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Once lost footage from Lon Chaney horror classic to screen in NYC

Ten minutes of lost footage is now restored to the Lon Chaney classic silent horror movie, “The Unknown” (1927), and the new print is screening for audiences for the first time in the United States. 

Lincoln Center in New York City will host screenings in March of the Tod Browning-directed gem, which also stars Joan Crawford. The Museum of Modern Art showcased the new 66-minute version at the end of January. 

“The Unknown” was the eighth of 10 films Chaney and Browning partnered on, and many consider the macabre movie their most creative work. Chaney stars as a man eluding police by hiding out at the circus as “Alonzo the Armless,” a knife-thrower who performs the act  – with his feet. All but a few know that he isn’t really armless, but just tightly corsets his arms to his body to further hide his identity. The object of his desire is fellow circus worker Nanon (Crawford), who is repulsed by men’s embraces after being grabbed and abused by the opposite sex. Alonzo’s sexual obsession culminates in his eventual real volunteer amputation of his arms to be with Nanon. She, in turn, has overcome her phobia and married another. 

And that’s just the start of the movie’s bizarre and startling twists and turns.

The 1927 movie was a big breakthrough for Crawford, who would launch into stardom the next year with “Our Dancing Daughters.” She described Chaney as "the most intense, exciting individual I'd ever met, a man mesmerized into his part."

For his part, “The Man of a Thousand Faces” wore no elaborate makeup for his role in “The Unknown,” but still pulled off a physical transformation in his portrayal of an armless obsessed man.

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Lost, found and found again

The abbreviated 49-minute version of the movie that had been in circulation was itself considered lost until it was re-discovered in the 1960s. But film fanatics knew there were missing minutes. 

The restored version of the movie premiered at the end of 2022 in Italy at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, but has not been widely circulated since. The approximately 10 additional minutes were rediscovered at an archive in Prague, and then restored by the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. 

Mike Gebert, who saw the movie at the festival, said on his podcast "NitrateVille Radio" that the extra footage doesn’t really alter the film, but “the additions add shading to Chaney’s character and the film’s general air of morbid romance and diseased desire.”

Fans who are in New York can see for themselves at the Lincoln Center shows on March 19 and March 24, part of a Tod Browning retrospective. Hopefully, this new version will screen in other cities soon and be made available digitally as well. 

Watch a version of "The Unknown" (the new footage unfortunately not available)