The Unknown (1927)

…for Alonzo there was an end to Hate… called death…

A traveling circus features a man with no arms, named Alonzo (Chaney). Unknown to the rest of the circus troupe, or the circus master, is that he has the hots for the circus master’s daughter, Nanon (Crawford), he in fact has arms, and that he is a wanted criminal. Once confrontation and lust get involved, he will do what it takes to get what he wants.

Lon Chaney plays a conniving criminal, named Alonzo, that is hiding out, and hiding his arms, in the circus. The primary reason he hides his arms is to conceal his two thumb deformity, an easy identifier. Portraying a no armed man rules him out of suspicion for those looking for a man with two thumbs on his hand. The secondary reason that he maintains the charade is because he believes it is attracting his love interest, Nanon, played by Joan Crawford. Her hatred for men groping her causes her to grow fond of Alonzo, due to him not having arms. The obvious opposite to Alonzo’s sneaky no-arm character is Nanon’s other love interest, the circus troupe’s strong man named Malabar (Kerry).

The two men are two sides of the coin. Alonzo is the crafty, secretive, manipulative, killer and Malabar is the honest, straightforward, caring lover. Alonzo’s frustrations and temper set him on a path of self-destruction, where as, Malabar’s persistence and attention to Nanon ultimately get him the girl.

There are two aspects of The Unknown that stand out for me. The first is how far Alonzo is willing to go in order to get Nanon, resorting to self-mutilation. The second is how director Tod Browning was able to convincingly portray a man with no arms perform typically normal daily tasks as well as more difficult tasks like knife throwing.

Alonzo’s short fuse and his frustrations push him to rash decision making. He is quickly shown to be untrustworthy and ruthless when the circus owner, Antonio Zanzi (De Ruiz), discovers that he has arms and Alonzo quickly strangles him. Nanon witnesses the murder, but cannot see the assailants face. The only distinguishing clue she can see is that the killer has two thumbs on one hand.

The story quickly goes back to the trio’s love story. After the death of her father, Nanon, Alonzo, and Malabar stay behind as the circus continues on. Alonzo and Cojo, Alonzo’s confidant (George), discuss how Alonzo can win over Nanon.

The situation is tricky for Alonzo, considering his entire relationship and secrets are tied to the arms hiding behind his back. Any relationship would eventually lead to Nanon discovering his arms. If he decides to show her that he hid his arms the whole time, then she will discover his is actually the two thumb man that killed her father. There seems to be no way for Alonzo to win the heart of Nanon.

Cojo then points out the fact that Alonzo has grown so accustom to using his feet and legs instead of his arms. This leads Alonzo to seek out a doctor that will remove his arms. Alonzo blackmails a doctor and get him to remove his arms.

Once his arms are removed he seeks out Nanon. When he finds her she reveals to him that she no longer fears the arms of men and has fallen in love with Malabar and they are going to get married. The irony overwhelms Alonzo into a laughing fit. As you would expect based off of his previous rash decisions, Alonzo plots to kill Malabar. Alonzo tries to have Malabar pulled in half by the horses in his strong man act, but ends up getting trampled to death instead.

The entire concept and dark themes of the film stood out to me as unusual. Not necessarily unusual for Browning, considering his other films, like: Freaks (1932), The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), and many others. Apparently Browning spent some time in his youth working in vaudeville and in side shows. This would explain the settings, characters, and plots of many of his films.

The Real One Armed Man – Paul “Judge” Desmuke
Paul “Judge” Desmuke and Mae Dixon.

The armless “feats” of dexterity exhibited in The Unknown is so skilled and fluid. While Lon Chaney was acting the lead as Alonzo, Paul “Judge” Desmuke was acting the lead as Alonzo’s legs. Desmuke’s skill with his feet is clear through the ability to hand and throw knives, smoke, play guitar, and many other tasks that would be commonplace if not done entirely with his feet.

I wonder if Browning found out about Desmuke and created a narrative in order to involve his skills. It seems too perfect to have someone of Desmuke’s talents and life story available and stumble upon him after creating the story behind The Unknown.

Police Fingerprints
The Unknown (1927) – Intertitle

An interesting fact I learned while watching The Unknown is that finger printing was around as early as 1927. In fact, the concept of people having individual hand and foot prints can be dated to antiquity. Simon Cole explains the ancient history of this process in his 2001 book Suspect Identities: A History of fingerprinting and criminal identification.

It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when the idea of authenticating personal identity through papillary ridges first emerged… Archaeological evidence from seventh-century China shows fingerprints embossed in clay seals which were used to sign documents, and the practice may have been as old as the Former Han dynasty [202 BCE – 220 CE].

Cole, Simon (2001). Suspect Identities: A history of fingerprinting and criminal identification. page 60.

The process was scientifically examined by Sir Francis Galton and published in his 1892 book Finger Prints. This process would take on more credibility and eventually be a forensic tool. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine details the first use of fingerprinting in a criminal case in the United States in September 1910.1

It does not surprise me that people had the ability to see that fingerprints could be a unique identifier. However, I do find it fascinating that the technology existed to both collect a clear and distinguishable finger print as well as compare and validate it to one collected at a crime scene.

Getting back to The Unknown… Tod Browning and Lon Chaney crafted an odd and usual story that takes on the typical romantic storyline and turns it on its head a bit. Without the darker themes and anti-hero protagonist, this film would have likely been lost like many other silent era films.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Tod Browning

Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad

Written by: Tod Browning, Waldemar Young

Editing By: Harry Reynolds & Errol Taggart

Starring: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, John George, and Nick De Ruiz

Runtime: 50m

Genre: Drama, Horror, Romance

Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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