(director/writer: Tod Browning; screenwriter: Waldemar Young; cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstad; editor: Harry Reynolds; cast: Lon Chaney (Alonzo), Joan Crawford (Nano), Norman Kerry (Malabar, Circus Strongman), John George (Cojo), Nick de Ruiz (Zanzi), Frank Lanning (Doctor), Polly Moran (Landlady), Billy Seay (The Little Wolf); Runtime: 60; MGM; 1927-silent)
“It was the last of the great silent films, as just 4 months later the first talkie opened: The Jazz Singer.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of the great silent films of all time. It was also one of the most offbeat psychological dramas ever produced by a major studio, especially one such as MGM. The collaboration between director/writer Tod Browning, himself a one time circus performer, and the intense performance by Lon Chaney, was a thing of magic.
Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower in a gypsy circus, known as “Alonzo, The Armless Wonder.” He’s really not armless, but has his arms strapped to his sides to appear limbless since he wishes to hide his identity from the cops. He’s a career criminal on the run who with his cohort Cojo (John George), and continues to commit robberies while touring with the circus. Cojo is the only one who knows his secret and is the only friend he has. Alonzo is able to fling the knives with the toes of his feet, and his assistant Nano (Joan Crawford) is the target. She’s the beautiful daughter of the circus owner and ringmaster, Zanzi (Nick de Ruiz).
Alonzo has become obsessed with Nano, and would do anything in the world for her love. He would also, he tells Cojo, do anything he could to someone who takes her away from him. Nano has a bit of a psychological problem, she can’t stand any man who puts their arms around her or who tries to touch her. She feels very safe with Alonzo and they develop an affectionate bond of friendship, where she feels good hugging him. The circus strongman Malabar (Kerry) also compulsively loves her and won’t take no for an answer, but he keeps putting his arms around her as she pushes him away.
Zanzi doesn’t trust Alonzo and when he sees his daughter alone with him again, his anger builds because he feels he is putting “ideas” in his daughter’s head. In a fit of rage he beats Alonzo with a whip until Malabar puts a stop to it and receives the thanks of Alonzo. But one evening Zanzi again confronts Alonzo, this time in the dark shadows nearby Nano’s wagon and he notices that Alonzo has arms. This causes Alonzo to strangle him to death, but Nano could only see that the strangler had two thumbs on one hand.
Realizing that he can’t marry her if he has arms, Alonzo decides to have them cut off. Alonzo blackmails a doctor (Lanning) into doing the procedure. But when he returns to see Nano, she tells him that she overcame her fear of having a man put her arms around her and will marry Malabar.
The film builds to its bizarre ending as Alonzo plans to tear off the strongman’s arms during his act, where the horse runs on a treadmill and the strongman holds back the horse’s reins with the strength of both arms. This was a gruesome and scary scene, as Alonzo rigged the treadmill.
“The Unknown” is a tightly made film, with a sinister plot and a startling and intense performance by Chaney. The film presents an excellent study of character, even though its theme is morbid and boiling with hatred. “The Unknown” did well in the box-office, as Chaney was a top Hollywood star at the time. It was the last of the great silent films, as just 4 months later the first talkie opened: “The Jazz Singer.”
REVIEWED ON 7/30/2001 GRADE: A