Today, as a special treat, I present an excerpt from a feature I wrote for the upcoming We Belong Dead publication, Mistresses of the Macabre. In it, I discuss the genre films of Joan Crawford. Most came late in her career, but I was thrilled to learn she appeared in a silent film with the great Lon Chaney! Please enjoy this sneak peek, and keep your eyes and ears open for information about purchasing the book...
Joan Crawford once said that she learned more about acting from watching Lon Chaney work than from anyone else in her career. “It was then I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting.” She appeared with Chaney in The Unknown (1927) during the first act of a life-spanning career in which she was undeniably a member of Hollywood royalty.
For someone that knows Crawford only from the genre films with which she ended her career, she’s barely recognizable in The Unknown, a mean little movie that fits perfectly with the oeuvre of Tod Browning, the director that would later make London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), and especially Freaks (1932.)
Crawford plays Nanon, the daughter of Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), the ringmaster of a “gypsy circus.” She’s been manhandled her entire life and has developed a genuine fear of men’s hands and arms. Naturally, she finds comfort in Alonzo, a man with no arms… or so she believes. Alonzo is actually a criminal hiding in the circus, his arms strapped tightly to his body because the two thumbs he has on one hand would expose his true identity.
The two are part of an act in which he throws knives at her with his feet while spinning on a platform (gorgeously filmed, by the way, by Browning and cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad.) She might have feelings for the strong man, Malabar, if only he’d keep his hands off her.
It would be a sin to spoil the remainder of the film, so simple in the motivations of its characters, yet so extreme in their actions.
The final title card spells it out for you if you don’t get it. Think of a movie where a single emotion drives the two leads. Everything the characters do, no matter how unbelievable, is easily justified by that single emotion. Then, they each find resolution with opposite outcomes. In this respect, The Unknown is perfect with its irony and moral lessons, while also being shocking and entertaining.
There are supposedly 14 minutes of the film lost forever; however, at its existing running time of about 48 minutes, it’s not lacking anything. With the performances of Chaney and Crawford, no backstory is necessary; they give us everything we need to know. It’s a remarkable achievement that all this is accomplished within what some would consider the confines of a silent film.
Written by Tod Browning (story), Waldemar Young (scenario), Joseph Farnham (titles)
From the novel K by Mary Roberts Rinehart (uncredited)
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz
RT 63 min. (original)
Released June 4, 1927
Recorded on Oct. 14, 2020 (TCM)
Rating 8 Phantoms (out of 10)
This review is part of the annual Countdown to Halloween. I invite you to join me as I attempt to gain some space on my DVR. Every day, I'll be watching something from the bottom of the list, thereby reducing the percentage that's full... so I can record more!
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