When they made The Unknown in 1927, star Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning were among the biggest names in Hollywood. Joan Crawford was a starlet on the rise, striving for recognition. The Unknown gave it to her, and the following year she got her breakout starring role.
Crawford would have celebrated her 100th birthday on March 23, 2008 – according to her. Shortly before her death, she allegedly burned the birth certificate that proved she was born in 1906. Ever the ultimate star, she was determined to keep control of her carefully crafted image even in death. She would be proud to know that the film she considered her first real acting challenge, The Unknown, is now considered by many to be the best of the Chaney/Browning collaborations.
Born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, Crawford began her career in Kansas City, Missouri as a chorus dancer, making her way to New York City where producer Harry Rapf gave her a screen test in 1924. He signed her to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract and she set out for Hollywood.
Determined to succeed, Crawford developed a reputation as an extremely hard-working actress, which lasted throughout her career. Her dedication paid off when she began to receive attention for her supporting performances in such films as 1925’s Sally, Irene and Mary. Fearing that “LeSueur” would be difficult for the public to pronounce, MGM staged a contest in a fan magazine to rename her. “Joan Crawford” was the winning entry. Between 1926 and 1927 she appeared in 14 films, among them The Unknown, in a role reportedly turned down by Greta Garbo. It was a turning point in her career. Crawford always credited Chaney with teaching her the art of film acting: “Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting…the concentration, the complete absorption he gave to his characterization…watching him gave me the desire to be a real actress.”
The Unknown was the sixth of ten collaborations between Chaney and director Tod Browning. Its circus theme was a favorite of Browning’s, both on and off screen. Born Charles Albert Browning, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880, Browning had been fascinated with circus culture from childhood. He even ran away from home at 16 to join the circus, reportedly becoming a Ringling Brothers clown, a contortionist, and even a magician’s assistant. He segued into acting and directing in New York City, where D.W. Griffith hired him at the Biograph Studio. A car accident in 1915 ended his acting career, and he concentrated on writing during his convalescence.
After apprenticing with Griffith on Intolerance (1916), Browning made his directorial debut with Jim Bludso (1917), which he also wrote. The following year he went to Universal Studios, where executive Irving Thalberg paired him with Lon Chaney for The Wicked Darling (1919). Browning immediately recognized in Chaney the ideal actor for his macabre visions. After Browning made Outside The Law with Chaney in 1921, his father died, and he lapsed into a period of alcoholism and depression. Upon recovery, Browning was hired to direct at MGM, where Thalberg, who had become the head of production, reunited him with Chaney to make The Unholy Three (1925). The film was a hit, reviving a creative partnership that would last through seven more films. Of these, The Unknown is quite possibly the most unusual, and the most deserving of “cult film” status.
Chaney was already “The Man of a Thousand Faces” when he appeared in The Unknown. Born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1888 to deaf-mute parents (which taught him how to convey emotion without the use of words), he started in vaudeville before landing at Universal in 1912. After seven years of bit parts and undistinguished feature roles, he left over a salary dispute. He freelanced, scoring a success in the role of The Frog for Paramount’s The Miracle Man (1919), establishing himself as the premier character actor in movies. He termed his craft “extreme characterization,” an accurate description for a man who could transform himself so completely for iconic performances in The Penalty (1920), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His horrific characterizations were so effective that a popular catchphrase of the day was “Don’t step on it, it might be Lon Chaney!”
As The Unknown proves, Chaney didn’t need to rely on heavy make-up to transform himself for a role. For The Unknown, Chaney reported, “I contrived to make myself look like an armless man, not simply to shock and horrify you but merely to bring to the screen a dramatic story of an armless man.” Even though most studios were converting to sound, Chaney continued to make silents, and he was voted the number-one box office star of 1928 and 1929. In spite of the shift to the new technology, Chaney resisted. He and Chaplin were the last silent stars to switch to sound films, and Chaney joked that although he was the man of a thousand faces, he only had one voice. However, for his first talkie, the 1930 remake of The Unholy Three, he created not one, but five voices. Shortly after completing the film Chaney died of throat cancer, on August 26, 1930.
Today, Tod Browning is better known as the director of Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932) than for his work with Chaney. He originally wanted Chaney for Dracula and was reportedly unhappy with Bela Lugosi’s portrayal. Browning directed a few more films in the 1930s, none as succesful as Dracula, and his final directing job was Miracles For Sale (1939). He did continuity work at MGM for a few years, then retired from films altogether in 1942. He became such a recluse that in 1944 Variety accidentally published his obituary. Browning died in 1962.
Always the survivor, Joan Crawford would go through many transformations in her career, constantly changing her image to fit the times. A year after The Unknown, she became a star as the jazz baby in Our Dancing Daughters (1928). MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer called her the first “MGM creation.” During the Depression, she was the “shopgirl’s delight,” suffering nobly in glamorous wardrobe that no shopgirl could possibly afford. She left MGM in 1943 because the choice roles were going to younger actresses, and she reinvented herself at Warner Bros. as a serious dramatic actress, acquiring an Academy Award for her performance in 1945’s Mildred Pierce. She then adopted the persona of a film noir diva, and two more Oscar nominations followed. In 1955, her marriage to Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi Cola, brought with it another image: that of corporate spokeswoman. After Steele’s death in 1959, she stayed on the company’s board until 1973. Her career came full circle from The Unknown when she reinvented herself one last time as a cult/camp queen in films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Berserk! (1967) and Trog (1970). Crawford died on May 10, 1977, as legendary a film icon as her early influence, the remarkable Lon Chaney.
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Stephen Horne