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THE UNKNOWN review

Man... What a movie!

Ya know, tonight I was turned into a little bitty kid again.

The first movie star that I knew EVERYTHING about was Lon Chaney Sr. I remember, the first book that I actually remember being handed, and then flipping through the pages of, was a tiny sliver of a book... Blue cover, and it was called THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES.

And it’s subject was, of course, Lon Chaney Sr. I remember pouring my eyes over the cryptic symbols alongside the pictures wishing I knew what they meant, because I knew that the pictures were of a single man... Who could seemingly become anyone.

As a small child there were only two cinematic gods in my world. They were Bruce Lee and Lon Chaney Sr. I decided early on that there was no way on this earth I could do the things Bruce Lee could do, so I instead turned my young eyes at the spider. Oops, don’t step on him ya know?

I remember asking my father about the pictures and him telling me that I can’t see those movies. Not because I was too young, but because they didn’t exist anymore. So, it was with great agony that I learned that I would never in my life see LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT... And I remember desperately wanting to see that film. In fact... I still want to see it. And I always shall desire to see that caped sharp toothed madman.

In fact if I could pick any single film, over any other that I wish to see that I still haven’t... it would be LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT.

For years my dream was to be THE NEW LON CHANEY. I mean... seriously... how cool would that be? I mean, becoming anything and everything. All with the help of this little kit... a wooden makeup box filled with magic.

Just remembering this Harry, this version of myself where it was magic... I feel a sense of loss. A bit of regret. You see, it was Lon Chaney that first made me wonder “How’d they do that?” I found out. In fact, since then, I’ve never stopped trying to find out. I dig and dig. An insatiable curiousity, whilst hoping that I was not a feline sub-species.

Flash to about 6 years ago. I was at Forrest Ackerman’s house in Karloffornia and I found myself in a room... A magic room, and there... Right there... was Lon Chaney’s makeup box.

I folded my legs up underneath me, and I scooted right up to it. I’d seen pictures of this... magic box my entire life. Ya know... it’s kinda like watching The Wizard Of Oz and wishing to hold those Ruby Slippers. Or Citizen Kane and being able to hold Rosebud. But more so.

Right there in front of me... I could feel the energy the box gave off. A spark erupted in me as I touched the box. Imagining Lon going to an extras call... Box in hand... reading the desired positions, and becoming the perfect cast member.

I opened the box, and then the smell of putty hit me. Still, after all these years... the box has his makeup. I touched the putty. I held up some of the grease paint sticks. The kinetic electricity... the stored memories of the past... and the meaning of the objects within... shook me to my very core.

When Belloq motioned to the Ark and said.... “THIS ISSSSSS HISTORY” That. That was what I felt. That feeling, that excitement.

All of that being said, I had never seen THE UNKNOWN. I’ve never had the opportunity. The chance to embrace it. And tonight when I went to the Alamo Drafthouse, I expected to be surrounded by my fellow lovers of Chaney...

But... they were nowhere to be seen. What’s wrong? What on earth could keep a real live Film Geek from the embrace of Chaney?

Another film? It’ll still be there next week. The loving arms of you significant other? No excuse. If they are not willing to go see a Lon Chaney movie. Divorce them. Banish them from your sight.

Now there is another chance for you. Tonight (Thursday, June 3rd) you have a chance to see it at both 7pm and 9:45pm. Both times they will be accompanied by THE GYPSIES. A band that plays note perfect music for this film.

What? What is THE UNKNOWN about?

Well, I’ll tell you. It got me thinking about the lengths one would go through for love. How much would I give of myself. What would I put myself through for the one I love. What obsticles would I leap over? What road blocks would I drive through?

You see, in this film... Lon Chaney loves Joan Crawford with every ounce of his being. He’s an armless gypsy circus freak, and he loves her. But... It’s hard for a man with no arms. There are of course complications, but ultimately this is a Beauty and the Beast story and....

Man, this is good. First of all, you will simply marvel at Chaney’s adept use of his feet and legs to be a normal man. When he massages his brow, or toasts a celebration or lights a cigarette. Well... I’m in awe.

You see, I know that what he did... He did. No digital trickery. As a result, it’s kinda like watching someone really walk on water. You can tell the difference. Or at least I perceive a difference.

The film is a bit of a melodrama... but what the heck is wrong with that. Chaney is so effortlessly expressive. I’d bet on his furled brow over Brando’s or James Dean’s any day of the week.

And ya know.... As I watched this film and listened to the fantastic music of THE GYPSIES.... My mind thought... Man... I want to see Tim Burton make movies like Todd Browning did! And lastly.... Go take a look at a picture of Lon Chaney Sr.... and go look at that HELLBOY pre-production image. Don’t ya think Chaney looks a bit like HELLBOY? I do. Scary.

I think I’m going back again tomorrow night. I can’t imagine not seeing this film ever again. It doesn’t come on video (that I know of) and it’s not likely to play theaters again real soon.... Sometimes... ya just have to see movies that are real reel magic.

Just imagine if a Rick Baker or a Stan Winston only did their makeup... on themselves. As it is, they are cool as hell, but man.... That’d be awesome.

