the film. It is more like a macabre and lurid melodrama.

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower who is obsessed with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus owner (Nick De Ruiz). Alonzo is not alone, however, in wanting Nanon. Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) is the strongman of the circus and is also interested in her.

But Nanon has an extreme phobia of men’s hands. She says they have never done anything but paw her and one wonders very much about her father (who seems like the abusive type). She is attracted to Malabar, but she shrinks from him every time he tries to touch her. The only man she feels safe around is Alonzo.

But Alonzo has a secret. He really has two arms, though he keeps them hidden and strapped down for his act. He is also wanted by the police for theft and murder and would easily be recognized by his two thumbs on one hand. But as Cojo (John George), his assistant, tells him, he could never marry Nanon anyway. On their wedding night she would discover he really has arms and she would hate him.

But as Cojo also knows, Nanon does not look on Alonzo has a potential lover. She views him as a surrogate father, though this seems to have escaped Alonzo. There is one scene in the middle of the film where she leans in to embrace Alonzo and for a moment Cojo (and we the audience) thinks she’s going to kiss him on the lips, but instead she leans against his cheek. Cojo is visibly disappointed because he realizes what it means, but Alonzo is in an ecstasy that she kissed him at all. He’s already left reality and it’s scenes like this that make me love silent film, how they can convey so much without a word.

Alonzo smoking with his feet while Nanon asks him about their future plans now that her father is dead

Alonzo using his foot to hold and smoke his cigarette

Another remarkable scene occurs when he is moodily smoking and thinking about Nanon while Cojo watches in fascination. Alonzo’s arms are not strapped down to his sides, but instead of using his hands to hold his cigarette, habit takes over and he unconsciously uses his feet to light and hold his cigarette, while his arms hang at his side like dead weights. It’s a remarkable physical performance by Chaney (though much of knife-throwing and other stunts involving the use of legs and feet were done by a double, Peter Desmuke, who really was without two arms).

But this lack of dependence on his arms leads Alonzo to a a rather grotesque conclusion. Why not simply remove his arms for real? What’s rather alarming is that given his goals (avoiding the police, winning Nanon), there is a certain logic to this conclusion. He just does not take into account that Nanon does not love him or that Malabar will finally figure out why Nanon shrinks from him (his hands) and work to overcome it.

When Alonzo returns after having his arms removed, and finds that Nanon is cured of her hand phobia, he goes mad in spectacular fashion and the ending is a real killer. The pitch of tension created is almost unbearable.

The film was directed by Tod Browning and it was nice to see some of his silent work and not just think of him as the guy who directed Dracula. This was evidently the sort of story that he excelled at. Unfortunately, the present print of The Unknown seems to be missing some footage and flies by at a breathless pace of 50 minutes! It makes the film feel unnaturally rushed at certain points, as if we’re dashing between plot points.


Joan Crawford as Nanon

Lon Chaney is, of course, magnificent (he seems to combine subtlety and intensity with over-the-top charisma), but I was really watching the film for Joan Crawford. The most recent Joan Crawford film I saw before The Unknown (1927) was Johnny Guitar (1954) and in The Unknown she is so young that I hardly recognized her as the same woman. She is much looser, more relaxed, almost girlish, but still with the dynamism that would propel her to stardom. I’ve never thought of her as uptight, but after watching how loose she was in The Unknown, I’ve begun to rethink that. Tense? Tightly-coiled in later films? But in The Unknown she’s almost naturalistic.

And maybe it’s partly the absence of her voice. Somehow, while watching The Uknown the voice I was hearing in my head was not Joan Crawford’s voice (whenever I see someone like William Powell in a silent film, I can always hear his voice). It made her seem less tough, more vulnerable.

But she could definitely hold her own against Lon Chaney. She may be playing a somewhat naive, emotionally battered and vulnerable young woman, but she was not overwhelmed by Chaney. I could have actually wished for more at the end, more of a confrontation between them, more time for her character to register the revelation of Alonzo’s real character. I felt rather cheated of a show down between them, though perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, Lon Chaney was a well established star and it’s his movie all the way. But knowing what she’s capable of, I still felt the loss. Though perhaps it was more the fault of the film’s rapid pace and missing footage.

It’s clear that even if sound had not come to the movies, Joan Crawford would have been a star. Although she went through a variety of personas – flapper (Our Dancing Daughters) during the silent era, shop-girl making her way through a tough depression-ridden, male-dominated world – The Unknown felt like a pre-persona role, which might also account for the apparent naturalism. I had to keep reminding myself that I was indeed watching Joan Crawford. Which made the role all the more interesting.

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to whom I am most grateful for hosting this event! For more great posts on Joan Crawford, click here.



Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Movies


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24 responses to “The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

  1. B Noir Detour

    July 29, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Wow, I need to see this one! Thanks for the discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 29, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      Oh yes, you definitely should! It’s a very unique, unforgettable film (though I still wish it had been longer) and it’s absolutely fascinating to Joan Crawford so young!

