The Unknown 1927

Lon Chaney the Unknown 1927 Poster Art

Dark Carnival - The Unknown

No matter how you describe this silent film from 1927 (Directed by Tod Browning) you end up with something strange and demented.

An armless knife-throwing circus performer (Lon Chaney as Alonzo, who uses his feet for almost everything) is hiding from the law beneath the big top (a situation that was used also by Jimmy Stewart wearing clown makeup in Cecil B. DeMille's much different The Greatest Show on Earth).

Chaney's armless wonder falls in love with fellow performer Nanon (Joan Crawford), a psychologically scarred and bitter young woman who loathes men, especially (as shown in a key scene) men's hands. Alonzo and Nanon's shared misanthropic hatred of the world and their friendship are one of the few comforts they have in the difficult life of circus.

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Seems like a perfect match between Nanon and Alonzo, but Alonzo isn't all that he seems: he's actually a professional criminal with two perfectly good arms (which he keeps bound to his body by special straps. And accenting Browning's hints of duality inside Chaney's character, Alonzo also has two thumbs on his left hand). Alonzo is aided (and egged on, like Iago poisoning Othello with words) by dwarf assistant Cojo (John George).

In one particular night scene, as Alonzo contemplates his crazed plan to attain Nanon, Cojo helps him to unbind and release his strapped up arms. Numbed from the tight stricture of the disguise he must wear all the time, Alonzo must beat on his arms to bring them back to life. Then returning his attention to building his mental plan, he lights a cigarette with his feet and moodily smokes, staring into space as his thoughts gather. Cojo watching realizes that Alonzo never uses his arms, they lie dead beside him, that even when unbound Alonzo continues to do everything with his legs and feet. He tells this to Alonzo who looks at his arms in horror - - his alienation from his limbs seems to define them as a separate identity.

Alonzo's determination to be with Nanon is without reason or any sense of the cost involved. Alonzo blackmails a distant doctor in a different town into cutting off his two healthy arms so that he really will be armless, and ready to propose marriage to Nanon.

Meanwhile, Nanon has had her world view rehabilitated by Malabar the circus strongman (Norman Kerry), a handsome, muscular fellow with a happy disposition. He coaxes Nanon out of her hatred and fear toward a new life. When Alonzo returns from his crazed medical holiday, he rushes to Nanon to propose, but then discovers that Malabar and Nanon have already pledged marriage to one another. Realizing he has sacrificed his arms (and more) for nothing, Alonzo's iffy mental state crumbles into a homicidal plan to destroy Malabar.

Like other Browning films, the buried themes (besides frustrated mad love) inside the story appear to be obsessions about emasculation and fear of insanity.

Director Todd Browning and star Lon Chaney seemed to have had a lot of fun making this movie. Browning had a long history in the world of carnivals before making films, and Chaney and Browning combine that milieu (disguised as a gypsy carnival) with their crazed plot line about duality, love, hate and murder.

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Original Page Dec 27, 2009 | Updated Feb 2018