Although Our Dancing Daughters (1928) is the film that is often cited as Joan’s star making role, she herself said that it was her starring in The Unknown that really taught her to act. According to IMDB ,
Joan Crawford always considered The Unknown (1927) a big turning point for her. She said it wasn’t until working with Lon Chaney in this film that she learned the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting in front of a camera. She said that was all due to Chaney and his intense concentration, and after that experience she said she worked much harder to become a better actress.
And I can absolutely believe the truth in Joan’s statement. Joan was always going to be a star, but I really think that watching a master at work will really do something to your approach to your craft. The brilliant thing about this film as that you see two unforgettable legends in one film, one at the beginning of their career, the other near the end. No one else would, and could, ever be like Joan and Chaney. And their scenes together are the best parts of the film. You can see Chaney making sure that although he is putting everything into his performance, it is Joan who he wants to shine, much like Joan would want Cliff Robertson to in Autumn Leaves.
Chaney’s performance is incredible. I have never seen any like it, and I don’t think I ever will again, but Joan shines like a beacon. So young, beautiful and pure looking, her hair gently waved, her large eyes fringed with long lashes, her body language vacillating between the confident knife thrower’s assistant and the girl who does not want to be touched, who cannot stand contact with men because of the abuse she has experienced at their hands.
While Chaney shows his character’s intense obsession for Joan’s, his need to have her because she is his opposite in every way: beautiful, young and innocent; Joan perfectly emotes her character’s slow maturation, the unfolding love she feels for the first man she has ever met who only wants to love her, and use his strength to protect her, not use it to abuse or hurt her.
And that is why The Unknown and Berserk are the perfect double bill, because they explore the intensity and danger of being obsessed with Joan’s character in both films. The films are also bookends not only for Joan’s career, especially in the horror genre, but for the characters she portrays in both films. While Joan is Nanon, the paradoxically worldly and naïve girl of the circus in The Unknown, in Berserk! she is the hardened, sexually experienced Monica. It is as if Nanon has grown up, as if she did not have happy ending with Malabar after all, and has become Monica, the circus owner who sees men, and pretty much everyone in her life, including her own daughter, as disposable and expendable.
While many may claim that the only thing linking the two films is their circus setting and Joan, I disagree. Both films explore the ramifications of living on the fringes of society, of being considered a “freak” by “normal” people, the paying public, and how this constant exposure to the public eye, this life of spectacle and entertainment of others, in ways that are considered strange and dangerous, eventually begins to erode the characters in both films. Someone has to pay the piper in both films. In The Unknown it is Chaney, who has been driven mad not only by his innate personality traits, but his obsession to obtain something he sees as unspoiled, even if it means ruining the woman he supposedly loves. In Berserk! it is Monica, who must come to terms with the fact that her inability to love anyone truly, even her own child, causes the destruction of her own life. She loses everything because of her own actions.
Both films explore the exploitation of the other. The Unknown does so in a way that is more gothic, creeping and disturbing, whilst Berserk!’s exploration is more camp, almost too much, but no less effective. In The Unknown it is Nanon’s father who is the exploiter, even of his own daughter, who it is suggested he has abused in some sexual way, too. While in Berserk! it is Monica, but also the audience, the ghouls who want to see if a performer may just fall to their death on the tightrope, or be sawed in half during a magic trick. While they gasp and scream in horror when these things happen, as Micheal Gough’s character points out, they secretly enjoy it, are fascinated by it.
Both films also show the exploitation of women, especially young women. In The Unknown, as I have already discussed, Nanon, is objectified, manipulated by both her father and Chaney’s Alonzo. There is a particularly memorable scene where Alonzo purposely intensifies Nanon’s neurosis and aversion by pointing out how men only want to use her, especially Malabar with his intense physicality; whilst it is really Alonzo who wants to have her, but in an unnatural way that will only deepen the wound in her psyche. In Berserk! Monica is intent on never being exploited by anyone especially men, even harshly reprimanding Frank, the new, young and handsome, tight rope walker for being possessive and therefore spoiling everything. But she fails to realise that her own daughter has been exploited, not by men as Nanon is, but by an itinerant life, one lacking a stable home and nurturing mother, as her care has been left up to unsympathetic matrons at boarding schools. There is also a similarity between Nanon and Angela, Monica’s daughter, in that they are young, seemingly innocent, but there is another side to them, one that is hardened, brittle with pain and abuse. Nanon manages to escape this through her love for Malabar and his reciprocation, but Angela has no such outlet. She should be the one Frank loves, but her mother is the one who claims that place, and unbalances things and creates a strange triangle, where Frank and Angela both want Monica’s love, not realising that she cannot give them the love they really desire.
There is a further exploration of the “unnatural” in Berserk! and The Unknown in the fracturing of the family unit. Neither Nanon nor Angela have truly caring parents. Nanon sees Alonzo as more of a father figure than her own father, which creates a kind of pseudo-incestuous relationship between the two characters, as if in a fairytale or mythology, where the father wants to devour and own the female child. Angela has no parental figure in her life, and her mother seemingly replaces her with a man who is young enough to be Monica’s son, putting a kind Oedipal slant on the relationship.
Both films show that Joan was never one to simply perform. Her performances, and the projects she was involved in, and this is especially true with these two films, were also layered. There was always something that Joan hid from us, almost as her character would, something that was for only her to know. As if she developed a mind for her character, a mind that was often troubled, as perhaps Joan’s own was. And her appearance in these two films show Joan’s incredible longevity. The Unknown is the first steps into horror that explores body horror but also seemingly natural human realities through the twisted, merciless lens of the horror genre. Berserk! is the beginning of excess in horror, the showing of gore instead of the suggestion of it, the first steps into the unremitting and unforgiving horror of the 1970s. Joan was there for these changes, these developments, because she herself changed and developed, and understood, as the horror genre always has, that although human existence is largely cyclical, those cycles also create other cycles, to which we adapt.
This is my second and last contribution to Joan Crawford: The Queen of the Silver Screen Blogathon being hosted by Erica and I. Please visit our blogs for more information and to read everyone’s fascinating entries.