released in 1927. The file was written and directed by Tod Browning
, the director of Dracula
with Bela Lugosi
. The picture stars Lon Chaney, Sr.
as Alonzo the Armless, Norman Kerry
as Malarbar the Mighty, and Joan Crawford
Spoilers to follow
The Unknown is a tale of love and the lengths that some will go to get it and the thin line between love and hate. The film tells of a group of performers in a gypsy circus operated by Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz). One of the shows star attractions is Alonzo (Lon Chaney, Sr.), an armless man who can shoot a rifle and throw knives using his feet. (The scenes in which Chaney does such simple things as smoke a cigarette and drink a glass of wine using only his toes and feet were amazing considering that the actor was actually doing these things). Alonzo's assistant during his act is Zanzi's daughter, Nanon (Joan Crawford), a lovely young woman. Also, among the acts is the circus's strongman, Malabar (Norman Kerry) to whom Nanon is attracted.
It is quickly revealed that Nanon has experienced the unwanted advances of many men in the past and as a result is repulsed by men putting their hands on her. This causes her to blow hot and cold with Malabar, but plays right into the hands (no pun intended) or Alonzo, who desires her for his own. Alonzo plays on her fears by encouraging them. He also tells his companion, Cojo (John George), a dwarf, that he and only he will know Nanon's love.
After Malabar is again rejected by Nanon, she comes to Alonzo and while they are together, her father comes upon them. Incensed that Nanon is with Alonzo, he orders his daughter out and beats Alonzo for his impudence. Malabar comes at Cojo's call and saves the armless man and, in a scene that speaks of the depth of Alonzo's obsession for Nanon, Alonzo encourages Malabar to take Nanon in his arms if he desires her, which causes her to reject him again.
It is soon revealed that Alonzo has a secret, he is not armless after all - he keeps his arms strapped to his side using a girdle and only Cojo knows his secret. Alonzo is a criminal and a murderer and possesses the oddity that his thumbs are split at the last joint so that he has two pads at the end of his thumbs, making glove-buying an awful chore. He goes out with his arms hidden beneath his cloak and is confronted again by Zanzi. Zanzi discovers Alonzo's secret and Alonzo kills Zanzi by strangling him. He is seen in the act by Nanon, though she does not see his face, she does see his deformed hands.
After the death of Zanzi, the circus disbands but Nanon stays in town with Alonzo and Malabar stays behind and tries to woo Nanon again. Nanon goes to Alonzo for comfort and reveals through her actions that she has feelings for him. Alonzo is thrilled until Cojo reminds him that they could never be together because she would discover that he has arms and would hate him. He also reminds Alonzo that Nanon has seen his hands and would know she killed his father. Distraught at the thought of never being with Nanon, Alonzo distractedly takes a cigarette, lights it, and begins to smoke, doing it all with his feet despite having his arms free. Cojo laughs at him and tells him that he is forgetting he has arms Desperate to be with Nanon, Alonzo strikes upon the idea of having his arms removed, since he seemingly does not need them, and therefore, removing his only perceived roadblock to romance with Nanon.
Alonzo and Cojo seek out Costra (Frank Lanning), a doctor with a checkered past. Alonzo uses threats of exposure to get Costra to do the surgery to remove his arms. After a brief recovery, Alonzo returns to Nanon with nothing standing in his way of revealing his feelings. But in a cruel twist of fate, Nanon has overcome her fear of men's hands and fallen in love with Malabar and they are planning to be married. The scene in which Alonzo realizes that he has had his arms removed for no reason and laughs hysterically is one of the most chilling scenes in the movie.
Realizing that Nanon is lost to him, Alonzo decides to get revenge on the couple and the perfect way appears to him in the form of an act that Malabar is working on for his show. Malabar is set to stand between two horses running on treadmills in the opposite directions, while he is tied between them to show his prestigious strength. Alonzo sees that if the treadmills were to stop at the right instant, Nanon would have two armless men in her life, and so he learns how the treadmills are controlled by a lever and plots his revenge.
On opening night, Alonzo tricks the lever operator from his post and cuts off the treadmill. Though one of the horses is stopped, the other continues to pull and Malabar is in danger of being pulled apart. Nanon tries to stop the horse despite being threatened by Alonzo. She disregards the danger and puts her self before the rearing horse and Alonzo puts himself between the danger and Nanon and is killed when the horse tramples him. Malabar is saved and the two lovers live happily together.
Cast data provided sourced from the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com