Monday, October 24, 2011

The Unknown - 1927

Obsession. Sadism. Phobia. Panic. We’re going to slide into Halloween this week with some monsters. With all due respect to fans of movies about zombies, vampires, and werewolves, those creatures aren’t real. (The Easter Bunny is real. So is the Tooth Fairy. And leprechauns, they’re real.)

When the ancient Celts marked the Samhain, it was as a kind of Twilight Zone portal into the Other World. How it got to be about gory movies and snack-size Snickers bars these days is a matter for someone else to tackle.  I’m more interested in that portal, psychologically speaking, and the two films we cover this week are rife with human beings on the edge of madness. Being human is what causes their madness. This is what is most terrifying about it.

Today we have “The Unknown” (1927), a silent Lon Chaney masterpiece where “The Man of a Thousand Faces” uses only his own magnificent, weathered, sensitive face to show us the very picture of a man morphed into a monster by his obsession.

On Thursday, the portal to another world leads us into desert ghost town, a killer terrorizing his unlucky captives, while an atomic bomb is about to be tested just outside the tumbleweed-strewn main street in “Split Second” (1953).

Both scenarios are every bit as weird and grotesque as a “monster” movie, but what distinguishes them is that humanity (even more than the lack of it) is the focus, yet these films have the funhouse mirror effect of distorted reality. The acting, writing, and directing is superior.

“The Unknown”, directed by Tod Browning, takes us to a Gypsy circus in Spain. They are outcasts from the start, by virtue of their being Gypsies and by being circus performers. Some, however, are more outcast than others.

Lon Chaney is Alonzo the Armless. Director Browning would later explore sideshow performers in his famous “Freaks” (1932). Here, Chaney and his assistant played by John George, a little person who appeared in many films, represent the physical freaks in the circus. Mr. Chaney has a knife-throwing act. He clutches the knives in his bare toes and flings them at the target.

Joan Crawford is his target. She is the circus owner’s daughter. Only 22 years old, Miss Crawford had already made a slew of silent films in the previous two years and was well on her way to stardom. She later credited her work with Lon Chaney in this film for teaching her a lot about acting.

Lon Chaney was undoubtedly a great example for young actors in silent film. He is mesmerizing in this role, not merely what he does physically -- which as always is remarkable, but what he conveys with his facial expressions is so riveting. He is compelling, heartbreaking, and frightening.

Lon is in love with Joan, is obsessed by her. She is drawn to him because of his passivity and gentleness, represented for her by his having no arms. She is afraid of other men, and being in the position of the beautiful young Gypsy girl, has the unfortunate problem of always getting pawed over by them. She cuddles up to Lon, comfortable in the knowledge he cannot grab her. It’s an interesting way to illustrate she is afraid of sex and he is okay because he is sexless.

Though part of his act is to undress her every performance by shooting her clothes off with a gun.

Norman Kerry, who plays the circus strongman, is also in love with Joan, but he lacks the gentleness and moreover, the cleverness of Chaney to get very far with her. Besides, he has these two strong hands that are always reaching for her, which creeps her out.

In a brutal scene, Joan’s circus owner father beats up Lon, because he wants his daughter to get over her phobia and stop hanging around with circus freaks. He doesn’t want Lon encouraging her friendship. Lon cannot fight back. Norman Kerry comes to his rescue. Lon’s duplicitous expression here, smiling through gritted teeth, is really something. He hates Kerry, his romantic rival, with a passion, but acts the humble, grateful, helpless victim.

Norman Kerry is one of the most handsome men in silents. My gosh, that smile.

When the others have left, Lon’s helper Mr. George undresses him. With Lon’s back to the camera, we see…

Oh, by the way, there’s spoilers coming up. Go outside and sit in the car if you don’t want to know. But don’t play with the radio. It’s right at the station I want.

Now then, with Lon’s back to the camera, his shirt lifted, we see he is wearing an enormous leather corset. John George begins to unlace it. When the cumbersome cocoon is pulled away, we see two, white, snake-like appendages emerge, writhing, from Chaney’s torso.

Oh, lord, they’re arms.

He’s not armless. Only Lon Chaney could make something as completely normal as having arms look grotesque and sickening.

After the initial surprise, this begs the question, why does he hide his arms? It’s a bit much to go through for a circus act gimmick. But, there is more to Lon than the passive, pitiful deformed man. He is not passive, but a manipulative schemer. He is a thief, who hides in the circus that travels from town to town. The police are not searching for a man with no arms.

But Lon is not without a physical deformity. On his left hand, he has a double thumb. Taking his revenge on the mean circus owner, and to clear his way to get Joan for himself, Lon strangles her father. She sees the figure of a man with two thumbs on his left hand committing the horrid act, but she never gets to see Lon’s face.

Now the police are looking for a killer with two thumbs. More than ever, Lon needs to continue his armless act.

Norman Kerry is becoming more amorous, and Joan is clinging to Lon as a safe haven. It is Mr. George who warns Lon that he must never let Joan get close to him, for she eventually will, in the intimacy he hopes for, discover his arms, his thumbs, and who he really is.

