#34. The Unkown (1927)

This movie is amazing and I feel bad about having never heard of it. The Unkown is less than an hour long, it’s got a wonderfully crazy plot about an ostensibly armless circus performer (who turns out to be a two-thumbed bandit), the acting is great and the mood is creepy and the fact that it’s here on the List at all, this eerie little schlock charmer, has kinda boosted my excitement about the Project, my faith in its roundedness.

Tod Browning, the director, worked a few sideshow acts before making this movie and it comes through. He doesn’t look down upon or judge these characters, doesn’t even sensationalize their eccentricity. Their profession is a small sidenote to the dramas of their loves.

Joan Crawford plays Nanon Zanzi here, the leading lady of their act who has attracted the attention of both Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) and Malaber the Mighty (Norman Kerry). She’s already really fond of Alonzo but regards him as like this avuncular protector, not somebody she’d really wanna hook up with. The reason she’s so drawn to Alzonzo in the first place, apart from his kindness, is the fact that, yeah, he has no arms. She hates men’s hands, reels back from young Malabar’s efforts to touch her, and she’s played, by Crawford, with a measured blend of revulsion and fear and rage. It’s great. She makes it clear that Nanon has suffered some sort of trauma in the past and yet communicates this without a word.

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A young Joan Crawford giving her every effort to a small movie that she probably knew the critics would look down upon for its subject matter. The movie’s dominant performance.

I’ll get back to the movie in a moment but since a major part of it is the loss of limbs, and the way that the ostensibly strange or sensational aspects of these characters don’t change the fact that they’re typical people with desires and bad habits and agendas, I’m gonna digress just briefly into this thing that happened at work a few days ago when a guy came up the desk who happened to be an asshole. He comes in, it’s about 9 p.m., leans his elbows on the chest-high counter so as to better showcase his muscles, bald guy, and immediately he sounds angry, inconvenienced about even being here, and he scoffs and says, “How long’s the wait for two people?” I tell him fifteen minutes. He rolls his eyes and looks at the door. He thinks long and hard about that door. Then he looks back toward his companion, maybe his wife, who’s already waiting on the bench in the lobby, texting, and then he turns back to me with an unhappy resolve and sighs and says OK. He puts his name on the list and goes to join her on the bench.

I go off and seat some tables.

A few minutes later the dude comes up to the counter again to remind me, clearly kinda angry, that he’s been waiting. I say, “I know, we’ve still got your name here, just a few more minutes.” The man sighs, removes his enormity from the counter, and rejoins his ladyfriend. Let’s say the guy’s name is Gustavo. It’s not, but let’s just say.

Anyway. I run some more tables.

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This is the photo that’s used int he Book in The Unknown‘s chapter — I saw it a hundred times and didn’t realize he was holding that teacup with his foot until after I saw the movie.

About ten minutes into his wait he comes up to say that he’s been waiting a half hour and that people are being seated who came in after he did, and do I even know how to do my job, and he wants to speak with a manager; the usual. So OK, he talks to a manager, makes gestures at me; the usual.

I leave the desk and go on seating tables. When I come back I look at the list and see that the next name is Amy. I’m supposed to call out, “Amy, part of two!”

But I don’t call Amy. I’ve been thinking about and dreading Gustavo for a while now and so, by accident, I call out, “Gustavo.”

And Gustavo, having heard his name, pushes himself up from the bench with a sigh and I notice for the first time, as I take a step in his direction to apologize and say that he isn’t actually about to be seated, that Gustavo’s only got one leg. The other’s been removed below the knee. He sits down again after I give the bad news, scoffs, gestures at the sky.

I hurry off to go run some more tables and this time, as I’m going, I’m thinking, “Oh my God I’m such an asshole! I inconvenienced that poor guy, he’s got one leg, I made him stand up and maybe that’s a great labor…” Felt really terrible. But then I stopped. Took a breath and tried to reclaim that vague sense of self-worth that tends to slink away in the seventh or eighth hour of a restaurant shift. I thought, “Wait. No. He’s being a dick.” Because yeah, guy’s got struggles I can’t even fathom, not just leading his life with a disability but, good lord, to even imagine the circumstances and hardship that surrounded the leg’s actual removal. It’s literally beyond my comprehension. But shit. Doesn’t change the fact that he was being an asshole to strangers.

This is probably a petty digression, but it felt like a big deal that night, and then seeing this movie almost immediately thereafter, and considering Browning’s treatment of the characters, shed some light on it again. Whenever somebody with noisy little children or a cast on their arm or a limp or even just a sad look on their face treats me like shit at work I immediately jump to some sympathetic imagining of their private hardships, start justifying their behavior, which is a habit I shouldn’t totally abandon, I don’t think, but it’s definitely something I need to wrestle into some kind of moderation.


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