Lon Chaney was a great actor, and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. But his career ended in 1930, during the era of silent movies. He’d delivered a kind of magic, communicating both charisma and darkness with only facial expressions. One of the best examples of his peculiar talent was a scary movie called “The Unknown,” which builds to a startling conclusion.
Cheney plays an armless knife-thrower traveling with a circus. As “Alonzo the Armless,” he performs his act using only his feet. But the movie establishes that Alonzo has confided a strange secret to a dwarf named Cojo. He’s only pretending to be armless – and on one hand, he has two thumbs.
The morbid thrills of “The Unknown” would soon disappear from movies. In 1934 a notorious “production code” established a formal review process for movie “decency.” But “The Unknown” was filmed in 1927, just a few years earlier. This meant it was free to pursue its story in strange and morbid directions.
Alonzo quarrels with the circus’s owner, and strangles him with his double-thumb. He’s spotted by the owner’s daughter Nanon (played by a 22-year-old Joan Crawford). Alonzo loves Nanon, and fortunately, she’s only seen his hand. Safely back in his circus wagon, Alonzo lights a cigarette with his feet. As he pulls it to his mouth with his toes, the dwarf makes a strange observation.
“You are forgetting that you have arms.”
Nanon is afraid of being held in any man’s arms. And Alonzo is determined to win her love. “On your wedding night she would see your arms….and hate you!” the dwarf warns. “She saw her father strangled by a hand with two thumbs.” And then the movie takes a horrifying turn.
“The gypsies say this story is true,” a title card announces as the movie begins. Alonzo’s dark past is never revealed, but he’s able to blackmail a surgeon. Alonzo’s demand? Amputate both arms.
But when he returns, Nanon is in love with someone else.
There’s horror in his eyes as he spots her in his arms. And then a dark anger. It’s a masterpiece of actor, as a series of emotions plays across his face. “Remember how I used to be afraid of hands?” Nanon says. The young couple laughs with joy, as Alonzo struggles to control himself. A frozen smile on his face turns into a tragic laugh.
It’s a remarkable scene, as Chaney gasps and he trembles, sadly looking from one to the other. He wipes his eyes with his foot, then apologizes, saying it was only “something in here that stung like a whip.” Nanon’s new love, Malabar the Strongman, even has an appropriate act. He restrains a team of galloping horses with his mighty arms…
Surely Alonzo wouldn’t try to sabotage the act.