Tod Browning is one of the great mysteries of film history. His life story is filled with contradictions (some he created himself). No one argues the fact that he was the architect of the classic American horror film Dracula (1931), with Bela Lugosi as Dracula. His success is one that is grounded in his macabre but decidedly non-supernatural silent works. Beyond that the story gets cloudy.
The “official” line is that he went on to make Freaks (1932) and the results were so horrific that it virtually destroyed his career, making the studio keep a tight rein on his subsequent genre efforts. However, the actress Kay Linaker, who was his neighbor for a number of years, told me in an interview that Browning was simply fed up with horror films and finally just quit because that’s all Louis B. Mayer wanted him to make. The exact truth will likely never be known — and that may actually enhance the allure of his strange body of work. And strange it certainly is — almost defiantly so.
At the top of the list for strangeness is The Unknown (1927), a film he made in cahoots with his frequent silent star Lon Chaney. As with a lot of Browning’s work, it’s a circus story, but don’t be expecting Barnum and Bailey. The focus of the story is Alonzo the Armless (Chaney), who performs amazing feats with his … uh … feet, since, as the name suggests, he has no arms. (Publicity at the time had it that Chaney did all his own stunts, but this has subsequently been proved untrue.) Actually, Alonzo has arms — along with a weird double thumb — that he keeps strapped to his body for purposes of the act. His supposed armless state also stands him in good with the circus owner’s pretty daughter, Nanon (Joan Crawford), who has an aversion to men touching her. (The psychosexual implications of the film are unsubtle to say the least.)
This sets the stage for a drama of obsession that is still shocking nearly 80 years later, and the extremes of which I am not about to divulge here. See it for yourself. It may not be Browning’s best silent film (of the existing ones, I’d lean toward The Show (1927)), but it is certainly his most fascinatingly perverse — and that’s saying something in the world of Tod Browning.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke