skip navigation
The Unknown

The Unknown(1927)

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (3)

DVDs from TCM Shop

The Unknown In this silent film, an... MORE > $39.98 Regularly $39.98 Buy Now

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser The Unknown (1927)

Alonzo The Armless Wonder (Lon Chaney) is a circus sideshow attraction whose specialty is a knife-throwing act. With his well-trained feet, he tosses the flashing blades at his lovely assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford), who has a deep seated fear of being touched by men. Offstage, Alonzo is not who he appears to be. Not only does he have two perfectly functioning arms (he conceals them for his act with a tightly laced straitjacket) but he is also a wanted criminal who uses the sideshow as his cover. His only weakness is an all-consuming love for Nanon which requires a major sacrifice on his part and leads to the Grand Guignol finale.

In the course of his career, Chaney actually made very few horror films but due to his preference for bizarre and often grotesque characters he has always been linked to this particular genre. Certainly, 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. Chaney's performance certainly inspired co-star Joan Crawford who wrote "Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting. The concentration, the complete absorption he gave to his characterization filled me with such awe I could scarcely speak to him...watching him have me the desire to be a real actress."

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."

Director: Tod Browning
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Screenplay: Waldemar Young (based on a story by Tod Browning)
Cinematography: Merritt Gerstad
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Richard Day
Cast: Lon Chaney (Alonzo), Joan Crawford (Nanon), Norman Kerry (Malabar), John George (Cojo), Nick de Ruiz (Zanzi), Frank Lanning (Costra), Polly Moran (Landlady).
BW-50m.

by Jeff Stafford

back to top
teaser The Unknown (1927)

Episode 3 of Kevin Brownlow's and David Gill's wonderful documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983) is called "Hidden Treasures," but current DVD owners might think of it as the "Deleted Scenes" section. Here we see the material that Chaplin felt did not quite reach the standard for a final release. For him it was not a waste. Much of this excised material would return in a re-worked form in his later movies.

Chaplin stock company member Albert Austin seems to have been the one whose scenes most often landed on the cutting room floor. In out-takes we see him participating in a golfing skit for an unfinished Mutual short that would later be re-worked for The Idle Class (1921), being tortured by Charlie as an untalented barber in I>Sunnyside (1919) that would turn into a musical routine in The Great Dictator (1940) and finally a long bit cut from Shoulder Arms (1918) in which Austin loses a variety of medical instruments down Charlie's throat while giving him his Army physical.

How to Make Movies, shot sometime between 1918 and 1923, is a comic documentary shot behind the scenes at Chaplin's studio. Located at 1416 La Brea Avenue in Hollywood, the Charles Chaplin Studio was the site of all Chaplin's comedies from A Dog's Life (1918) until Limelight (1952). After Chaplin left America, it became the headquarters of A&M Records and now is the location of the Jim Henson Company.

The Professor (1922) is the source of one of the biggest mysteries in Chaplin's filmography. Telegrams show that Chaplin held it as an alternate title for First National if they refused to give him a 70-30 split for his four-reeler The Pilgrim (1923). The content of these messages implied that Chaplin had a two-reel length version of The Professor ready to hand over if First National rejected his terms. However, when Brownlow and Gill went through the surviving out-takes, the five minute clip shown in Unknown Chaplin was all they found. Did the two-reel version of The Professor actually exist?

The cafequence, excised from the released version of The Circus (1928) was shot in October 1926 with the sidewalk scenes shot in November. This movie was the most troubled of Chaplin's career. The month before, Chaplin's friend Rudolph Valentino had died. Chaplin stopped production to travel to New York and serve as one of the pallbearers. Shortly after his return, a fire gutted one of the stages at his studio, destroying the movie's primary set. Then, not long after the sidewalk scenes were filmed, Chaplin's marriage to Lita Grey ended followed by a public and very bitter divorce trial that caused further filming delays.

