From Silent Films: An Unknown Star Named Joan Crawford in "The Unknown"
It is interesting to me that Joan Crawford's first major motion picture screen role as an actress was in a movie considered to be a horror film, because this was also the case with her last major role for the big screen.
The former was in one of Tod Browning's best collaborations with Lon Chaney, titled "The Unknown" in 1927. The latter, of course, is an independent film Ms. Crawford made in 1970 entitled "Trog."
Prior to "The Unknown," the actress and self-professed flapper - not to mention Charleston dancer and one-time New York chorus girl - made her first break at MGM as a body double for Norma Shearer (wife of MGM co-partner and creator Irving Thalberg) in 1925. She followed that stint with a string of uncredited roles and bit parts before co-starring in "Sally, Irene and Mary" later that year. It is safe to say that with a each film after, her fame grew, opening doors as she worked her way into the title of leading lady. By the time "The Unknown" arrived, her star was already rising in Hollywood.
In my appreciation for the works of Joan Crawford, I've taken the task of reviewing her most notable films from my collection (and I own 50 of her 80 films), beginning with The Unknown. Before the legend, before the star, there was an actress with a spark, a glow that was undeniable. In gaining perspective of this unique if somewhat mysterious figure in cinema history, one must dig
and look back at her early work. Widely considered to be a turning point in her filmography, The Unknown was an early breakthrough for her. Crawford has stated that this is the film she learned the most about acting, creating a character from her inner emotions with subtlety, rather than from the surface. Instead of utilizing methods from modeling and dancing as in her prior films, she learned here how to work internally from an organic place. This was a quality that was to carry her throughout her entire career. If you look at most of Crawford's pictures, you'll notice her ability to be laser focused, and live through the character, rather than just play it. This distinguished herself from many other actresses in her day.
Because of Joan Crawford's public image, she never fully got the credit for being an artistic force as an actress. Rather, she was highly regarded as a star. Women idolized her. Her fans carried her through dark times and cheered her once again when she had a hit movie. But, make no mistake, Crawford could not be a star if she could not act. She was a supreme actress. It was her sometimes frivolous material that made her seem more like a "star" than an "actress." But she was both.
In her earliest days, in the silent film era, actors often seemed more like cartoon figures, because acting technique was different without sound. It was all in the facial expressions. But with Crawford, she made those scenes of angst and torment believable. She seemed real. This is a reason audiences identified with her, even at her most glamorous.
The story of The Unknown was unlike anything I'd ever seen in a film. It wasn't horror in the gore sense. It was just chilling. Lon Chaney (highly praised for his work in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) teams up with director Tod Browning (who later directed Dracula in 1931) for a tale of an armless circus freak named Alonzo, whose object of affection is Nanon (Crawford), his circus partner who he throws knives at with his feet. Nanon is young and afraid of men's affections and so she feels most at ease with the armless Alonzo. As he is somewhat encouraged by her kindness, he is secretly in love with her. There is also another man named Malabar (many of Joan Crawford movies seem to engage in a triangle), a circus strongman.
The twist is that Alonzo is a fraud, because his arms are bound together to his body, and before Nanon would ever find out Alonzo's truth, what takes place afterward is a sacrifice I'd never seen a man make for a woman's love, Add to that, Alonzo is also a fugitive with crimes to cover, so as he's away to make his sacrifice, Nanon has overcome her fear of men and love, and falls for Malabar. When Alonzo returns, he becomes not only shocked, but enraged at the news of Nanon and Malabar's pending marriage. The final act is suspenseful, and I'll leave any other details behind, but I will say, as twisted and as involved as this story seems, it is Lon Chaney's fierce commitment to the character he's playing, and Crawford's unfettered believability, that keeps your eyes glued onto the screen. You simply cannot not believe her.
The Unknown is worth a watch, if not for the interest of horror and suspense, then for the first long glimpse of young Joan Crawford on screen.
"The Unknown" Poster and images ©1926, 1927 in the Public Domain with permission.