"This is a story they tell in old Madrid...it's a story they say is true."
Hello, movie lovers, today is the TCM Discoveries Blogathon, hosted by Nitrate Diva. We're supposed to post about films that we first saw via one of the many platforms of TCM. However, I'm going to put a different spin on it and write about the first time my children saw a specific film on TCM. That movie? 1927's The Unknown.
Directed by Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three, London After Midnight...well, you get the idea--Browning made some startlingly good films), starring Lon Chaney and a very young Joan Crawford, The Unknown is a wickedly dark tale of love, hate, and deception. And let's just say that Vincent Van Gogh has nothing on Chaney's "Alonzo" when it comes to doing something drastic for the one he loves.
[Caution: some spoilers follow!]
I have three daughters between the ages of 10 and 5, and they love movies almost as much as I do. More often than not, they are not the same movies, of course--if I never see The Croods again, it'll be too soon--and some definitely are--The Wizard of Oz (okay, I got them into that one). Every now and then, I'll "force" them to sit and watch something outside of their comfort zone, and I recently did this with The Unknown. Although it's very dark, having them watch this was still better than when my parents took me to see The Exorcist. Yeah.
Anywho. The Unkown was on TCM a few weeks ago, so I decided to DVR it and find some time to have my kids sit with me. It's been blasted hot in Madison, WI lately, so I took the opportunity on one of the more oppressive days of the summer to get their opinion on this movie.
It was a hit!
The girls are used to watching classic films with me, as I've shown them most of the Universal monster movies, and they generally enjoy them. Although they still struggle with the idea of black and white from time to time, it's becoming less burdensome. When it comes to silent films, though, it's more difficult. They've seen Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, so they are aware of the existence of silent films, but they are children of the digital in-your-face age and would prefer something along those lines.
However, the girls were hooked by The Unknown right from the beginning. Starting the film off at a circus was a good way to get their attention, and then..."Hey, that guy doesn't have any arms!"
Seeing "Alonzo the Armless" perform just using his feet was amazing to the girls, and of course they just needed to see what kinds of things they could pick up with their feet. Could they change the channel on the remote? How about playing on their tablets? Sorry, kids, you're not eating dinner with your feet tonight.
When Nanon (Joan Crawford) rails against being touched by Malabar (Norman Kerry) and men's hands in general, the girls felt bad for Alonzo when he's shown to overhear Nanon talk about how God should take all men's hands away.
Look at those legs!!!!!
There is, of course, the big reveal later on that Alonzo does indeed have arms. So when he shows his pain at Nanon's opinion of men's hands, it's because he wants to hold her so badly, but knows that revealing his secret will only drive her away. Oh, and the fact that he (deep breath)...isawantedcriminalandstrangledherfatherandhastwo thumbsononehandandknowsthatNanonsawthetwo-thumbedhanddispatchherdad...whew! Other than that, their relationship has real potential!
Upon seeing that Alonzo has two thumbs, the girls made me pause and/or rewind a number of times so they could look at it again and again in the morbid curiosity that inhabits all children. Each time they would scream, laugh, or get grossed out...but they kept looking.
As The Unknown goes on, it gets a little creepier, a lot darker, and more sinister. Each moment that passed, the girls were waiting to see how things would be resolved. What is Alonzo going to do? Is he going to kill Malabar? What is Nanon going to do? Will she ever not freak out at being touched?
Anyone who is even remotely familiar with children knows that getting them to sit still for longer than ten minutes is a miracle. At just under an hour of run time, The Unknown held my kids' interest the entire way. The questions they asked showed they were invested in what was happening on the screen.
Perhaps the most entertaining part of the viewing, for me at least, was reading all of the intertitles for the youngest kid. Trying to do different voices and convey the emotion of a particular scene along the way amused and annoyed all three at the same time. As a dad, accomplishing this meant my work was done. I should also mention that reading the intertitles also helped fulfill my middle daughter's reading requirement for the day. Silent movies: they're educational, too!
While sitting down to write this, the kids came and sat by me to see what I was doing. When they saw the photos, they immediately started talking about the film again. They remembered quite a bit, and to my surprise...they asked to watch it again!
They enjoyed the creepiness that is Lon Chaney, but it was also a compelling story to them. A man hiding the fact that he has arms in order to stay away from police scrutiny, a beautiful woman who holds sway over this man, and a rival for her love. They've seen these things before in their own movies, so this was nothing new. It was the darkness of the story that helped keep them watching.
It was also an opportunity for me to share the things that "The Man of a Thousand Faces" would do for a role--reminding them that he was also Quasimodo and "The Phantom" so they could see his versatility.
They were shocked when I explained to them that in certain of Alonzo's scenes, Lon Chaney actually had a double doing all of the "leg work" when he was in frame...
My 10-year-old got it, but the 7- and 5-year-old took a little more convincing. More than just being kids who didn't get it, this is more a testament to the talent of Chaney and the film-making that they just can't believe that there are two people in that chair. Even as a 40-year-old, I sometimes need to remind myself that it isn't Chaney alone. There are enough scenes with him using his own feet and legs that it seems plausible that he is smoking the cigarette; drinking tea or coffee; or even rubbing the bridge of his nose in exhaustion.
Did you notice something about that photo? His arms are out, but he's still using his foot. Alonzo has played the part for so long, he has forgotten that he really does have arms. No matter how many times I've seen this movie, I look past this until his sidekick, Cojo (John George), points it out to him. I am so intrigued by the dexterity that I look past the obvious.
Perhaps the most amazing part of Chaney's performance is not the physicality of the role, it's the empathy he gets us to feel for him. Imagine! A cold-blooded murderer, yet there is still something sympathetic and sad about him. We feel for him despite knowing what he's done.
I can't say for sure where The Unknown ranks in the catalog of Tod Browning films, but it's probably my personal favorite of his after Dracula. He is the master of showing the depths to which humanity can sink, and The Unknown is just another example.
The more one watches Lon Chaney, the more one must come away in awe of his talent and ability, cut all too short by cancer.
And Joan Crawford! She was not only a stunningly beautiful 22-year-old, but you could see the acting chops that would be on display through countless other films. For me, it is the small gestures that make the biggest impact in movies: the look on her face when she and Malabar see Alonzo come back from an "appointment" (no spoiling the appointment here). She gradually goes from jovial and smiling to almost-fright in a way that is so honest and true that you start to fear for her.
Overall, The Unknown is a film more than worth watching if you've never seen it before. And if you're like me and have seen it many times, it's always worth another viewing.
Finding things that my girls and I can enjoy together isn't too difficult (I even got Sofya to start enjoying football!), but it's usually my inner child laughing along with one of their crazy cartoons. When they can sit and watch a movie that is on TCM, enjoy it, and then ask for more, I feel like I'm doing something right as a dad and as a film lover. So, TCM...thanks for showing great films and bringing me even closer to the girls I already smother with love on a daily basis.
To read more entries in the TCM Discoveries Blogathon, click the banner on the right.