Monday, October 22, 2007

"THE UNKNOWN" should be known !

My son Andrew infrequently has patience for old movies. His impatience is typified by what he perceives to be weak special effects...therefore he would consider an "old" movie like "JURASSIC PARK" to be "so five minutes ago"...(that means; passe). If we slip back another few years to Christopher Reeves' "SUPERMAN," that whole production was laughable to him.
Such reluctance for old movies isn't reserved for today's teenagers. In fact by the time we ratchet down the "way-back" machine to silent movies, few people of any age are interested. But I hope to change that with my critique of "THE UNKNOWN" a Lon Chaney classic from 1927.

Leonidas "Lon" Chaney was born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs Colorado. Both his parents were deaf and as a natural result from it, he became a master of pantomime. He started in show-biz as an errand boy in 1902. He soon took to the foot-lights and eventually worked his way into both Vaudeville and as a theatrical actor.


Fate took Chaney to Hollywood in 1912 and he was under contract with Universal Studios for five years. His spontaneous skill with make-up earned him a wide assortment of roles. In the early years, his characterizations were limited to extra work or in bit parts. But because of his artistic imagination, he was able to use his self-invented make-up techniques to transform himself into anything from a Portuguese sponge fisherman to a disfigured ogre. Dubbed, "The Man of a Thousand Faces," it soon became apparent to studio moguls that Chaney's specialty was for the macabre.HUNCHBACK (above), PHANTOM (below)

During his film career from 1912-1930, (160 movies, all silent except the last one), Chaney is most remembered for being, "THE PHANTOM of the OPERA," "THE HUNCHBACK of NOTRE DAME" and the most famous lost film ever, "LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT." In each of these, he managed to project a sympathetic image into the most monstrous roles.

In today's critique we 'll examine his talent for being the pitied villain. Please bear in mind that I am going to tell you most of the plot but not the surprise ending. If you want, I'll understand, stop reading now, find this movie on TCM or rent it, then finish it.

Set in Spain, Chaney portrays Alfonzo, a mass murderer on the run. The authorities only clue to his identity is his double thumb. Aided by his dwarf companion Cojo, Alfonzo appears at a circus as an armless man and gets hired as a knife-thrower in the freak show.

Alfonzo is paired with the circus owner's young and beautiful daughter Estrellita (Joan Crawford). She serves as his assistant. Estrellita has no idea that he HAS arms or that they are strapped down by Cojo, beneath the corset under his costume.


At the same time, Estrellita is fighting off the amorous attentions of the show's strongman. Alfonzo, unaware that she is talking about men in general, overhears her say that she hates the thought of a man's hands on her. He interprets this as her hatred for his "rival." Believing this is his chance for true happiness, he tells Cojo of his intention to marry her. Cojo reminds him that if she agrees, she would eventually learn his secret and hate him forever.

While Estrellita has no idea that Alfonzo has feelings for her, he bribes a doctor and has his arms REALLY amputated. When he returns to the circus, he discovers that Estrellita has overcome her "hand" phobia and is in love with the strongman. I leave the rest of the story to your imagination.

This to me, this is a 3 1/2 star movie. It is insignificant that the story has tremendous believability flaws, but it shines because of Chaney and his uncanny ability to make you hate and pity him at the same time.

To ready himself for the role, Chaney taught himself several everyday activities to do with his feet instead of hands. The filmmakers DID use a stunt-double to play the violin with his feet but Chaney did everything else without special effects or trick photography. His dedication to his craft is clear in the scene where he sits dejectedly in a wheelchair with his legs draped over the side and effortlessly lights up a cigarette and smokes.

Maybe if I can get Andrew to take off his ipod's headphones off with his feet, maybe he'll watch it with me.

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