A unique figure in early American cinema, director Tod Browning is best known for his stupefying Freaks (1932) and for his standard-setting Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi. Between 1919 and 1930 he made eleven films with another rather singular Hollywood figure, actor Lon Chaney. Dubbed ‘the man with a thousand faces’ for his mastery of startling make-up effects, Chaney shared with Browning a fascination for the bizarre and the unconventional and for physical deformity, possibly as a result of their respective early years: Chaney’s parents were deaf-mutes while Browning allegedly worked in a circus as a clown, a contortionist and an act called ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’.
In The Unknown, Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless knife-thrower in a gypsy circus in love with Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner (played by a very young Joan Crawford). Malabar, the show’s strongman, is similarly infatuated but Nanon’s intense phobia of being touched by men’s hands keeps them apart and brings her closer to Alonzo. Little does she know that Alonzo is in fact a wanted criminal. Distinguished by a deformed double thumb that would make him instantly recognizable to the police, he passes himself off as a cripple, concealing his arms under a tight corset. Desperately afraid that Nanon will reject him if she finds out the truth, he resorts to a drastic course of action and decides to have his arms cut off. While Alonzo disappears into a shady clinic, Malabar perseveres in his courting of Nanon and wins her over. On his return Alonzo learns that Nanon and Malabar are to be married. Only one thing is left to him – revenge.
There is of course an undercurrent of sexual anxiety in Nanon’s phobia and in the contrast between Malabar’s muscular limbs and Alonzo’s lack of them. But more interestingly, body parts are the currency in which love is traded between the characters. Malabar has to rely on attributes other than his arms in order to earn Nanon’s trust while Nanon learns to accept them as a sign of love and Alonzo gives up his in a trade-off which he hopes will deliver Nanon to him. Devoured by his obsession for Nanon, he is prepared to pay for her in his own flesh. Love turns him into a real cripple, physical deformity conveying the intensity of his emotions, which are literally carved into his body. Mutilation here is a poignant, literal image of the sacrifice the obsessive lover is prepared to make to be loved back.
But deformity is also an act and here we recognise Browning’s fascination for theatrical illusion. The knife-throwing number that opens the film is doubly a show: a freakish circus act on the surface, it is also Alonzo’s secret cripple impersonation, witnessed only by us and his midget sidekick Cojo. In fact, the whole of Alonzo’s relationship with Nanon is based on pretence, which does not make it any less deeply felt. When Nanon wishes that God would cut off all of men’s hands, Alonzo feigns to be genuinely hurt. When she tells him she’s getting married to Malabar after Alonzo has just mutilated his body for the love of her, he has to simulate happiness. At no point can he be sincere and at no point does she find out the truth about him. Fittingly, Alonzo dies on stage, a true performer to the end. Browning returns here to one of his favoured themes – the tragedy of the performer, who, being too good an actor for his own sake, dies utterly isolated and misunderstood.
Only with Cojo can Alonzo throw off the mask and be himself. But as the performance becomes second nature what this self truly is becomes increasingly muddled. In an astounding scene, Alonzo, distraught by the prospect that Nanon may never belong to him, smokes a cigarette with his feet, forgetting to use his arms, which are untied at that point. Over the course of the film he becomes what he was simply pretending to be at the beginning, overwhelmed by his own performance. To complicate matters, there is the fact that a body double was used for some of the scenes – Peter Dismuki, who was born without arms – so that what we see on screen is an intricate illusion where a bizarre composite of Chaney and Dismuki’s bodies pretends to be Alonzo pretending to be a cripple… In the theatrical world there is no real self – all is illusion.
As the cigarette-smoking scene shows, tragedy is never far from comedy in Browning’s cinema. While Alonzo’s despair is truly heart-rending, there is also something positively funny about that scene. Browning started his Hollywood career as a slapstick actor and some of what he learnt during those years clearly rubbed off on his work as a director. He is a true master of the grotesque, nimbly walking the fine line between repulsive and ridiculous, between horror and burlesque. In that he is seconded by Chaney’s amazing powers of expression, the actor’s craggy, lived-in face moving from hate to love, from need to menace and despair in the blink of an instant. Able to express contradictory emotions at the same time, Chaney beautifully handles the uneasy balance between tears and laughter, remaining deeply moving in the most incongruous situations. As a result, even though Alonzo is a criminal, a frighteningly possessive lover and a man driven by the darkest impulses, he is the one that you root for. This is where Browning’s heart clearly is – with the freaks, the loners and the misfits, with the anguished yearnings of troubled souls.
Also screening at the Barbican as part of the Lon Chaney season is The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) with live accompaniment by Stephen Horne – Sunday 22 April, 4pm.