The Unknown (1927 film)

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The Unknown
Directed byTod Browning
Written byTod Browning (story)
Waldemar Young
Produced byIrving G. Thalberg
StarringLon Chaney
Norman Kerry
Joan Crawford
Nick De Ruiz
CinematographyMerritt B. Gerstad
Edited byHarry Reynolds
Errol Taggart
Irving Thalberg(uncredited)
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • June 4, 1927 (1927-06-04)
Running time
50 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguagesSilent film
English intertitles

The Unknown is a 1927 American silent horror film directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney as carnival knife thrower "Alonzo the Armless" and Joan Crawford as his beloved carnival girl Nanon.

The Unknown is considered the most unique and disturbing of the eight films that Tod Browning and Lon Chaney made together at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in the late silent era.[1][2] Lon Chaney’s rendering of character Alfonzo and the horrific self-mutilation he endures to win the love of Nonan is reminiscent of the theatre of the Grand Guignol.[3][4]


The Unknown (1927) Lobby Poster. Lon Chaney as "Alonzo the Armless" with "Cojo" (John George on palm of hand.)

Alonzo the Armless is a circus freak who uses his feet to toss knives and fire a rifle at his partner, Nanon. However, he is an impostor and fugitive. He has arms, but keeps them tightly bound to his torso, a secret known only to his friend Cojo, a little person. Alonzo's left hand has a double thumb, which would identify him as the perpetrator of various crimes.

Alonzo is secretly in love with Nanon. Malabar, the circus strongman, is devoted to her as well, but she has a strong fear of men's arms and cannot stand being pawed by them, so she shuns him. She only feels comfortable around the armless Alonzo. When she embraces and kisses him, he is given hope, but Cojo warns him that he cannot let it happen again. If she holds him, she might feel his arms.

When Antonio Zanzi, the circus's owner and Nanon's father, discovers Alonzo's secret, Alonzo kills him with his bare hands. Nanon witnesses this through a window. A flash of lightning reveals that her father's killer has a double thumb on his left hand, but she does not see his face. Since Alonzo is believed to be armless, he is not a suspect.

When the circus leaves town, Alonzo has Nanon remain behind with him. He takes extreme measures to try to have the woman he loves. He blackmails a surgeon into amputating his arms. While he is away, however, Malabar's steadfast love finally enables Nanon to overcome her phobia, and she agrees to marry him.

When Alonzo (now truly armless) returns to Nanon, she excitedly tells him the news. Alonzo is shocked and horrified, first laughing, then crying, confusing the couple. He then learns that Malabar and Nanon have been practicing a new act, where the strongman's arms are seemingly pulled in opposite directions by two horses (who are actually on hidden treadmills). During the first performance, Alonzo stops one treadmill in an attempt to maim or kill his rival. When Nanon starts to intervene, Alonzo threatens her with a knife. However, she rushes to calm down one of the horses. Alonzo tries to save her from injury by pushing her out of the way. The horse knocks Alonzo down and fatally stomps on him.

In the original film script and some discarded filmed sequences, Alonzo murders both the doctor and Cojo, to eliminate them as witnesses before he returns to claim Nanon.



“That The Unknown (1927) was made at MGM borders on the miraculous, but then this was an era of exploratory boundaries, even at the big studios...” Biographer Alfred Eaker in Tod Browning (2016).[5]

Browning’s genesis for the story emerged from his reflection upon an individual who suffers a multiple amputation of limbs and its dramatic personal repercussions. Browning describes this process beginning with the spectacle of traumatic disfigurement, rather than plot:[6]

“The story writes itself after I have conceived the characters. The Unknown came to me after I had the idea of a man [Alonzo] without arms. I then asked myself what are the most amazing situations and actions that a man thus reduced could be involved...”[7][8]

Actor and collaborator Chaney developed his characterization of Alonzo on the same premise: “I contrived to make myself look like an armless man, not simply to shock and horrify you but merely to bring to the screen a dramatic story of an armless man.”[9]