Well.... I’m sleepy... It’s 5am, batteries are low... Perhaps I’ll see you tonight at the Alamo Drafthouse. Incredible.

Readers Talkback
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  • June 3, 1999, 6:31 a.m. CST

    video availability (LD owners)

    by Rand Canuck

    FYU: For anyone interested in seeing this cool movie, it is available in a laserdisc box set of Lon Chaney movies.

  • June 3, 1999, 6:43 a.m. CST

    Sometimes it's on AMC and TCM as well...

    by Bundren

    At least, that's where I was lucky enough to see this movie. It is fantastic. The twist towards the end is great -- cruel, tragic, and morbidly funny.

  • June 3, 1999, 7:03 a.m. CST

    You're right about this one

    by jimbixx

    I saw The Unknown at the Philadelphia Film Festival several years ago; they always unearth some truly great silent film in a pristine print and run it with live orchestral accompaniment. (This year they did Eisenstein's Strike with the Alloy Orchestra, whose new score has just been reissued with the film by Kino Video. I strongly urge you to view this: you'll think movies are being reinvented right before your eyes.) Anyway, as you say Harry, this is one impressive movie: sick, inspired , unforgettable story of obsessive love and one incredible performance by Chaney, who really gets a leg up on the competition. No, I mean it, you really have to hand it to him...All right, I'll stop. PS: Chaney Sr. was my first film hero as well, the guy whose movies got me pawing through film books and attending retrospective screenings while still in single-digits, agewise. My parents *really* enjoyed driving me all over town to catch those old movies, pre-VCR and pre-cable era. (Sarcasm) Call me Bixx

  • June 3, 1999, 8:40 a.m. CST

    LON-derful

    by CaptainBerryman

    Yesterday I was channel surfing and came across James Cagney playing Lon Chaney in a movie on Encore...I don't know the name of the movie. I've always been a fan of Chaney but did not really know anything about his life. I'm sold now...and greedy for more. It was also kind of weird to see Irving Thalberg as a character in a movie. The guy that got to play him was a little to happy to be alive...but then considering Thalberg's early life and his health issues it makes sense. The movie portrays a friendship between Thalberg and Chaney that is touching at times, and being interested in Thalberg, I ate it all up. I plan on going to the bookstore this week and finding more about Chaney Sr. and I will try to catch the flick tonight. End Transmission.

  • June 3, 1999, 9:49 a.m. CST

    Man of a

    by Carey N.

  • June 3, 1999, 9:58 a.m. CST

    Man of a Thousand Faces

    by Carey N.

    Sorry about that. Anyway, the movie you were talking about with James Cagney playing Lon Chaney is called, surprisingly enough, Man of a Thousand Faces. The guy who plays Irving Thalberg is none other than Robert Evans, who went on to produce Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Godfather. By the way, one of the first things that got me interested in movies when I was a kid were these little books about all the monster movies, The Wolfman, The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.

  • June 3, 1999, noon CST

    LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT

    by W. Leach

    It's a shame that after so many years, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) is still considered to be a lost movie. Apparently what happened was when the sound era came in, MGM (which produced the film) and many of the other studios destroyed the original prints of their silent films, as they felt no one would be interested in them anymore. Who knows how many lost masterpieces of the silent era have been carelessly destroyed by this system. LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is basically a murder mystery with Lon Chaney playing a detective who tries to solve the case by disguising himself as a vampire. This was directed by Tod Browning, who directed several of Chaney's films in the twenties. Browning continued in the sound era by directing Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (a film that was apparently meant to star Chaney, who died a few months before production was to begin--imagine how the Man of a Thousand Faces would have played the Lord of the Undead), FREAKS, which is still banned in several countries, and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, a remake of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, starring Bela Lugosi in the Chaney role (only this time the character has been changed into an actor). Over the years there has been rumors that a print of LONDON exists somewhere, but so far, nothing has turned up. A definitive source for this lost classic is a book by Phillip J. Riley, which contains the original treatment and the original shooting script. But the real treat is that the entire movie has been reconstructed, subtitles and all, in book form, with over 200 rare photographs from the film itself. Hopefully in the near future some film collector or historian (or even someone who just happens to have a collection of old 8mm films) will stumble upon this, just like the supposedly lost RICHARD III (made in 1912) was recently found. Many critics and historians consider LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT to be one of Chaney's best movies, right up there with THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and THE MIRACLE MAN. Maybe someday soon, we'll be able to judge for ourselves.

  • June 3, 1999, 5:13 p.m. CST

    Thanks Carey N.!

    by CaptainBerryman

    Appreciate the info. I loved that movie...I was wowed when i read who played Thalberg! Now I have to have it on video, and not just because Mr. Howell is in it. End Transmission.

  • June 4, 1999, 12:21 a.m. CST

    Hate to tell you this, Harry, but...

    by MattMBird

    Hate to tell you this Harry, but that wasn't Lon rubbing his brow with his feet, I was recently disappointed to learn from "Dark Carnival", the Tod Browning bio, that that sequence used an acually armless man as a leg double. I was heartbroken, but of course my love and awe of Chaney was in no way dimished.

