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The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

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.

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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.

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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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Dracula (1931) – A Comparison of The English and Spanish Language Versions

imagesWhen my cousin, sister and I went to see TCM Presents Dracula – Double Feature (which will also air this Wednesday, the 28th, at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm across the country at select theaters) we were the only people in the theater and when we first sat down, we were met with sound and a blank screen. I was obliged to run out and find somebody to look into it. Fortunately, we got visuals before Dracula started. I was quite excited. Although Dracula is far from my favorite Universal Monster film, I was looking forward to seeing the second feature of the afternoon, the Spanish Language Dracula, which I had heard was even better than the English one.

Dracula: Original English Version

The first half of the double feature was the original 1931 Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye and David Manners. The film was based on a highly successful play, which in turn was based on Bram Stoker’s novel, and it is extremely obvious it is based on a play. It is possibly the most talk-bound horror film I have ever seen and my impression of the film last year on a little screen was confirmed on the big screen. Dracula is slow. And it’s not just that people spend all their time talking, but they talk slowly and walk slowly and the camera moves slowly. Director Tod Browning made many excellent and highly expressionistic films with Lon Chaney during the silent era, but this film is curiously stage-bound. The camera-work is also remarkably straightforward. It pretty much just points straight ahead while the actors talk, with frequent close-ups of Bela Lugosi’s eyes, which are lit to look as frightening and mesmerizing as possible.

I call it a drawing room horror story (as opposed to a drawing room comedy). Everyone talks in the drawing room and if anything sensational occurs, it is related in conversation (for instance, Mina Seward relating how Dracula opened a vein in his arm and made her drink, or Jonathan Harker telling how he sees a giant wolf dart across the lawn). The film does start at Count Dracula’s castle and there is a brief foray into London and to a ballet, but the rest of the film occurs in Dr. Seward’s home, which is next to his asylum for the insane. The cast only ventures from the house at the end, pursing Dracula to his broken down residence. There’s not even any music (except for the Swan Lake Overture at the beginning, not to mention the reverberations from the theater next door to us that sounded like the beating of a heart).

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi

So what makes the film such a classic? Bela Lugosi. Say what you will about his performance, he has a certain flair and 100% conviction in what he’s doing that makes him compelling. He plays the count with a great deal of stillness (he doesn’t make faces, but stares intensely) and completely dominates the film. Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing is suitably canny as the professor who’s on to Dracula and uses his knowledge to defeat him, but he’s not particularly charismatic. Helen Chandler as Mina Seward is downright anemic while David Manners as Jonathan Harker is stuck with a boring role where he does nothing but hold Mina’s hand and fret.

The only other person who really gets to shine in the film is Dwight Frye as Renfield, the lawyer who Dracula turns into his insane minion who craves flies and spiders. He has one of the best mad laughs ever; it’s creepy and he does the staring eyes without quite going over the top into manic and distracting activity. He also made me think of Gollum.

My cousin found the ending of the film to be a bit of a letdown. I know what he means. After all the talking and threatening in the living room and the neck biting and staring eyes, how does the film end? Van Helsing simply follows him to his ruined Abbey and drives a stake in his heart. So, that’s all there was too it? Now showdown? He’s really dead now? Well, okay. Suddenly Dracula’s fearful power seems deflated and he suddenly vulnerable. All he can do is lie there in his coffin during the day while someone walks up and kills him.

Dracula: Spanish Language Version

Alt1_dracula_spanish_bigFor a time, movie studios would make foreign-language versions of their English films. They would use the same sets, but have a different cast and rewrite the script a little. For the Spanish Language Dracula, the budget was smaller, the cast less known, the director (George Melford) didn’t speak Spanish and needed an interpreter, and they were obliged to shoot at night, but since they had the advantage of watching Tod Browning shoot his film first, they set out to make an ever better film. And with the exception of their Count Dracula, in many ways they did.

Clearly, they did not feel obliged to adhere slavishly to the script, since they add twenty minutes to the film’s running time. There are additions to conversations that more clearly explains what Van Helsing is doing or that fills in gaps in the story. In the English version, we see Renfield crawling towards a fainting maid as if he’s going to attack her, but we never find out what happens. The Spanish Language shows what happens (he’s really stalking a fly). And they explain why Van Helsing and Harker are out at night in time to follow Renfield, who leads them to Dracula’s Abbey (they are setting Lucy’s soul free – a friend of Mina who was turned into a vampire by Dracula).

They also expanded Renfield’s role. Pablo Arvarez Rubio as Renfield can’t quite match Dwight Frye in madness or evil laughter. When he’s playing mad, he seems a bit much, but he’s much more convincing in those added scenes that show him to be aware of what other people think of him. When he’s introduced to Van Helsing, he speaks and acts perfectly normally, until he sees a fly and begins to stalk it, only to look at the incredulous faces of those watching him and sink back in shame. In fact, there’s so much added with Renfield that at times it seems as if Count Dracula disappears from the story.

Carlos Villarias

Carlos Villarias

Which is just as well since the one glaring weakness in the film is Carlos Villarias. His expression seems to swing between one of dyspepsia, insanity and flat-out geniality (my cousin argued that he liked him better than Lugosi because he was nicer and that made him scarier). He widens his eyes crazily and grins constantly. It’s very distracting and he doesn’t nearly dominate his film the way Lugosi does.

Lupita Tovar is also a much more vivid Eva (changed from Mina). There’s still not much in the character of Juan Harker for Barry Norton to work with. Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing is warmer, a little gentler in how he deals with people and more aware of them as people, not just bent on defeating Dracula like he was a scientific problem to defeat. Van Sloan’s Van Helsing had a stronger will, but Arozamena’s was more humane. Even Eva’s (Mina) father gets to be a bit warmer and less clueless in the film than the English version father.

The film is also more fluid, both because of the things they added to more smoothly transition between story points, but also in the more interesting camera angles, crane shots, and cross-cutting, which makes the story move more swiftly despite being twenty-minutes longer. It is still an essentially slow-paced film, but it gains pep.

If it weren’t for Bela Lugosi (and Dwight Frye), I’d suggest sticking with the Spanish language version. But Lugosi made it a classic and since the Spanish language Dracula wasn’t rediscovered and restored until the 1970s, it was the original English Dracula that influenced how people would perceive Dracula for years to come.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2015 in Movies

 

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