He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. (Isaiah 53:2-3).
"Now I was assigned to The Unknown, to a star known as the horror man of films, a man who literally made the lights tremble on the marquee—Mr. Lon Chaney. Here was the most tense, exciting individual I'd ever met, a man mesmerized into this part. Between pictures when you met him on the lot you saw a grave, mild-mannered man with laughing black eyes who seldom laughed, but when he did, his laughter was irresistible. When he worked, it was as if God were working, he had such profound concentration. It was then I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting. Lon Chaney's concentration, the complete absorption he gave to his character, filled all of us with such awe we never even considered addressing him with the usual pleasantries until he became aware of and addressed us. He was armless in this picture—his arms strapped to his sides—and he learned to eat, even to hold a cigarette using his feet and toes. He was in a world of his own, a world in which he'd had those arms amputated for love of a gypsy girl who abhors men's arms. And when he returns to the circus, he finds her—me—in the arms of the strong man! Mr. Chaney could have unstrapped his arms between scenes. He did not. He kept them strapped one day for five hours, enduring such numbness, such torture, that when we got to the scene, he was able to convey not just realism but such emotional agony that it was shocking … it was fascinating."—Joan Crawford, from her autobiography A Portrait Of Joan (Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York. 1962, p. 30.)
Shocking and fascinating are both apt terms to describe Lon Chaney's performance in Tod Browning's The Unknown, which—along with Michael Hawley—was one of the films I anticipated most in this year's SFSFF lineup. It followed closely on the heels of my interview with "creature actor" Doug Jones who—aware and respectful of his place in a lineage of creature actors tracing back to Lon Chaney—confided his own passion for restoring dignity to such performances, and who expressed his own share of physical discomfort in preparing for them. When Jones and Guillermo del Toro were interviewed on the red carpet at the recent Saturn Awards, del Toro was asked if he would have a role for Jones in his upcoming feature The Hobbit, to which del Toro confirmed, "I'm sure I'll be putting him through some kind of torture and inconvenience and some kind of pain." Jones wryly rallied, "So nothing new then?"
I would be surprised to discover that the scene that Crawford mentions—enacted after Chaney had kept his arms strapped for five hours—isn't, in fact, when Alonzo the Armless realizes his ultimate sacrifice has been in vain. His face registers the changing weather of agony and—despite his character's unsympathetic criminality—your heart goes out to him in his unbridled pain. Burt Lancaster described Chaney's performance in this sequence as "one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do."
It certainly wasn't, however, the first time Lon Chaney put himself "through some kind of torture and inconvenience and some kind of pain" to bring not only psychological but physical realism to a role. As Donna Marie Nowak details in her appreciative essay: "In The Unknown, [Chaney] performs with arms tightly strait-jacketed in order to appear armless just as he had simulated a double-amputee in The Penalty by devising a leather harness with stumps that allowed him to strap his legs behind him and walk on his knees."
Chaney's physical simulations are telling. Perhaps the most intriguing analysis I've read on The Unknown is contained within Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare's provocative essay, " 'Even a Man Who is Pure in Heart': Filmic Horror, Popular Religion and the Spectral Underside of History" published in the June 2005 issue of Journal of Religion and Popular Culture and—as far as I'm concerned—a must-read for anyone trying to understand the horror genre, especially within the context of the 1920s.
Drawing largely from a thesis proposed by David Skal in his 2001 volume The Monster Show: Revised Edition (New York: Faber and Faber), DeGiglio-Bellemare emphasizes that Lon Chaney's "monstrous make-up and contortions … were not only perceived as great showmanship [by audiences], but as a Christ-like martyrdom on their behalf."
DeGiglio-Bellemare amplifies: "Post-World War I anxiety about bodily dismemberment and disfigurement was very real in the U.S. and Europe of the 1920s. Many lives were saved during the war because of new surgical procedures, but this breakthrough also saw an increase in visibly disfigured and disabled people in mainstream society. David Skal points out that the Man of a Thousand Faces could easily have included one of his famous cinematic personas in l'Union des Gueules Cassees, a group of 5,000 disfigured and disabled veterans who traditionally led the Armistice parades in France. Against the grain of picture-perfect Hollywood looks and fashions, Chaney Sr. was transforming himself into the likeness of those who had endured the horrors of trench warfare, and whose presence in society was a reminder of the immense tragedy the Great War had been for the young men of Europe.
"Chaney demonstrated to the movie-going public of the Roaring Twenties that economic miracles were reserved for the elite classes and that ordinary people were required (literally) to bind their bodies to a strict asceticism dependent on a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice. Max Weber has linked the Protestant ethic of self-discipline to worldly achievement in the development of Western capitalism. But in a time of economic liberalism that favored a small elite class, unwieldy body harnesses worn by Chaney (one of the most popular screen actors of that time) represented a kind of somatic solidarity with the ways ordinary people were constricted by an un-harnessed capitalist economy on the brink of spiraling out of control in the Great Crash of 1929. The back of movie magazines from that period reveal advertisements that sold weird contraptions in conjunction with Chaney's name that claimed to alter men and women's bodies. It might be argued that such bodily transformations were simply the necessary illusions of the early Hollywood propaganda machine."
DeGiglio-Bellemare summarizes: "Chaney portrayed marginalized characters who were scapegoated and suffered on account of the sins and misdeeds of others. As an actor, he endured the hardships of his roles for an audience with whom he identified, and was revered as a man who suffered for others, especially in times of dizzying economic prosperity that favored the few."
The Unknown is likewise texturally motivated with dark, repercussive secrets. These are the "sins" that shape the characters. We learn early on that Alonzo the Armless is not truly armless; but, is no less "freakish" for sporting double-thumbs; dead giveaways of a murderous past. He is hiding within a secret, much like Crawford's Estrellita/Nanon hides the reasons for her pathological fear of men's hands, which Mike O'Hanlon understands as "the 1920s version of implying she had been sexually abused." Perhaps by her father? Such revelations are common knowledge in our time and age; but in 1927 such secrets found harbor precisely in the unknown and Tod Browning must be commended for giving them voice through his silent treatment. There is certainly more going on than meets the eye or than is immediately at hand, so to speak. Though Chaney is led to believe through Crawford's pathological fear that he is attractive to her so long as he keeps his arms hidden, and tragically miscalculates that he will be her perfect mate if he amputates them, his romantic rival—carnival strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry)—understands more accurately that the perfect mate must patiently allow Crawford to reach for him. Rather than accommodating sin, it must desire its own absolution.
Cross-published on Twitch.