Lon is crushed, and struggles with this problem. A terrific scene where he sits smoking a cigarette held in his toes, even though his arms are free. John George kids him about being so accustomed to using his feet that he sometimes forgets he has arms.

How much of Chaney’s work in this film grasping objects, wiping his face with a handkerchief -- all done with his feet is done by his own ability to contort his body and how much is done with the help of a stunt double I’m not sure. A double was indeed used to help, but I don’t know in which scenes that occurs.

Then the solution comes to Lon, and we see in his expressive dark eyes the obsession has turned to madness.

He blackmails a disreputable doctor to amputate his arms.

While he is away having this little bit of cosmetic surgery, Norman Kerry has learned that patience is a virtue. His respectful, not to say hands-off, treatment of Joan has won her heart. She is over her fear of men, and they welcome Lon back to the circus with the good news that they are going to be married. Kerry’s arms are wrapped around Joan. She holds one of his hands against her chest and kisses it.

This is the scene you want to see. Lon’s frozen-faced reaction, his ghastly forced grin, his tearing eyes, and a gasping, howling (yeah, I know it’s silent) descent into psychological hell. It’s as fine a few minutes of pantomime as ever was filmed.

But, wait, there’s more.

Mr. Kerry has a new act where he shows his strongman stuff pulling two horses made to run in opposite directions. He shows Lon how it works in rehearsal. Lon plans to rig it so that Norman Kerry’s arms get ripped off. Will it work? Here’s a link to the movie, now in public domain, on YouTube (in five parts). Go watch this creepy portal into the Other World where cherished dreams are entrapped by filthy nightmares. Very human stuff.

Come back Thursday for “Split Second” and a terrific ensemble cast of brutal killers, unlucky misfits, adulterous schemers, a dame down on her luck, and a reporter looking for the story of the century all trapped in a portal to Armageddon one evil night.


Grand Old Movies said...

Thanks for such a terrific post on what is probably Lon Chaney's greatest performance in his best film. His obsessed character really does offer a portal into an unknown world (but do we want to go there? Maybe not!).

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you. You're right, we probably don't want to go there.

Yvette said...

oooooh, Jacqueline. Not for me. SO not for me. It sounds so grisly and ghoulish.

But I still enjoyed reading the review.

Really. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

That's okay, Yvette. You can keep your eyes closed. I'll tell you when it's over.

Cliff Aliperti said...

Enjoyed the post very much, great movie too! Always was an easy sell to my silent-hating friends, armless guy with double-thumbs tends to get them curious.

The music definitely goes along with this one well! (Whoops, Casper just kicked in and scratched my nerves a little, may have to recant that last bit!)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Cliff. Yeah, nothing like an armless circus maniac with double thumbs to win over friends.

Be brave, "Casper" doesn't last too long. I admit, I'm particularly fond of Arte Shaw's "Nightmare". I think it was his best.

Joel Bocko said...

Excellent insights & descriptions - especially about the revelation of Chaney's arms - on what is definitely my favorite Chaney film. Others are perhaps more impressive stylistically, or involve more grotesque make-up or more lavish sets, but this is the one that connects the most, at least for me. What a compelling character and plot!

Oddly enough, even though it's a favorite and I saw it only a year or two ago, I didn't remember the fact that he had arms - and I still don't recall how that climax you build up to is resolved. Odd how a film can leave such a deep impression in terms of its mood and certain moments, yet you can forget what might seem "the essentials" - or maybe it's just me. (I'd say I'm getting old, but I'm 27.)

The silent era had so many extraordinarily talented performers, didn't it? I mean people like Chaney, Keaton, or Fairbanks, who could seemingly do the impossible, or at least highly difficult. Though it's (seemingly) more low-key than some others, I think this might be Chaney's finest moment.

Oddly enough, and obviously this played into how & why I remember the film, I recall Chaney as being sympathetic, even as he grows darker and we find out more shocking things about him. Did others share this impression?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Joel. I agree that Chaney is a marvel is this film, and that the real kicker is he actually does become more sympathetic as he grows more sinister. It's a strange twist, and Chaney seemed to be particularly aware and sensitive to this aspect about human nature. If his character was just evil, we would have no emotional connection to him. Making his evil acts tied to a helpless, obsessive love gives us something to understand. We can sometimes curb our hatred, but love and desire, when it hits us, is something we cannot control. Then to have his drastic effort to secure her love be all for nothing -- our hearts bleed for this guy. Brilliantly, pathos and mawkishness is avoided because he immediately plans revenge. He was a master of characterization.

Caftan Woman said...

"But wait there's more." No! I'm goggle-eyed and almost breathless reading the review.

Yeah. I'll be watching this one, and I want to thank you in advance for the nightmare.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

And the nightmare is free of charge while supplies last.

Or, you could just close your eyes like Yvette.

Perfect Number 6 said...

Great post! I caught this movie in the middle on television late at night and couldn't turn it off. What a strange and fascinating film. I need to catch it from the beginning sometime.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks. Try the link to YouTube. You can see it from the beginning there.

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