His next film, City Lights (1931), was not so heartbreaking but was, nevertheless, difficult, leading to a very long shooting schedule. Chaplin's "unveiling" at the beginning of the film is probably his greatest movie entrance. The pity is that it had to replace the sidewalk scene shown in Unknown Chaplin; a several minute comic routine built around a stick caught in a sewer grate that provides a perfect distillation of Chaplin's genius.

One small detail in another out-take provides an interesting commentary on the new world of celebrity that began with Chaplin. In a section on films of famous visitors to Chaplin's studios, we see Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark joking with Chaplin and his co-star Edna Purviance, then participating in a skit on the set of Sunnyside (1919). Now at the beginning of the 21st Century, modern viewers think nothing of seeing such familiarity between royalty and a movie celebrity. At the beginning of the 20th, however, there was still a huge gulf between the potential leader of a nation and a mere clown in the movies. Chaplin's worldwide celebrity kicked down those barriers as easily as his tramp gave the boot to his enemies' backsides. This film clip is a small treasure among the many recovered for this three-part series that provides a look behind the scenes at the creator of a lowly tramp who became one of the most important people in the world.

Writers/producers: Kevin Brownlow, David Gill
Music arranger/conductor: Carl Davis
Video editiors: Roger Holmes, Tom Kavanagh
Film editor: Trevor Waite
BW & C-53 min.

by Brian Cady

back to top
teaser The Unknown (1927)

An overlooked gem from Columbia Pictures, Address Unknown (1944) is based on an anti-fascist novella first published prior to the United States' entry into WWII. Finally reaching the screen near the end of the war, the film retains the cautionary power of the source material, avoids the sometimes overwrought pro-American propaganda of other wartime studio films of the period, and adds an unflinching visual punch to the original story's theme of revenge via the written word. The stylish visual storytelling comes courtesy of William Cameron Menzies, well-known for his great accomplishments as a Production Designer, but here working on his only credited directing assignment of the 1940s.

In 1938 writer Kathrine Taylor wrote the novella Address Unknown, a biting indictment of the rise of Fascism in Germany. It was written as a series of letters sent between two partners in an art dealership, one a gentile who works in Munich, the other a Jew who stays in the main office in San Francisco. Under the masculine pen-name "Kressmann Taylor" the novella was serialized in Story magazine from September to October of 1938. Address Unknown was a sensation and was soon reprinted in Reader's Digest and became a best-seller when published by Simon & Schuster in 1939. The book was translated across Europe, though the German translation was published in Moscow and, of course, banned by the Nazis.

The motion picture rights to the popular story went through several hands before landing with Columbia Pictures and an independent production company owned by veteran director Sam Wood. Wood's close associate William Cameron Menzies was eventually tapped to produce and direct the property. Menzies had worked with Wood all through the early 1940s, serving as Production Designer on the Wood films Our Town, (1940), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Kings Row, The Pride of the Yankees (both 1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943).

Screenwriter Herbert Dalmas skillfully expanded Taylor's story by changing the leading female character, fashioning a romantic angle, and adding a twist to the ending. The film opens in San Francisco in the mid-1930s, as friends and business partners Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) and Martin Schulz (Paul Lukas) discuss their Art Gallery, and Schulz's impending move to Munich, Germany to deal in European artwork to send back to Max in the United States. Schulz will be moving with his wife Elsa (Mady Christians) and their four young sons. Their eldest son, Heinrich (Peter van Eyck), is set to stay in San Francisco, work with Max, and marry Max's daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens, the daughter of Sam Wood). Griselle, however, announces that she wants to become an actress and with Heinrich's blessing, spend a year in Germany with "Uncle" Martin and look for stage work. In Germany, Griselle takes the stage name of "Stone" which temporarily disguises her Jewish heritage. Meanwhile, Martin Schulz falls under the spell of Nazi propaganda and is particularly swayed by the charming Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond), a nobleman who extols the rise of Hitler as Germany's "destiny." The Baron knows that Griselle and Martin's partner are Jews, and tells Schulz, "You're going to have to choose, Herr Schulz. You can't sit on two stools at once. At least not in Germany." Schulz tells Max to stop writing him letters, because they are being opened and read by the Nazi censors. The letters continue, however, and come to pose a great danger to Schulz.