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer originally sought to pair new Swedish property Greta Garbo with Chaney “the man of a thousand faces” who was emerging as the studio’s top box office draw in 1927, but the female lead went to the eighteen-year-old Joan Crawford, another M-G-M starlet [10][11]

Chaney did collaborative scenes with real-life armless double Paul Desmuke (sometimes credited as Peter Dismuki),[12] whose legs and feet were used to manipulate objects such as knives and cigarettes in frame with Chaney's upper body and face.[13][14]

Critical appraisal[edit]

The Unknown is widely regarded as the most outstanding of the Browning-Chaney collaborations and a masterpiece of the late silent film era.[15] Film critic Scott Brogan regards The Unknown worthy of “cult status.” [16][17]

Film historian Ken Hanke considers the film to be in many respects the best of Browning's films with Lon Chaney.[18] Burt Lancaster said that Chaney's portrayal in The Unknown featured “one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do.”[19]

It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which stated, "Drawing a remarkable and haunting performance from Chaney and filling the plot with twists and unforgettable characters, Browning here creates a chilling masterpiece of psychological (and psychosexual) drama."[20]


The Unknown (1927), Joan Crawford as Nanon.

Based on a story by director Tod Browning and a scenario by Waldemar Young, this tale of sexual obsession involving physical and emotional disfigurement unfolds in a circus setting—a setting that comports with Browning’s penchant for “the lower forms of spectacle and theatrical performance.”[21]

Illusion and deception: Browning, demonstrating his delight in “demystifying the spectacles of show culture” opens The Unknown with the exposure of a simple carnival illusion: The Gypsy knife-thrower “Alonzo the Armless” masquerades as a double amputee who expertly hurls his projectiles with his feet. Browning quickly disabuses moviegoers of his deformity, as Alonzo, a fully intact man, uses a corset to bind his arms during performances to appear as a freak. Alonzo’s faux disability has a more sinister and practical purpose: as a criminal on the run from the law, his “armless” condition places him above suspicion by authorities.[22]

Alonzo’s only genuine abnormality is a congenital bifid thumb on his right hand. This minor deformity is a key element that leads Alonzo to submit to a surgical enormity.[23]

Sexual Frustration and Self-mutilation: The object of Alonzo’s tender and secret affection—Nanon (Joan Crawford) his dare-devil partner— harbors a neurotic phobia, an obsessive, hysterical revulsion to the embrace of a man’s arms. Her dysfunction (perhaps instilled by her pathological father, ringmaster Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz)) undermines any sexual intimacy with the highly virile Alonzo, his sexual prowess symbolized by his knife-throwing expertise and his double thumb.[24][25] A violent dispute with Zanzi leads Alonzo to strangle him to death. The only witness to the murder is Nanon, who discerns only a single feature of the assailant: a double thumb.[26][27]

The logic of Alonzo’s dilemma serves as the rationale for Browning’s and Chaney’s most outrageous literary conceit: Alonzo, in order to make himself appealing to Nanon and eliminate the tell-tale bifid thumb, has both is arms amputated by a back alley surgeon, an act of symbolic self-castration, satisfying Nanon’s need for a “sexless” man.[28][29][30]

Animal Attributes in Humans: Browning’s male protagonist frequently exhibits the instinctual and impulsive behavior of animals, arising from a physical abnormality. Examples include “Dead Legs” in West of Zanzibar (1928), who communes with a chimpanzee, “Tiger Haynes” a wildlife trapper in Where East is East (1929) and Dan “The Black Bird” Tate in The Black Bird (1926). Biographer Stuart Rosenthal points out this theme in The Unknown:

"Having a characterization in mind, Browning built his films by generating an elaborately interlocking structure of frustration around that individual. Frustration is Browning’s dominant theme.” - Biographer Stuart Rosenthal in Tod Browning: The Hollywood Professionals (1975).[31]

“The typical Browning protagonist is a man who has been reduced to a state of an animal. In almost every instance he displays a physical deformity that reflects the mental mutilation he has suffered at some element of callous society...Alonzo, in The Unknown, is among the most rabid and instinctual of Browning's protagonists...”[32]

