Cinema Under the Stars

It’s been just about nine months since I moved from Los Angeles out to Tucson, AZ, and I’ve slowly but surely been getting to know my new hometown. Although Tucson is the second-largest city in Arizona, when your point of reference is LA, it definitely has a small-town feel. For example, since it gets so damn hot out here in the summer, most of the structures are built close to the ground, so it’s rare to even see a two-story home. There’s only one freeway in the whole city, and you only use it when you’re headed out to California or (heaven forbid!) Phoenix. Given that the last place I lived was at the intersection of two of the busiest freeways in Southern California — the I-10 and the I-405 — that is definitely a big (and enthusiastically welcome!) change.

Despite being a smaller city with way fewer connections to Old Hollywood than, well, Hollywood, I’ve found Tucson to have an absolute bevy of events, resources and opportunities for classic film fans. This past Thursday, I attended my first-ever event at Cinema La Placita, which has been showing classic films outdoors in downtown Tucson for the past twelve summers. Every Thursday night at 7:30, May through October, you can join your fellow Tucsonans under the stars in the plaza of La Placita Village for a measly donation of $3 per person, which includes all the popcorn you can eat. I have been aware of Cinema La Placita for a few months, and it has actually made me look forward to the start of our impending 115° summer.

The film on May 10 was George Cukor’s 1939 masterpiece The Women, a classic which never gets old no matter how many times you see it. However, by the time 7PM rolled around on the day of the event, I was not in a particularly good mood. The fact that it took us twenty minutes of aimless wandering to find Cinema La Placita certainly didn’t help matters much. Once I’d paid my $3 and found my seat, I just wanted to get it all over with and go home. However, by the time the color sequence featuring Adrian’s stunning fashion show rolled around, my mood had done a complete 180° turn. There’s nothing like a classic to cheer you up.

Watching this fantastic film on a big screen with an appreciative audience, cool and comfortable under the twinkling summer stars, was a truly wonderful experience. There were a few children in attendance who made me a bit nervous before the show started, but quieted down promptly when the opening credits rolled. Well-behaved dogs are also allowed at Cinema La Placita, and the one canine present was very well-behaved and only barked once in the beginning. (Alright, alright, I confess! It was my dog! But he really was [mostly] good.) I also appreciated the two five-minute intermissions, which allowed us to purchase some very reasonably-priced beverages and desserts at the nearby open restaurants in the plaza, and of course to restock our complementary popcorn.

The Cinema La Placita schedule for the rest of the month looks amazing, and at $3 a pop you really can’t find a better value in town. This is definitely my new regular Thursday-night thing.

May 17 — Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
May 24 — A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
May 31 — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

I haven’t yet found any fellow Tucsonan classic film aficionados online or in “real” life, but I’m hoping that by writing more about local classics-related events I can make some connections. Plus I want to show all of my friends back in the Big City that Tucson may be a desert, but in no way is it devoid of life-giving movie opportunities for Golden Age groupies.

The Unknown (1927)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) is a knife-thrower in love with the circus master’s beautiful daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford), who happens to have a pathological fear of men’s hands. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? There’s one catch: Alonzo isn’t really armless. He’s a fugitive with a distinctive double thumb on one hand that would instantly identify him to the police if revealed. Alonzo becomes Nanon’s confidant and commiserates with her over the forcefulness of Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), also devoted to Nanon but shunned by her due to his frightfully strong grip. After the circus master discovers his secret late one night, Alonzo uses his hands to strangle his boss to death, accidentally revealing his deformed thumb – but not his face – to Nanon. Knowing that she could never love him if she knew that he was the man who murdered her father, Alonzo realizes that if he ever wants to win Nanon’s heart, his arms have to go.

Tod Browning (who also made 1931’s Dracula and 1932’s Freaks) is my favorite director, and in my opinion The Unknown is his best film. I recently had the opportunity to see it on the big screen at the American Cinematheque’s all-too-brief Browning retrospective and was dazzled anew at just how stunning a picture it is. The sixth of ten collaborations between Browning and Chaney before the latter’s untimely death at the age of 47 from lung cancer, The Unknown epitomizes the style of film the duo were known for, the style they created: the horror film that tells the story of a deformed, mutilated, or otherwise physically disfigured character, which seeks to probe the darkest corners of the human psyche, and to push the boundaries of what movie audiences and critics alike can stomach. At the same time that Chaney’s remarkable abilities to twist and transform his visage are on display, his incredible range as an actor also shines through brilliantly; despite the shock of the horrific and outlandish character that he plays, it is this aspect of Chaney which ultimately leaves the most lasting impression in The Unknown.

Is he amused? Devastated? Enraged? All three!

I have to admit that I’m a big fan of “weird” movies, and The Unknown definitely fits the bill in that respect. But I’m convinced that there’s really something for everyone here, because it’s a film that’s not just weird, it’s good. Tod Browning never was the most subtle of directors, but he’s at his most effective here, mostly letting his incredibly talented cast do the work. If you’ve never seen Joan Crawford in her flapper days, you’re missing out on a huge part of her pre-1940s career. She’s fabulous here, plus she has been quoted as saying that Chaney was the one person most responsible for teaching her what it means to be an actor. But it is of course Chaney who’s the star of the show. He covers the gamut from creepy, to pathetic, to sympathetic, to downright evil, all in one 73-minute film. Many have said (though it’s Burt Lancaster who’s always credited as the first) that Chaney’s portrayal here is one of the most compelling acting performances ever captured on celluloid. The greatest screen performance by one of the most talented performers the screen has ever seen – how can you possibly pass that up?

The Unknown is one of my favorite horror movies, if only because it’s something so outrageous that only a team like Browning and Chaney could pull it off. This is always the film I steer people toward if they are of the belief that all silents are “boring.” The Unknown is anything but, and while it may not horrify you, it is guaranteed to make you drop your jaw and look at the possibilities of silent film in an entirely new way.

The Unknown (1927) – 4.5/5 stars

Strait-Jacket (1964)

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