The Unknown

[above: Lon Cheney looking like Stevie Ray Vaughan in Todd Browning’s 1927 silent film The Unknown.]

Apparently the cell phone data plan Linette and I had, when it was just she and I, no longer works now that our teenage daughter has a phone as well. Every day, it seemed, we were getting texts telling us that we were surpassing the usage outlined in our plan, and, as such, we were being billed another $15. So, after trying a few things unsuccessfully, like putting apps on each of our phones to track data usage, with the thought being that we might be able to police our own use, we decided to call us AT&T and ask about switching to a new, bigger plan. And we ultimately decided on one that, for some reason, came with free access to AT&T Watch, the company’s real-time streaming television service. As it didn’t cost anything extra, I went ahead and signed up, not expecting much… And, for the most part, I was right not to expect much, as a vast majority of the streaming stations they carry aren’t worth a damn. But, they do have a few things, mixed in with all the “reality” television garbage, like CNN and BBC America, which, given that we don’t have cable at home, I’m finding pretty useful. The truly awesome thing, however, is that I now have access to Turner Classic Movies, which is how I got to watch about 30 minutes of William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man yesterday at lunch, and Todd Browning’s 1927 silent film The Unkown earlier this evening. And it’s the latter that I want to spend my time with you today talking about.

The Unkown stars Lon Cheney as a criminal, who, in hopes of avoiding detection by the authorities, joins a traveling circus, where, under the name Alonzo, he performs as as armless knife thrower. We don’t know it at the outset, when we first see him throwing knives with his feet at Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner, played by a 21 year old Joan Crawford, but Alonzo actually has his arms, although he keeps them strapped to his sides in a girdle-like contraption that’s taken on and off by his parter in crime, Cojo, played by little person Tufei Filthela. And this scheme of theirs seems to be working well, with Alonzo traveling from town to town, robbing houses, and just smiling and waving his toes at the authorities when they come by to collect fingerprints, until he falls in love with Nanon, and makes the decision to have his arms surgically removed so that she never finds out that he was, in fact, the man with two thumbs on his left hand who she saw murder her father… So, yeah, it’s a fucking strange story. And it’s totally reawakened the interest in Browning that I had back in high school when I first discovered Freaks.

I’d like to go on about how absolutely beautiful the film is, and how impressed I was by Cheney, who has probably got one of the most interesting and expressive faces that I’ve ever seen. But all I’ve really got time for right now is this… These are a few of the intertitles from the beginning of the movie, when Nanon confides in Alonzo that she wishes all men would lose their hands. [#MeToo] Oh, and I should have probably mentioned that earlier. Nanon has deep dislike of men… especially their hands.

I know I’ve said this before, but, had things gone differently for me, and had I gotten my PhD in American Studies, I think this is the kind of thing I might spend my entire career on. I wish I could say more, but it’s time for bed, so I’ll have to leave it at that. Here, though, before I go, is a trailer for the film that someone made recently. And, yes, if you happen to be wondering, my obsession with Joan Crawford is still very much alive and well.

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  1. Arlo
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Men’s hands should be moved to rinos.

  2. Concerned Michiganian
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Vote YES on the library millage!! #CleanYpsilanti #Whitmer2018 #BlueWave2018

    On Tuesday, November 6, 2018, the Ypsilanti District Library will request 0.7 mills of operating funds for 12 years.
    Approval of the operating millage means the Library district can prevent cuts to services, increase popular materials, upgrade outdated computers and technology, pay for needed building maintenance and improvements to aging Library facilities, use money from YDL’s fund balance (savings) to construct a permanent Library building on Harris Rd. in Superior Township and operate this third full-service facility with District-wide benefits, and replenish the District’s fund balance.

    Without the millage, the Library district will need to cut back on hours of operation, Bookmobile service, books and other materials, computer upgrades and technology, programming, building maintenance, and staffing levels. Building a permanent Library on Harris Rd. in Superior Township will be postponed indefinitely.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I think I’m starting to understand your Crawford fetish.

  4. valerie solanas
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    The Society for Cutting the Hands Off Men.

  5. site admin
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Write about something other than Kavanaugh, they said.


  6. site admin
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Context for the brilliant comment by Arlo:

  7. wobblie
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Always loved Rataxis. He didn’t seem to need anything more than a three fingered hand to do everything

  8. wobblie
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Real life rhinos are also pretty cool.

    I’m old enough to have gone on a school field trip (High School psychology ) to the state hospital where they warehoused children with various forms of totally debilitating birth defects. Including children with no arms. We have had progress since then. Those warehouses have all been closed down. Anyway, ever since then, I have found it difficult to watch movies that include human deformities. Had problems watching the Elephant Man for example. (Children with that type of deformity were also present in the hospital). Watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also had the same effect (we also visited the State Mental Hospital on the same field trip) So have never seen the Unknown.

    You know 15 and 16 year olds are so impressionable.

  9. Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Damn. I’m never going to get any work done. I just saw that one of my favorite movies, Dinner at Eight (1933), is on tonight.

  10. iRobert
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    We’re never going to hear from Mark ever again when he discovers he can watch any of these movies on demand.

  11. ElsieGal
    Posted October 5, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    If you haven’t seen Trouble in Paradise by Ernst Lubitsch (1932), look for it. It’s a clever comedy and absolutely stunning in terms of setting, costumes, lighting, and camara cuts. I am not sure if it’s available to stream anywhere, but it’s well worth a search!

    Beats the news this week as far as I am concerned!

  12. Anonymatt
    Posted October 5, 2018 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I saw The Unknown on TCM back when I had cable. Try to catch The Unholy Three for more Tod Browning and Lon Chaney.

  13. Barry LaRue
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I saw Chaney’s The Blackbird several years ago at a film convention. It’s also a Todd Browning effort. Another great picture you should see.

  14. Prediciton
    Posted October 11, 2018 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    TCM is playing “His Girl Friday” followed by “My Man Godfrey” tonight. I predict there will be no blog post.

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