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The Projected Image: A History of Disability on Film
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Remind Me
,The Unknown

The Unknown

Saturday October, 8 2016 at 06:30 AM

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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

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