  • June 4, 1999, 5:58 a.m. CST

    The Unknown

    by nickjack

    Harry, I was there for Wed.'s 7PM showing. Incredible. A Corset, a whip, chains, amputation, castration anxiety--you have to love pre-code film. One note about Lon. Those weren't his feet. I can't find the guy's name right now but there was an armless circus performer who foot-doubled Lon in the film. He later traveled as "The feet of Lon Chaney in The Unknown." A little wordy, but I guess it sold tickets! I guess you know the speculation about Tod Browning's car accident and his subsequent exploration of Freudian themes of castration anxiety in his films. My hope is that in his final years, Freaks, The Unknown, and West of Zanzibar had helped him work through his issues and get some peace. "I said, 'we're only tryin' to get us some peace'" I enjoy your work. Thanks for making film geekdom safer for all of us. Nick Jackson

  • June 4, 1999, 12:05 p.m. CST

    more info

    by nickjack

    The foot double's name was Dismuki. According to Michael Blake's bio LC:The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, Dismuki toured w/the Al G. Barnes circus and Sideshow as "The Man Who Doubled Lon Chaney's Feet in The Unknown" for a salary of $150 a week. So the film must have had some name recognition in the late 20s. Useless trivia is my life!

  • June 5, 1999, 4:26 p.m. CST

    The Unholy Three

    by bijou27

    Tod Browning made many movies with similar themes and stars. One of my favorite is 'The Unholy Three' which I saw on TCM on their 'Silent Sunday Night' presentation. (Incidentally, TCM has made contracts to show restored and newly scored silents, most of them reinstated by Kevin Brownlow, who is the foremost silent film expert. Some of his credits include THE BEST documentaries on Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd; the 'Hollywood' and 'Cinema Europe' series, and restorations of 'It', the silent 'Ben Hur', Von Sroheim's 'Greed', etc.) 'Three' is about former circus performers (A Browning Trademark): A Ventriloquist (Chaney); A midget, and a strongman. Together, they come up with an ingenious plan, in which they can rob houses with ease. Chaney is in love with a woman who is in on the scheme. Naturally, she falls for another man, who soon gets pinned for a murder for which the three are responsible. This movie is one of my favorite silents. I am aware of your tendency to review movies at public showings only, but If your theatre can aquire 'The Unknown', chances are that they can get a copy of 'Three', as well. I only wish that my town was as lucky. The last public showing of a silent film around here was at the Tivoli theatre's 75th anniversary.(It *was* a movie palace. Now it only serves stage plays.) I eagerly await the theatre's 100th birthday. Tough, huh? Keep on reviewing silents. They're good.

  • June 6, 1999, 8:42 p.m. CST

    Lon & Tod Melodramas

    by Tenner

    I love the collaborations of Lon Chaney Sr. and Tod Browning: THE UNKNOWN, both versions of THE UNHOLY THREE, but especially WEST OF ZANZIBAR, which has got to be the most outrageous, most over the top of the four (though Lon's non-Tod film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, runs a close second for all around plot outrageousness). The only other people I can think of who came close to Tod Browning for sheer wild plotting are Hugo Haas and Russ Meyer. Man, do I love their films!

  • June 27, 1999, 2:32 p.m. CST

    Lon Chaney-you ain't seen nothing yet!

    by Chaneybuff

    While I heartily agree that Chaney's performance in "The Unknown" is one of his top 5, I wish Turner or the good folks at TCM would run "Tell It To the Marines" (1927) or "While the City Sleeps" (1928). These are two of Chaney's best performances and really illustrate what I have been saying for years: that Chaney was NEVER a horror actor or needed to rely upon makeup for a role. Unfortunately, for many years (before Video and cable TV) all his fans could see were his public domain films like "Hunchback" or "Phantom." These two films, along with the horror mags, helped to pass along the myth that he was a "horror actor." Unfortunately, many of the monster mags only showed pictures of his elaborate makeups, are rarely covered the plots in many of his films, leading readers to think his films were in the horror genre. This was made abundantly clear to me when one fellow commented to me after a screening of "Mr. Wu" (1927; at the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood) that he never knew the plot was not a horror film and was genuinely impressed with the film. By the way, we should NEVER lose hope on finding "London After Midnight." While the chances are pretty slim, I also thought "Thunder" (1929; Chaney's last silent film) was lost. Fortunately, the now-deceased owner of the Silent Movie Theatre found about 2 minutes of footage (which I recently purchased at the estate auction) and then another 530 feet showed up in a US film archive! I am hoping to get them to incorporate my footage with their material, and restore what is left. Just proves, ya NEVER know! Michael F. Blake author,Lon Chaney Trilogy

  • June 28, 1999, 9:14 a.m. CST

    Unknown

    by Chaneybuff

    One other thing about Chaney's performance. Burt Lancaster once told me that the scene where Lon has realized he's amputated his arms for nothing, was "the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do."

  • July 28, 2006, 11:15 p.m. CST

    We'

    by Wolfpack

  • July 28, 2006, 11:15 p.m. CST

    We've got to take the time to get to know this review.

    by Wolfpack