Ring a Ding Ding
Despite how harsh I came down on circus movies in my last post, I recently enjoyed a very old but very good flick that falls in the sometimes successful circus-as-horror category. The Unknown pairs silent screen great Lon Chaney with a woman with a couple dozen silent movies to her credit: Joan Crawford.
The plot is a great one that scares and upsets the viewer with what is ultimately a very sad story. Chaney is Alonzo, the armless man at the circus. His lack of arms does not hinder him, however, because his feet have become substitutes adroit with such everyday activities as lighting a cigarette.
Also working for the circus is Crawford’s Nanon, who is the pretty girl who has knives hurled at her by thrower Malabar (Norman Kerry). The beautiful Nanon, whose father owns the circus, has had a past filled with the groping hands of men. The occurrences were so disturbing to her that she now fears the hands of all men. Although Malabar is in love with the girl, he sends her running in horror every time he touches her.
It’s no wonder then that Nanon is so fond of Alonzo. There is clearly a stark age difference, but the man has been in love with the girl for years. She seems to cling to him as a sort of fatherly figure, however. One night after Malabar has put his hands on Nanon to her dismay, Alonzo leaves his trailer to teach the man a lesson. We have seen him free his hidden arms from a corset device and now is fully equipped to take on any man. But the person who actually discovers his secret is Nanon’s father Zanzi (Nick de Ruiz). Alonzo strangles him to death, revealing to us why he hides his arms–a genetic defect that has given him a double thumb and can tie him to a variety of thefts.
With the circus disbanded, Alonzo takes Nanon away from the life she has known and tries to start his progression towards a relationship. He ultimately learns, however, she will care for no man with hands. This sparks the idea to have his arms surgically removed. In a very creepy, dramatic scene, Alonzo instructs a surgeon –whom he has coerced into the deed– as to where to remove the limbs. Once he has healed, Alonzo returns to find Nanon has warmed to Malabar and no longer fears his hands. The intertitled dialogue only further drives a stake into Alonzo’s heart as he realizes his grave mistake.
The costuming for The Unknown is magnificent and expertly hides Chaney’s arms from sight while the man is clothed. Chaney plays the part wonderfully, making us feel his anger, his dark side and his anguish. The close of the picture features the actor laughing maniacally as he realizes he has removed his arms for nothing and still has been rejected by the girl he loves. His face is so full of emotion that we can understand without hearing it that his laughter is not driven by joy. Chaney accomplished all of the feet-as-hands action with the help of an actual armless man, who lent his legs for the scenes. Chaney nevertheless is perfectly in synch with the movements so that they do not appear to be coming from two separate bodies.
Crawford really proves herself to be a talented actress in this silent flick. You might not recognize her if you weren’t looking for her, but she makes for a very lovely young woman. Crawford’s character is a sympathetic one, so we hold no malice against her when she opts for the other man.
Source: Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces documentary