      Liked by 1 person

      • B Noir Detour

        August 2, 2016 at 10:10 am

        I do love her best when she’s wild and young.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          August 2, 2016 at 11:07 am

          Yes, I’m curious now to see more of her wild and young films. I haven’t seen Possessed or Rain yet. I did really like her in Grand Hotel, though I didn’t love the film. I actually would have preferred less Greta Garbo and more Joan Crawford. She really stood out while John Barrymore and Greta Garbo were acting through the roof! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • B Noir Detour

            August 3, 2016 at 9:32 am

            Ah nothing like great actors chewing scenery, is there? Joan knows quite a bit about that, but not when she’s very young!

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              August 3, 2016 at 10:56 am

              It’s interesting how some actors tend towards more scenery-chewing as they grow older – Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. But others actors just seem to get better. I think Humphrey Bogart got better as he went along…maybe even Gary Cooper…Dick Powell. I wonder if it has to do with certain actors – mostly men – feeling less pressure to maintain their star status.


  2. Judy

    July 31, 2016 at 12:52 am

    I mainly remember this for the amazing performance by Chaney, but am very interested to see your thoughts on how Crawford holds her own against him here. A powerful film and I’m always drawn by a circus setting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 31, 2016 at 1:30 pm

      Yes, I know what you mean about Lon Chaney! I think I was extra-focused on Joan Crawford, because I was watching it for the blogathon, but he really is awesome. He seems to throw himself so completely into his roles…it’s amazing to watch

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    July 31, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    A fascinating drama, so tragic, to watch. I believe I read somewhere that Joan was very grateful to Mr. Chaney for the way he helped her, such a young actress, on this film. Most illuminating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 31, 2016 at 3:52 pm

      That is interesting! He seems like one of the best silent actors one could learn from…and how generous of him to take the time!


  4. Little Bits of Classics

    August 2, 2016 at 2:15 am

    Silent movies sometimes had the weirdest plots, didn’t they? I don’t think filmmakers could get away with a story like this nowadays. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so much fun to watch silents! It was a lovely review, thanks for introducing me to this astonishing movie! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 2, 2016 at 9:39 am

      That’s a great point – I didn’t consider that, but you’re right – they couldn’t get away with that now. I wonder if the absence of sound and dialogue allows us to accept things (just as we accept melodrama in ballet and opera) that we can’t with sound. Since silents perhaps more stylized than sound films…in some ways closer to dance than stage-theater? What do you think?

      I am always sad when I hear people say that silent films are too boring or over-the-top! They are missing some awesome movies!


      • Little Bits of Classics

        August 3, 2016 at 8:52 am

        Yes, I also love your point – I agree that words sort of exclude some elements that are much more credible when performed silently. I think that’s because speech always makes things more realistic.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          August 3, 2016 at 10:46 am

          True…it’s hard to imagine movies like Sunrise or – as you say – The Unknown working so well with dialogue.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Elizabeth

    August 2, 2016 at 2:25 am

    I love this film! I’m actually reading Joan’s first autobiography right now and she talks about how Lon Chaney left a huge impression on her and demonstrated acting at its finest when she was new to Hollywood at this time. He really is magnificent! I agree completely that watching Joan in early roles (especially this one) is like watching a different actress. I always have to remind myself as well. Great review on this film!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 2, 2016 at 9:54 am

      Thanks! That is fascinating to learn how much he impressed her. If someone had asked me who would be the best silent movie actor to learn acting from, I’m not sure I would have come up with Lon Chaney, but when you mention it, he seems like one of the most natural choices. I love how he combines subtlety with unabashed intensity and conviction. But he’s too sincere to be hammy

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Eric Binford

    August 3, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    I’m a big Lon Chaney fan and I think this is his best movie. I just love it! Chaney is sensational and Crawford is very good too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 3, 2016 at 9:19 pm

      Yes…it has made me very curious to see more of his films. I’ve seen a few – The Penalty, Tell It To The Marines – but would like to see more. His commitment to his characters is pretty amazing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        August 3, 2016 at 9:25 pm

        Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera are must-see Chaney films. I have a soft spot for Laugh Clown Laugh. He may very well be cinema’s first method actor, and that’s why he seems so modern to me.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          August 4, 2016 at 10:18 am

          Yes, I know what you mean about how modern he seems! I’ve been watching a lot of silent movies this year and been developing a theory that in certain ways silent movies are more modern than films from the 1930s and ’40s (which can be more dialogue heavy and studio bound). Because so much of modern film involves action, I’ve been wondering if younger audiences would be more receptive than ever to silent films and the mode of silent communication.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Silver Screenings

    August 4, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    Whoa! Macabre is right. It sounds fascinating, and worth watching for Lon Chaney’s performance alone.

    I was intrigued by your observation that Joan C. would have been a big star even if sound hadn’t come to the movies. I’ve never seen her in a silent film, and this looks like a great place to start.

    Great review as always, Christina. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 4, 2016 at 8:56 pm

      Thank you! Have you seen any other Lon Chaney films? This was only my second Chaney film, but I was awed by his commitment. It’s amazing how much gets packed into only 50 minutes! 🙂


      • Silver Screenings

        August 5, 2016 at 4:08 am

        Sadly, I haven’t seen ANY Lon Chaney films but I need to change that. Everyone remarks on his considerable talent.

        Liked by 1 person


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