Lon Chaney’s simian-like use of his feet is directly linked to his physical deformity, anticipating the primal ferocity of his reaction to Nanon’s betrayal in marrying circus strongman Malaber (Norman Kerry).[33][34]


For many years the film was missing, until a 35 mm print was located at the Cinémathèque Française in 1968. In 1973, at a lecture given at George Eastman House, Cinémathèque Française director Henri Langlois said the delay in finding the print of The Unknown was because they had hundreds of film cans marked l'inconnu (French for "unknown") in their collection. Several early scenes are still missing, but these do not seriously affect the story continuity.[35]


  1. ^ Conterio, 2018: “Generally considered to be the pair’s best film together, and Browning’s masterpiece..."
    Eaker, 2016: “The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era...the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized.”
  2. ^ Brogan, year: “The Unknown is quite possibly the most unusual...among the Browning-Chaney film collaborations.
  3. ^ Diekmann and Knörer, 2006 p. 73: “As far as plots are concerned, the proximity of Browning's cinema to the theatre of the Grand Guignol is evident...” and Diedmann and Knorer (quoting Mel Gordon “Both in silent and sound films, Tod Browning created the films that borrowed most heavily from the Theatre of the Grand Guignol...”
  4. ^ Brenez,. 2006 p. 100: “...The Unknown, the most drastic film in regard” to “the defects and excess” of dismemberment.
  5. ^ Eaker, 2016
  6. ^ Diekmann and Knörer, 2006 p. 69: “The Browning universe presents itself very much as a world of spectacles [among these] The Unknown (1927)...”
    Conterio, 2018: Browning's “emotionally complicated interest in human abnormality and the severely disabled.”
  7. ^ Sobchack, 2006 p. 33: “Browning indicates that his story ideas did not begin with plot...” And see here for the entire quote, with references to The Road to Mandalay (1926).
  8. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 23: See here for another excerpt from 1928 Motion Picture Classic interview.
  9. ^ Brogan, 2019: “As The Unknown proves, Chaney didn’t need to rely on heavy make-up to transform himself for a role.” And see here for quote.
  10. ^ Brogan, year: “: “Chaney was already “The Man of a Thousand Faces” when he appeared in The Unknown.” And: “Chaney was voted the number-one box office star of 1928 and 1929.” And: “Joan Crawford was a starlet...striving for recognition... The Unknown gave it to her.”
    Sobchack, 2006 p. 26: “Originally conceived as a vehicle for Chaney and Greta Garbo [to suit] their special and unique talents…”
  11. ^ Eaker, 2016: “Nanon, (an 18 year old Joan Crawford).”
  12. ^ Branton, Bobby (2015). The Ultimate Guide to Knife Throwing. Skyhorse. ISBN 9781632209122.
  13. ^ Soister, John T.; Nicolella, Henry; Joyce, Steve; Long, Harry H. (2013). American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929. McFarland & Company. p. 607. ISBN 9780786487905.
  14. ^ Stafford, 2003 TCM: “It was widely believed at the time that Chaney really had learned to throw knives with his feet and light cigarettes with his toes for The Unknown. In some wide-angle scenes he does use his own feet but for medium and close-up shots Browning used a double named Dismuki who was born without arms. Later, Dismuki went on to tour with the Al G. Barnes Circus and Sideshow where he was billed as "The Man Who Doubled for Lon Chaney's Legs in The Unknown."
  15. ^ Brogan, 2008:“When they made The Unknown in 1927, star Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning were among the biggest names in Hollywood...The Unknown is now considered by many to be the best of the Chaney/Browning collaborations...the sixth of ten collaborations between Chaney and director Tod Browning.”
    Conterio, 2018: “Generally considered to be the pair’s best film together, and Browning’s masterpiece..."
    Eaker, 2016: “The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era...the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized.”
    Stafford, 2003 TCM: “the character of Alonzo in The Unknown is one of his most disturbing creations and the most twisted film in his ten-year association with director Tod Browning.”
  16. ^ Brogan, 2019: “The Unknown is quite possibly the most unusual, and the most deserving of ‘cult film’ status” among the Browning-Chaney film collaborations.