At the time that Taylor's story first appeared, the United States was still years from entering WWII, and the novella was a warning of the fascism at work in Nazi Germany. By the time the film was made in 1944, the tide of the fighting was turning, giving the Allies the upper hand, and any number of American movies had been released depicting the evils of Nazism. Menzies' Address Unknown did not fall into the usual patterns of pro-American propaganda films of the time, though. Surprisingly, the Americans in the film are unambiguously appalling; they include an obnoxiously wealthy dowager eager to waste her money on an ugly painting purely for her status amongst her rich friends; an oafish mail carrier with a loud voice and dull sense of humor who contrasts with the quiet mail carrier we see in Germany; and a neighbor of Max's (played by the always-reliable character actor Frank Faylen) sent to hand-deliver a letter to Schulz he is impatient and loutish, yelling "Kraut!" to Schulz after getting the cold shoulder.

Address Unknown was nominated for Academy Awards® for Best Art Direction and Best Score. The art directors (Lionel Banks and Walter Holscher) were no doubt heavily influenced by director Menzies, who made his reputation in the field. Thanks to this team and to cinematographer Rudolph Mate, the film is full of striking shots. A bravura sequence involves the ultimate fate of Jewish actress Griselle Stone. She lands a part in Berlin in which she is to recite the Biblical lines "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God." During a rehearsal for the play, a bespectacled Nazi censor warns her and the play's director to cut those lines from the performance. Excellent matte paintings depict the cavernous theatre, and as the Nazi walks to the back he is strikingly framed in a tiny, lighted doorway a small man with great power. At the performance, Griselle defies the order and recites the lines. The censor exposes her as a Jew and incites the crowd to rush the stage. A heavy fire curtain falls down between the stage and the actress, but in a shot from Griselle's point-of-view (and one worthy of the best of 1940s horror movies), the angry mob slashes through the thick fabric with knives and fists, coming straight for the camera. The eerie and horrific imagery continues as Griselle is first seen trying to escape through wet, empty streets dressed conspicuously in white, and later in a desolate countryside, tromping to the safety of "Uncle" Martin's house, followed by storm troopers seen only as boots sloshing through the mud. The images are truly frightening, and speak volumes about Martin Schulz's mindset and his complete betrayal of his friends.

New York Times critic Thomas M. Pryor raved about Address Unknown, calling it "not just another anti-Nazi picture. It is an absorbing study of a man being driven crazy through fear, and the central character is played with dynamic forcefulness by Paul Lukas. The tragic atmosphere of the picture has been heightened through the brilliant use of low-key lighting effects by William Cameron Menzies, the director, who is better known as Hollywood's leading production designer. Mr. Menzies, cloaking the greater part of the story in deep, brooding, shadowy photography, methodically builds the tension into one of the most spine-chilling climaxes you'll encounter in many weeks of moviegoing."

Producers: William Cameron Menzies, Sam Wood
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Screenplay: Herbert Dalmas; Kressmann Taylor (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Walter Holscher
Music: Ernst Toch; Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (uncredited)
Film Editing: Al Clark
Cast: Paul Lukas (Martin Schulz), Carl Esmond (Baron von Friesche), Peter van Eyck (Heinrich Schulz), Mady Christians (Elsa Schultz), Morris Carnovsky (Max Eisenstein), K.T. Stevens (Griselle Eisenstein/Stone), Emory Parnell (The Postman), Mary Young (Mrs. Delaney), Frank Faylen (Jimmie Blake), Charles Halton (Pipsqueak), Erwin Kalser (Director), Frank Reicher (Prof. Schmidt), Dale Cornell (Carl)
BW-73m.

by John M. Miller

back to top
teaser The Unknown (1927)

"The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by, each intent on his own problems. So many faces that one might easily have lost. I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured; every step is counted."
--Joan Fontaine, Letter from an Unknown Woman

Love and fate, two of the most fertile concepts in dramatic history, were rarely as perfectly realized as when one of the world's greatest directors and one of Hollywood's most under-valued stars joined forces to create his 1948 romantic opus, Letter from an Unknown Woman. Too European for success in an era of Hollywood escapism, the film failed at the box office, but has lived in the hearts of its fans to become one of the most cherished of all Ophuls films.

