Monday, August 18, 2008

The Unknown (Tod Browning) ****

Director: Tod Browning

Cast: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, John George

Background: Tod Browning was a film actor who had minor parts in several DW Griffith films. A serious car accident laid him up for an extended period of time, and during this time he wrote scripts. Two years after this, he begam directing and never looked back. By 1927, Browning already had more than 40 films to his credit, including several with Lon Chaney. The most notable of these were London After Midnight (now lost) and The Unholy Three.

Story: Alonzo (Chaney) is a circus performer who has no arms. His act consists of using his feet to throw knives at a woman. He falls in love with Nanon (Crawford), the daughter of the circus owner, but isn't happy to find out that he has a rival for her affections in fellow circus performer Malabar the Mighty (Kerry).

Thoughts: That's about all I'm willing to say about the story, because this is a film filled with wonderful, shocking surprises. Browning has created a fascinating world of castoffs marking their existence in a travelling circus show. Nothing that happens in this world is as you would expect it. Browning was really ahead of many other directors of his time. The final sequence is a masterpeice of precision editing that creates more excitement than you'll find in most modern thrillers. Chaney's performance at the center is one of the most remarkable I've ever seen. There is a sequence where he goes through several emotions at once, all while trying to hide these emotions from people standing right in front of him. It's an incredible scene that every aspiring actor should watch. There's also a very nice performance from a young Joan Crawford. She would later state that she learned more about acting from Chaney than anyone else, and it's not hard to see the connection between Chaney's powerful performance here and the intense Joan Crawford we would see in a few years.

Postscript: The film received mixed reviews upon release, but was a box office success and is regarded as one of the best of the many Browning-Chaney collaborations. Browning would go on to make a name for himself with Dracula in 1931 and Freaks in 1932. Chaney would die from lung cancer just three years after this film completed. Crawford would go on to be one of the most notable stars of her time.

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