Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sean McCourt: The Unknown

This year was the first that I attended essentially every program at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Prior years I'd come close, but had always skipped at least two presentations as a strength-saving strategy. This year, I was a late arrival to the free Archivist presentation where the audience learned about the good work of the J. Jeffrey Selznick School of Preservation but caught everything else in the marathon weekend. Between screenings I squeezed in some socializing with friends old and new, including a crew of bloggers from Frisco Bay and beyond (Ryland Walker Knight and Girish Shambu have more details on this social aspect of the festival). If only the SFSFF had programmed a clear dud or two, I might not have felt so overstimulated and wiped out by the end of the event! Ultimately I'm thankful for such a rich three-day weekend, though. And I'm eager to form my impressions of the screenings as soon as I can.

Unfortunately, that's probably not going to be very soon. I'm no longer exhausted, but I've taken on enough projects and activities that I'm too busy right now to sit down and pound out a piece that will do some small justice to the riches of the festival. So I'm ever so grateful to present a wrap-up of the festival's latest program innovation: a late-night screening of Tod Browning's mad masterpiece the Unknown. Lon Chaney admirer Sean McCourt follows up his previous silent film coverage here at Hell on Frisco Bay, with his take on the "Chaney By Midnight" screening:

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The 13th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival lit up the screen at the Castro Theatre last week, showcasing three days of entries from the earliest days of motion pictures, ranging from riotous comedies to twisted tales of the macabre. Saturday night's presentation of the 1927 film The Unknown, was definitely in the latter category, with the Tod Browning (The Unholy Three, Dracula, and Freaks among many others) picture reveling in its disturbing imagery and subject matter.

Before the show began, a series of slides were presented on the large screen, giving facts and trivia tidbits about the stars of the film, Lon Chaney, Sr. and Joan Crawford. As the audience filled in to near-capacity, one series of slides said that both Chaney and Crawford were known for transforming their looks -- his for horror, hers for fashion. The next slide showed two pictures, side by side -- one of Chaney with his makeup kit from the 1920s, the other showing Crawford with hers in the early 1930s. Operations Director of the Silent Film Festival and host for the evening Jesse Hawthorne Ficks started the evening off with some of the usual pleasantries that accompany such events, such as naming sponsors, but quickly electrified the packed audience with his passionate delivery and clear love of all things cinema, particularly when he spoke about why it is so important to preserve films, mentioning how the recent fire at Universal Studios had destroyed many of the circulating 35mm prints of classic films.

Ficks also mentioned that all of the short films presented at the festival were restored by students at the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, which drew a wildly appreciative round of applause from the audience, leading into the screening of the first film of the night, a classic short Nick Carter two reel mystery, The Last Call, starring San Jose native Edmund Lowe and Diana Allen. Stephen Horne, who has been a performer for silent films for nearly 20 years, provided an outstanding live piano accompaniment for this, as well as for The Unknown. During the film, there were plenty of funny (though quite effective) special effects, such as when Carter’s wife is listening to the radio horn, and the musical score and lyrics are animated coming out of the horn, followed by the words of the opera star in trouble begging for help careening outwards.

After the warm-up picture, Ficks explained that all prints of The Unknown were lost for 50 years until one was found in France in the 1970s, then introducing Guy Maddin (director of My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World, and others) to a volley of cheers and enthusiastic screams, inaugurating the Festival’s "Director’s Pick" series. Maddin initially joked with the audience, saying that he was probably preaching to the converted, then stated how he felt that "really good melodrama is as fine an art form as there is," and likened the effect of silent films to when "at night, when we sleep, in our dreams we are liberated."

Closing his brief introduction, where he admitted that he was going to be reading the original English subtitles to the film, and not translating directly from the French on screen, he said that melodrama is "true life uninhibited", and that "there's nothing more truly, crazily, uninhibited than a Lon Chaney and Tod Browning collaboration." Departing the stage to a roar of applause, Maddin made his way to the back of the theater and his microphone, and the curtains parted for what many consider one of the finest films of its time.

In The Unknown, the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr. is repulsive, yet somehow empathetic, as circus attraction Alonzo the Armless, a member of a traveling gypsy circus who harbors a dark secret known only to his sidekick, the diminutive Cojo. Alonzo pines for the love of Nanon (Joan Crawford), the circus owner’s daughter. She reveals to him that she has a self-proclaimed incorrigible fear of men’s hands and arms, and that she is tired of men constantly pawing at her. The fact that Alonzo has no arms (or so she thinks) renders him harmless to her in her mind, and she spends a considerable amount of time in his company, speaking of a multitude of men’s advances, including Malabar, the circus’s resident strong man.

Throughout the film’s bizarre plot twists and unexpected surprises, Chaney’s incredible talents are constantly on display. Rightfully known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Chaney was one of the earliest and most influential pioneers in make-up for the cinema, creating many characters and looks that are still instantly recognizable today, 80 years after he committed them to celluloid. In the beginning of the film, first-time viewers can genuinely believe that Alonzo is indeed an armless man, thanks to the ingenious work of Chaney, though his method is revealed soon enough in the progress of the picture’s story.

There are several humorous shots (at least the audience thought they were funny, exploding in laughter when they appeared on the screen) such as when Chaney is seen smoking a cigarette with his feet, or playing a tiny guitar or ukulele with his lower extremities. There has been some discussion whether this was actually Chaney or a stunt double performing in the shadows, but nonetheless the effects are entirely believable. Though the plot of The Unknown -written by Browning- emerges as a twisted, nightmarish story even 80 years after its’ release. Based on the audience's reaction, which ranged from a few couples who might have actually seen some first-run silent films in their youth to current twenty-somethings who dressed the part of prohibition-era flappers and bootleggers, the film can still elicit an overwhelmingly positive response, proving that the innovators of film and the language of cinema can give today’s filmmakers an even run for their money when it comes to entertainment and the suspension of disbelief.


  1. First and foremost, have a wonderful vacation in Costa Rica, Brian! We'll try to hold down the fort here Bayside while you're gone.

    Nice write-up, Sean. With regard to your comment--"There has been some discussion whether this was actually Chaney or a stunt double performing in the shadows"--I think it's actually a handshake between the two. Joan Crawford stated in her memoirs that Chaney actually did practice some of these stunts himself, but Peter Dimuski, a real armless man, did serve as a stunt double, specifically in the cigarette-smoking scene.

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  3. Great write up! I was at the Silent Film Festival - it was amazing! I was involved with helping put together teh slideshow for the film "The Unknown" - thank you for linking to my blog. I also run the offical Joan Crawford Website and have an entiore page devoted to the film "The Unknown" - go to the link below for many photos from the film and other great info! I will be sure to link your blog to mine as well adn I will be checking back often!


  4. Sorry your link didn't appear the way it should have, menky. This should be it.

    As maya says, I'm off to Costa Rica! Was hoping to to get another post in to explain the upcoming absence, but I've got a plane to catch! Don't expect any new activity here at Hell on Frisco Bay for a couple weeks or so!