Released 6/4/27 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Director: Tod Browning; Screenplay: Waldemar Young, from the story "Alonzo the Armless" by Tod Browning; Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad; Titles: Joe Farnham; Settings: Cedric Gibbons and Richard Day; Costumes: Lucia Coulter; Film Editor: Harry Reynolds and Errol Taggart; 7 reels (5521'); Print Source: Warner Brothers Classics
CAST: Lon Chaney (Alonzo), Norman Kerry (Malabar), Joan Crawford (Nanon), Nick de Ruiz (Zanzi), John George (Cojo), Frank Lanning (Costra), Billy Seay, John Sainpolis
SYNOPSIS: Alonzo, one of the star attractions of Zanzi's gypsy circus, is an "armless wonder" who hurls knives with his feet at his attractive assistant Nanon, Zanzi's daughter. In reality, Alonzo is a perfectly armed thief, with the unique distinction of having two thumbs on one hand. He keeps his secret with the aid of his midget friend, Cojo, who ties his arms behind him with a corset. Nanon, having been pawed over by men for years, has developed a perverse hatred of the touch of men's hands. She feels quite comfortable around the "armless" Alonzo, while she is repelled by the virile strongman, Malabar. One night, after a row with Zanzi over Nanon, Alonzo strangles him, and Nanon sees only the double-thumbed hand of the murderer. With Zanzi dead, the circus disbands and Alonzo promises to care for Nanon. Her increased affection for Alonzo gives him new hope, and he decides to propose, but Cojo warns him that on their wedding night she will recognize the hands of the man who murdered her father. Realizing that Nanon is more important than his arms, Alonzo contacts a former criminal partner who is now an eminent surgeon. He threatens to expose the man unless he surgically removes Alonzo's arms. While Alonzo is recovering, Nanon has developed a new friendship with Malabar, who keeps his hands at a safe distance from the frightened girl. One day when she slips, Malabar catches her, and she suddenly realizes that her fear of hands has been foolish. She accepts Malabar's proposal of marriage, but they wait for Alonzo to return for the ceremony. On his return, Alonzo finds Nanon in Malabar's arms and is nearly driven mad with rage. Malabar is rehearsing a new act where a horse will be strapped to each of his arms, and he holds the horses while they run on a treadmill. The night of the grand opening, Alonzo tricks an assistant to leave the stage, and at the height of the act, Alonzo turns off the treadmills that keep the horses from ripping Malabar's arms from their sockets. Seeing his peril, Nanon jumps in front of one of the horses to stop him. As the horse rears up, about to strike Nanon, Alonzo pushes her out of the way and is crushed by the horses hoofs.
"There is no gainsaying the fact that this story is exceptionally tense melodrama that grips the interest and fascinates the spectator, but it is decidedly gruesome. Chaney's large following, however, has been educated to expect him in such roles, and certainly he has never given a finer performance. The manner in which he is shown using his feet as normal persons do their hands is remarkably well done and his facial expressions are wonderful--he uses no eccentric make-up in this role." ---Moving Picture World
"Although it has strength and undoubtedly sustains the interest, THE UNKNOWN...is anything but a pleasant story. It is gruesome and at times shocking, and the principal character deteriorates from a more or less sympathetic individual to an arch-fiend...Mr. Chaney really gives a marvelous idea of the Armless Wonder, for to act in this film he has learned to use his feet as hands when eating, drinking and smoking. He even scratches his head with his toe when meditating." ---The New York Times
"A good Chaney film that might have been great. Chaney and his characterizations invite stories that have power behind them. Every time Browning thinks of Chaney he probably looks around for a typewriter and says 'let's get gruesome.'" ---Variety
NOTES: THE UNKNOWN is arguably Chaney's best film with Browning, and one of the best performances of his career. Though contemporary critics found the film "gruesome" and "shocking," it holds up extremely well today. A body double was obviously used for some of the more elaborate scenes with Chaney performing maneuvers with his feet, but for several of the scenes Chaney did have to perfect picking up wine glasses and other impressive acts of dexterity with his feet. THE UNKNOWN was a modest production, costing only $217,000 for its 35-day shooting schedule. It earned respectable profits of $362,000.
Many sources list Joan Crawford's character as "Estrellita," but the cutting continuity and extant prints of the film use Nanon as her character name. Prints of THE UNKNOWN existed for many years only in a murky 9.5mm blowup. Henri Langois at the Cinematheque Francais in Paris had a nitrate print in his collection, but when MGM asked to borrow the print, it took him months to find it among all the cans of unidentified film marked "UNKNOWN." Eventually uncovered, MGM restored the original English titles and the film is now available in a lovely 35mm print.
For additional information, readers are referred to the Feb/March, 1992 issue of FILMFAX for an excellent article on the film by author Bret Wood.
Also, check out this poster, ad art, lobby card #1 and lobby card #2 in my Poster Gallery.
© 2000,2008 Jon C. Mirsalis
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