Fontaine had recently completed a long and, ultimately, frustrating contract with David O. Selznick. Although he had made her a star with Rebecca (1940), for most of her contract he simply lent her out for a profit, often for lackluster roles. Determined to gain some control over her career (and, in some opinions, save her marriage to producer William Dozier), she and her husband created their own production company, Rampart Pictures. For their first film, they chose an adaptation of Stefan Zweig's popular 1932 novel Letter from an Unknown Woman. Universal had filmed an American version of the story in 1933 as Only Yesterday, with Margaret Sullavan making her film debut as a woman hopelessly in love with a man who, years later, does not even remember the encounter that produced her son. Dozier had long wanted to make another adaptation of the novel, and Fontaine thought the long-suffering romance not only offered her a perfect role, but also was the kind of love story women enjoyed at the movies.

To produce Letter from an Unknown Woman, they turned to John Houseman, Orson Welles' one-time associate who had worked with Dozier at Paramount and was just finishing a producing contract at RKO. Houseman was enthusiastic about the project and suggested an old friend, Howard Koch, to write it. With producer and director committed to returning the film to Zweig's original setting, turn-of-the-century Vienna, Koch suggested director Max Ophuls as the perfect choice to capture the city's weary sophistication. When he showed his colleagues Ophuls' pre-war film Liebelei (1933), the Vienna-set film convinced them to hire him. They also let him use one of his favorite cameramen, Austrian Franz Planer, and Universal Pictures' Moscow-born art director Alexander Golitzen to add to the film's authentic flavor. They also decided to cast a European actor, Louis Jourdan, as the leading man.

Ophuls was already disillusioned with Hollywood, where he had fled during World War II. He had been fired after only three days shooting his first film there and had been able to complete only one U.S. film to that time, the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. adventure The Exile (1947). Part of the problem was his poor English, which made communication difficult. But the demanding filmmaking methods that would one day win him a position among the world's greatest directors were at odds with Hollywood production, which too often shot films in an assembly line process. At least the first problem was solved when he met Houseman, who spoke French fluently and whose family came from the Alsace, the same part of Europe where Ophuls had lived.

With Houseman supervising, Koch and Ophuls worked on the screenplay. From the first, Ophuls was demanding, insisting on authentic, creative choices throughout the film. Though he did not receive a screenwriting credit, Houseman's memoirs credit him with some of the film's most distinctive touches, including the snow-filled amusement park, the deserted dance-hall in which the stars dance as an all-female orchestra plays Strauss and the fake train ride, with an attendant pedaling furiously to roll scenery past a stationary train carriage.

During the filming of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Ophuls' painstaking craftsmanship began to disturb Houseman. In particular, the producer was concerned with a proposed three-minute take following Fontaine from her carriage on the street through the crowded lobby of an opera house and up the stairs to the diamond horseshoe, where she finally sees Jourdan in the lobby below for the first time since their brief fling. Houseman felt that the sequence, which required dozens of extras, was tying up valuable resources for too long and threatened to slow the film down. But when he expressed his concerns, the director became enraged and accused him of selling out to studio management (the film was being made on the Universal lot). After another day of rehearsal, Houseman expressed his concerns again and finally asked Ophuls to shoot some close-ups in case they felt the need to break up the shot. When Ophuls refused, Houseman threatened to shoot the close-ups himself, though he also promised not to use them without the director's approval. Finally, after days of rehearsal, Ophuls got his traveling shot, and the cast and crew broke out in applause. Then, with Houseman watching, Ophuls ordered the crew to set up for two close-ups, one of each star. By that point, the director was not speaking to his producer, but a few days later, Ophuls invited Houseman to join him for a rough cut of the last part of the film, including the much-debated tracking shot. Houseman watched as the scene unfolded, with both close-ups inserted, cutting the shot in half. As he left the screening room, Ophuls called out to him and said, "I'm glad we got those close-ups."

