The Unknown

Released:  1927

Cast:  Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz

SUMMARY:  Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz) owns and operates a gypsy circus, whose acts include Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney), a man who throws knives with his feet, Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), a strongman, and Zanzi’s own daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford), who acts as the eye candy and assistant.  However, Alonzo is hiding several secrets:  first, he is not really armless (and his left hand has a double thumb); second, he is responsible for a series of robberies that have been committed in the towns the circus has visited.  Alonzo hides his arms by strapping them to his body with a device that resembles a corset:  he is helped in this operation by Cojo, a little person who also works in the circus.  Because he appears to be armless, Alonzo always escapes suspicion for the robberies.  He is also in love with Nanon.  As a result of being routinely pawed at and groped, Nanon has developed a horror of men’s hands and arms, and hates being touched by them.  She sees Alonzo as one of her few confidants, as she doesn’t have to worry about him touching her.  However, her fear does not scare off Malabar, who routinely makes passes at her.  Alonzo continues to comfort her, but is warned by Cojo that he must never let Nanon hug him, as she would be able to tell that he really has arms.  One evening, Alonzo and Cojo are coming back from town when they are confronted by Zanzi.  Alonzo’s arms are free, and Zanzi sees this.  To protect his secret, Alonzo strangles Zanzi.  This is witnessed by Nanon:  though she does not see the killer’s face, she does notice that he has two thumbs on his left hand.  Once again, Alonzo escapes suspicion because of his supposed armless condition.

After Zanzi’s death, the circus is sold and leaves town.  Alonzo convinces Nanon to stay behind with him and try to leave a normal life.  However, Malabar has also remained behind, and when he finally understands her fear of him, he is able to change his behavior accordingly.  Gradually, he is able to win her over, and she loses her fear of his hands.  Meanwhile, Alonzo realizes that if he marries Nanon, she will learn that he really does have arms; even if she can forgive him for this, she will then realize from his double thumb that he killed her father.  Alonzo comes up with a radical solution:  blackmail a surgeon into actually amputating his arms.  The surgeries are successful, and Alonzo returns to Nanon after several weeks.  He is stunned to learn that she and Malabar are engaged, but pretends to be happy for them.  He then learns that Malabar is about to debut a new act, in which his arms are tied to two horses, who are running on treadmills.  If the treadmills were to stop, the horses would pull Malabar’s arms off his body.  During the debut performance, Alonzo turns off the treadmills in an attempt to kill Malabar.  As Malabar frantically pulls on the horses, Nanon tries to free him.  She is stopped by Alonzo, who threatens to throw a knife at her, but rushes to one of the horses anyway.  She tries to calm the rearing horse; when Alonzo tries to save her by pushing her away, he is fatally struck by the horse.

MY TAKE:  This sort of seems like the unknown work of some pretty famous names:  the film was directed by Tod Browning, who also did Dracula; Lon Chaney was known as the “man of a thousand faces”, and famously played the Phantom of the Opera; Joan Crawford became one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, and won an Oscar.  This was one of Crawford’s first films (she was only 23 or so), and she’s almost unrecognizable.  This actually helped me, as I could focus on the story and her acting, rather than wire hangers.  The story is pretty interesting, although I did anticipate most of the big plot twists.  At the very beginning, I thought it looked like Alonzo simply had his arms pinned to his sides:  then I began to wonder how Lon Chaney was actually managing that look.  I also realized a few seconds before Alonzo seemed to have the idea that he was going to actually cut his arms off in an attempt to win Nanon.  I did not anticipate the ending, so that was good.  I was also really glad that Malabar didn’t really have his arms yanked from his body, although a sick part of me wondered how they were going to show that.  I felt sorry for Alonzo at the beginning of the film, but when it was revealed that he was a rather notorious criminal, as well as loony, I lost most of that sympathy.  It was fun to watch Chaney’s face, though, especially in the scene where Nanon tells him that she and Malabar are getting married.  He really contorts it into a range of emotions, but they’re extremely believable, not cartoonish.

RATING:  Pretty good.

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