  17. ^ Eaker, 2016: “The Unknown entirely idiosyncratic work of art, which has never been remotely mimicked, nor could it be.”
  18. ^ Hanke, Ken. 1991. A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series. New York: Garland Pub. p. 9. ISBN 0824055454.
  19. ^ "Lon Chaney: The Man of a Thousand Faces", American Masters, Retrieved October 18, 2014.
  20. ^ Steven Jay Schneider (2013). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Barron's. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-7641-6613-6.
  21. ^ Diekmann and Knörer, 2006 p. 69: “...The Unknown (1927) explicitly with circus or vaudeville betray[ing] Browning’s preference for the supposedly lower forms of spectacle and theatrical performance.”
    Brenez, 2006 p. 96: “Lon Chaney’s most famous creations portray scenarios of dismemberment and mutilation: no arms (The Unknown, 1927)...”
    Sobchack, 2006 p. 26: “The Unknown (1927) [as in Browning’s The Show, also 1927] takes place in a circus.” And p. 34-35: “Browning was involved in writing the scenarios for most of his films...only one screenwriter figures prominently in Browning’s career...Waldemar Young...primarily as Browning’s collaborator.”
    Conterio, 2018: “Fixated on human disfigurement and underworld figures, the films are marked by a stark, obsessive aesthetic and themes of compulsion.”
  22. ^ Soloman, 2006 p. 51: Alonzo “masquerades as an armless freak” one of Browning’s portrayal of “elaborate deceptions that take place on the level of mise-en-scene (italics, accent)
  23. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 32: “He not only has his hands, but one of his hands has a double thumb.” And: p. 32-33: See here for explanation for Alonzo’s amputation.
  24. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 32-33: Chaney’s character is “infatuated with Crawford who has a neurotic aversion to being handled by men, and naturally, an armless man is the only lover she can abide.” And: Alonzo’s “heightened sexual prowess [represented by] his supernumerary thumb” and his high-functioning performance without arms.
  25. ^ Eaker, 2016: “Nanon’s sadistic father, Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), hinted at being the abusive source for Nanon’s hatred of a man’s touch).”
  26. ^ Eaker, 2016: “But, Alonzo must have, marry, and own Nanon, [but] she would certainly hate the hands of the double-thumbed murderer.”
  27. ^ Rothenthal, 1975 p. 33: “...if [Alonzo] proceeds to marry Nanon, his wife will discover his secret” as the killer of her father.
  28. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 33: “The amputations take on the significance of castration...[Nanon] aroused only by ‘sexless’ men.”
    Brenez, 2006 p. 100: “...The Unknown, the most drastic film in regard” to “the defects and excess” of dismemberment.
    Sobchack, 2006 p. 29: The Unknown shares a “common element of [Browning’s] bizarre melodramas...a hint of perverse sexuality...Estrellita (Nanon) Joan Crawford is horrified at being touched by men’s hands Alonzo’s [Chaney] surgery for love of her is to say the least, excessive.”
  29. ^ Conterio, 2018: “The Unknown is a sublime fusion of sadomasochism imagery, male self-loathing, misandry, castration symbolism and nightmarish irony.”
  30. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 11: “Alonzo [Chaney], in The Unknown is among the most rabid and instinctive of Browning’s protagonists…” And p. 32-33: “The Unknown defines a sexual basis for the frustration theme of the entire Browning-Chaney cycle and relates it to the star’s inevitable physical deformity.’”
  31. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 23
  32. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 pp. 9-10 and pp. 11-12:
  33. ^ Rosenthal, 1975 p. 11-12: “Alonzo...chooses animals dash horses dash as his means for disarticulating his nemesis, Malbar, the Strongman. Alonzo’s death beneath the horse’s hooves, therefore, occurs in his own element.” And: “...a lust for retribution...for those who have made them outcasts.”
  34. ^ Eaker, 2016: The Unknown “ends with a startling, ferociously driven, symbolic finale.”
  35. ^ Eaker, 2016: “For many years The Unknown was thought all but 15 minutes of the film have been recovered…”


External links[edit]