For all his demanding ways, Ophuls had no problems with Fontaine. She would later write in her memoirs that even though she spoke no German, there was no language barrier between them. When he gave her notes on a scene, he only had to say a few words before she got exactly what he wanted and adjusted her playing. Certainly that symbiotic relationship benefited the film. Many critics consider her work in Letter from an Unknown Woman to be her best ever. She had previously shown her ability at capturing youthful innocence in films such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre (1944). But this time she allowed the child-woman to grow up into a sophisticated, elegant wife and mother still capable of being ruled by the child within.

Ophuls created the perfect setting in which to display that performance. His Hollywood-back lot Vienna often seems to be the real thing, filled with the kinds of meticulous design details that mark all of his films. In addition, his use of the camera manages to be romantic and rapturous while also underlining the film's themes. In particular, he repeats the same shot of Jourdan's character at the foot of a staircase at three different times, once when, as a child, Fontaine watches him bring home a date, again when he brings her in from their first evening out together, and finally when she sees him standing below her at the opera.

This careful use of camera effects turns the film into a piece of music, which is underlined by Ophuls' painstaking selection of the appropriate classical pieces to reflect action and milieu. Jourdan's theme is taken from Lizst's piano etude No. 3, which his character is shown practicing early in the film when he is still a student. It plays whenever Fontaine thinks of him, over their love scenes and as he finishes reading her letter at the end. When Fontaine encounters him again at the opera, where he does not remember their previous liaison, the music is from Mozart's The Magic Flute. This offers a particularly poignant doubling of the film's plot and the opera, in which the comic lead, Papageno, does not recognize his true love when she visits him in disguise.

None of this artistry seemed to matter to post-war audiences. Letter from an Unknown Woman received only mixed reviews, with critics praising the period art direction but often noting the film's slow pacing. It was decidedly not what post-war film audiences wanted. Theories about the film's box-office failure usually blame the casting of Jourdan, whom producer Houseman felt lacked the sex appeal necessary to make Fontaine's lifelong devotion both believable and touching. Later critics, however, have pointed out that Ophuls' direction supplies all the sensuality required and that, on re-evaluation, Jourdan's performance is perhaps his finest. Another problem for audiences was the film's fatalistic plot. By the final shot Fontaine's character is dead of typhus while Jourdan, now chastened from reading her letter, is going off to certain death in a duel with her husband. Although this finale seems tragic to contemporary critics, it may have lacked the obvious sense of ennoblement audiences of the 1940s wanted from what was still basically an escapist medium.

Over the years, however, Letter from an Unknown Woman has found its audience through revival screenings, television and home video (though it is not currently available on DVD). Critics such as Andrew Sarris and fellow filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Martin Scorsese, have raised Ophuls to the ranks of the world's greatest filmmakers. Although his later European films are usual given the primary place among his works (and Sarris considers one of them, The Earrings of Madame de... (1953), the greatest film ever made), Letter from an Unknown Woman is usually hailed as his best American film and the clear favorite among many film buffs, both for Ophuls' romanticism and the finely etched performances of Fontaine and Jourdan.

Producer: John Houseman
Director: Max Ophuls
Screenplay: Howard Koch
Based on the novel by Stefan Zweig
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Principal Cast: Joan Fontaine (Lisa Berndle), Louis Jourdan (Stefan Brand), Mady Christians (Frau Berndle), Marcel Journet (Johan Stauffer), Art Smith (John), Erskine Sanford (Porter), Betty Blythe (Frau Kohner), Celia Lovsky (Flower Vendor).
BW-87m.

By Frank Miller

SOURCES:
Front and Center by John Houseman

back to top