(1927) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 07/12/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
The second film in my Silent Film Festival double feature was another great film from director Tod Browning and Star Lon Chaney, Sr. The director and star made 10 films together in total. A couple of years back I caught The Unholy Three (1925) in my first Silent Film Festival attendence, which was good, but The Unknown was considerably more impressive in its outlandish, outre weirdness, all part of the appeal of Browning’s work, as well as Chaney’s.
The Unknown is set in a small circus, featuring Chaney as an armless knife thrower and sharp-shooter and a young a beautiful Joan Crawford as his scantily-clad assistant. In the first of many amazing sequences, Chaney not only throws knives at her with his feet, but uses a rifle to shoot off her clothing! Chaney is in love with Crawford, the daughter of the circus master, but Crawford, in another huge element of Freudian craziness, is pathologically afraid of men’s hands. Chaney tricks her other pursuer, the circus strongman into trying to get fresh with her, causing him to be violently shunned.
But, as it turns out, Chaney is faking his armlessness. He’s a wanted man, hiding out in the circus. But his armlessness is the thing that attracts Crawford to him, the only man who she does not fear. Chaney, mad with love and realizing that if she found out that he actually had upper limbs would reject him, decides to actually become armless. No hands, no pathological fear. No groping! No pawing!
The film’s bizarreness is its charm. It’s a massively Freudian literalization of sexual fears, prowess, and negation. And it’s totally entertaining as well. Chaney sneers like no one else. Some of his facial reactions to turns of events are totally alive and powerful. And some of the footwork he does (though I have read that he had a truly armless stand-in for some shots) is amazing. You can see the direction that Browning is moving in, toward his masterpiece, Freaks (1932). He’s wild.
It was great to see this film with a huge audience, riding the reactions to the innuendos and plot twists. Long live the Silent Film Festival!