Almost from the start, Hollywood has been peering into dark corners, staking its claim in the lurid back alleys of American life.
This year's Denver Silent Film Festival, which runs this weekend, features a screening of "The Unknown," a movie that offers undeniable proof that even in 1927, strong currents of weirdness rippled beneath a surface of movie innovation and self-proclaimed achievement.
In 1927, audiences saw the first talkie – Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer.” Hollywood also began boosting its prestige with the introduction of the first Academy Awards.
“The Unknown” took audiences in a completely different direction, one in which the shrill notes of calliopes could be heard echoing from the midways of America’s nightmares.
“The Unknown” never reaches the height of perversity found in 2009’s “The Human Centipede” – what could? – and you won’t find anyone inhaling a mysterious gas á la Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet.” Films such as “The Brood,” “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers” helped make the brilliant David Cronenberg a nominee for the weird hall of fame.
But don’t sell “The Unknown” short.
The movie helped to lay the groundwork for contemporary weirdness. And watching this 1927 classic is no academic exercise.
“The Unknown” remains a genuinely creepy viewing experience, as well as evidence of an on-going and sometimes healthy tension between the stolid mainstream and the disreputable fringe.
Consider: “The Unknown” tells the story of a man who’s willing to have his arms amputated for love – or at least for his twisted idea of it.
The movie also takes us into a circus world where a criminal can hide his true identity and where devious plots hatch.
Arriving towards the end of the silent era, “The Unknown” was directed by Tod Browning, a man who, appropriately enough, entered show business through the flaps of a circus tent. Browning joined a circus at the age of 16 and went on to direct more than 50 films in a career that began in 1915 and lasted until 1939. He’s best known for his 1931 production of “Dracula” and, of course, the 1932 movie “Freaks.”
Perhaps the granddaddy of all cult films, “Freaks” cut against the mainstream grain with a cast that included a set of conjoined twins and a legless and armless man named Prince Randian, sometimes billed as “The Human Caterpillar.”
For all of Browning’s willingness to defy propriety, “The Unknown” would have been unthinkable without the contributions of Lon Chaney, the Colorado Springs-born actor known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
In a way, Chaney made himself into a kind of human special effect.
In movies such as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), he vanished inside roles geared toward horror and pathos. Famously, he designed his own make-up.
But Chaney’s skills transcended disguise: The actor could shift his expression from one of nearly beatific innocence to one of pure menace in the course of a single close-up. Chaney knew how to amplify recognizable emotions and turn them toward terrifying extremes.
In “The Unknown,” Chaney plays Alonzo, a burglar who hides his arms to avoid detection by the police. Alonzo, you see, has an identifying deformity, a double-thumbed left hand.
To fit into the circus, Alonzo masters the art of throwing knives with his feet, which is also how he lights cigarettes.
Early on, Alonzo falls for Nanon – played by a 21-year-old Joan Crawford – adopting a protective attitude toward the young beauty. He thinks the love gods have smiled on him because Nanon has a pathological fear of being handled. She’s repelled by men’s arms.
Love, of course, is not without obstacles. Strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) also has his eye on Nanon. Alonzo believes he has the advantage until his companion, a dwarf named Cojo (John George) reminds him that once Nanon learns that he has arms, she’ll surely be repelled. The distraught Alonzo makes a decision that is at once dedicated and demented: He seeks out a disreputable surgeon and threatens to expose him unless he amputates Alonzo’s arms.
If you’re not convinced of the movie’s weirdness by now, I can do no more to make the case. The movie also survives as a much-needed reminder that outside Hollywood’s big tent, a macabre sideshow has long been beckoning.
I’m not saying all such movies are worthwhile: I am saying that next time you and I feel repelled by the latest “Saw” movie or some other slice of blood-soaked horror, we probably should remind ourselves that our movie heritage is more bizarre and dreadful than we sometimes like to admit.
This leads to a provocative question: Without the dark horrors of the fringe, would the bright lights of the mainstream be quite so appealing?
The Silent Film Festival’s six programs kick off Friday, Feb. 28 at the King Center on the Auraria Campus with an 8 p.m. Charlie Chaplin triple feature, anchored by Chaplin’s “The Circus.” “The Unknown” shows at 10:30 p.m. Other programs at the King Center include a Saturday, March 1, 12 p.m. showing of Yasujiro Ozu’s “Passing Fancy” (1933) and a 7 p.m. showing of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Docks of New York.” The festival also features a conversation with silent film and archival experts Mike Mashon and David Shepard hosted by festival co-founder and festival artistic director Howie Movshovitz at The King Center on Saturday, March 1, 10:30 a.m.
Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at www.denersteinunleashed.com.