The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era. Suspend disbelief and step into the carnival of the absurd. The Unknown is the ebony carousel of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney oeuvre, the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized. This is a film uniquely of its creators’ time, place and psychosis and, therefore, it is an entirely idiosyncratic work of art, which has never been remotely mimicked, nor could it be. That it was made at MGM borders on the miraculous, or the delightfully ridiculous, but then this was an era of exploratory boundaries, even at the big studios (again, the risk-taking Irving Thalberg produced).
“There is a story they tell in old Madrid. The story, they say is true.” So opens the tale of “Alonzo, the Armless.” Browning spins his yarn like a seasoned barker at the Big Top of a gypsy circus where “the Sensation of Sensations! The Wonder of Wonders!,” Alonzo (Lon Chaney), the Armless, throws knives, with his feet, at the object of his secret affection, Nanon (an 18 year old Joan Crawford).
Illusions abound. Alonzo is actually a double-thumbed killer on the lam. With the aid of a straight jacket and midget assistant Cojo (John George, who worked with Browning in Outside the Law ), Alonzo feigns his handicap and performs the facade of one mutilated.
In addition evading the law and securing employment, Alonzo’s act of the armless wonder benefits him greatly. Nanon has a hysterical, obsessive repulsion to the very touch of a man’s arms. She calls on the Almighty to take away the accursed hands of all men. Nanon vents histrionic, sexual anxiety to Alonzo every time Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) puts his vile hands upon her. Alonzo, ever the performer, simulates expressed sympathy, although his affection for Nanon is the one thing about Alonzo that is genuine.
Alonzo, secretly venting enmity, advises Malabar on how to win Nanon. It is, of course, intentional ill-advice which will eventually karmically rebound and become genuine ill-advice for Alonzo. Malabar’s arms are muscled and strong, compared to Alonzo’s armless torso, or compared to Alonzo’s deformed, hidden double thumb—the very same double thumb which he used to strangle the ringmaster of Browning’s perverse milieu: Nanon’s sadistic Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)