by Emily Greenspan
Is it possible for a woman to be truly independent when in a relationship with a man? In the 1920s, a new era of independent women emerged in society. In the 1927 film, The Unknown, Nanon—the beautiful, young woman of the carnival—seems to exemplify this new independent woman. However, the film suggests that even these women only had one purpose—to attract men. The film depicts women as objects who ultimately run back into the arms of men.
The Unknown illustrates a new kind of woman in the 1920s through the character of Nanon. Nanon works in her father’s traveling circus. At the circus, she grows close with fellow performer, Alonzo the Armless, whose talent consists of using his feet to throw knives and shoot guns at Nanon. Alonzo, who, in fact, does have both his arms, is a felon on the loose, wanted for robbery. A double thumb on his hand incriminates him in the robbery. Day in and day out, Alonzo binds his arms in a painful corset, all to avoid having his hands, and thus his true identity, revealed. Alonzo’s faithful sidekick, Cojo, the only one who knows his true identity, would never divulge his secret.
Because of his disability, being armless, Nanon gravitates towards Alonzo. In “The Armless Wonder,” a review of the film, Mordaunt Hall explains Nanon’s attraction to Alonzo: “She becomes interested in Alonzo because most men in the circus without provocation invariably want to caress her” (Hall). Being a striking young woman working in a male-dominated environment, Nanon is constantly “pawed at” by men. Nanon cannot stand being in the clutches of aggressive men. Malabar the Strongman also vies for Nanon’s attention and affection. Whenever in his presence, Nanon draws away from him, trying to avoid his strong, insistent grasp. Nanon’s fear of men stems from her father’s borderline abusive behavior. He treats all of his performers horribly, especially Alonzo. He even goes as far as beating Alonzo in one scene in the film. One night, Alonzo attacks and strangles Nanon’s father. Nanon witnesses a man with a double thumb attack her father. Alonzo realizes this and ultimately decides to have his arm amputated. He also hoped that this would increase his chances with his love, Nanon. Unbeknownst to Alonzo, Malabar and Nanon begin to grow closer. She starts to let go of her fear of men’s aggressive hands. After a failed attempt to sabotage Malabar’s risky performance, Alonzo ends up sabotaging himself and dies. Nanon and Malabar are happily in love together. She ends up in the arms of her strongman.
The Unknown made its debut in a post-war era and showed newly discovered changes in gender traits. A significant change occurred in women after World War I as women found independence in having her own job, making her own money, and not necessarily needing a man’s help. The flapper embodied this independence. In Flapper, Joshua Zeitz cites a definition of flapper as a girl “somewhat daring in misconduct, speech and dress” (5-6). Flappers explored their independence and followed no rules but their own. Bruce Bliven, editor of The New Republic, believed the success of the flapper “was proof positive that women today are shaking off the shreds and patches of their old-age servitude” (qtd. in Zeitz 7). Liz Conor calls the independent woman, the flapper, the “New Modern Woman” (7).
Films in the 1920s, taking notice of the new style of women emerging, experimented with the idea of the flapper character. Nanon represents a flapper in the broadest sense possible. Even though she may not be an exact replica of a flapper, Nanon still possesses some flapper-like qualities. Dressing provocatively, bobbing her hair, and attracting endless male suitors are the characteristics Nanon possesses and show similarities to those of the flapper. She differs from the flapper because of her lack of rebelliousness. Nanon, out of fear of her overbearing father, does what she is told.
Although Nanon has her independence, it is very limited. Working at the circus and making her own money in order to support herself represents one way Nanon strives to be independent. Unfortunately, Nanon is confined to the lonely world of the circus where she cannot break free from her father’s abusive role, therefore repressing her independence. However, Nanon desperately wants independence from men, but by ending up with Malabar the Strongman, Nanon has given up her independence. Sara Ross, in her essay “‘Good Little Bad Girls’: Controversy and the Flapper Comedienne,” discusses women’s roles in films during the twenties. Ross explains, “The vast majority of flapper films conclude with the flapper explicitly renouncing her experiments with the modern lifestyle and/or settling down in a relationship with a conventional man.” The flappers in films, like women in real life, conform and end up in a relationship with a man. Women always retreat into the arms of men hence never achieving their goal of gaining independence. They surrender their individuality and conform to what society deems as ‘the norm.’ Throughout the movie, Nanon ran away from men, trying to avoid their control. Hence, Nanon surrenders her independence when she engages in a relationship with Malabar the Strongman in the final scene of the film.
Nanon’s fear of men derives from her poor relationships with the men she has in her life. Her sole job in the circus, to be sexy and to attract male customers, often attracts negative attention. Men constantly “paw” and grab her, and her father manhandles her. Her father’s abusiveness only adds to her fear of men. A 1920s Hollywood actress, Hedda Hopper, experienced the same feelings toward men as Nanon did. In a Washington Post interview, Hedda states, “I hated men, because I thought them all selfish, grasping and overbearing. They were my natural enemies” (qtd. in Tildesley). Hedda grew up in a male dominated family where the boys could do whatever they wanted and the girls were expected to stay home to cook, clean, and sew (Tildesley). Hedda, too, had an unstable relationship with her father; he would belittle her and tell her she would never amount to anything, crushing her dreams of becoming a performer in the process (Tildesley). Likewise, Nanon’s father kept her confined to the circus for his own personal benefit rather than giving her a choice in the matter.
In the twenties, women viewed themselves differently than ever before. The idea of the Modern Woman and feminine visibility surfaced during this decade as Liz Conor describes this in her book, The Spectacular Modern Woman. Conor states: “‘Appearing’ describes how the changed conditions of feminine visibility in modernity invited a practice of the self which was centered on one’s visual status and effects” (7). The Modern Woman was “spectacularized,” increasingly visible “from self apprehension in a mirror to being seen in a public place, to becoming an image through industrialized visual technologies such as the camera” (7). Like the women in the twenties, Nanon is spectacularized in The Unknown. As the only female in the entire film, major focus was put on her. Nanon works in the circus among an abundance of men. Her job requires her to attract men and wear scantily clad clothing. She receives sometimes unwanted attention from men because of her position.
Women of the twenties were often objectified, and despite the independence and rebellion of the flapper, the flapper only intensified this. Men viewed women as things, not people. They believed women had one purpose: to be the objects of the men’s gaze and to be sexy. As described in The Spectacular Modern Woman, “The Flapper’s practices of appearing were seen to be symptomatic of an excessive desire to be objectified by a heterosexual, anonymous, and often transitory gaze” (Conor 13). Flappers knew how to attract and captivate men. Nanon dresses provocatively in order to attract men to the circus. She also risks her life every time she performs with Alonzo. Nanon is spectacle in the film. The focus remains on Nanon because she is the only woman and her job entails her to exude sex in order to attract male customers. And since Nanon presents herself in a sexual way, men tend to objectify her. This leads men to believe that she is an object and that they can own and control her.
The Unknown displays men’s objectification of women. Objectifying women gives men the false notion that they have control over women. They view women as property, not human beings. When it comes to Alonzo’s feelings for Nanon, a fine line is drawn between love and obsession. He loves her so much and he feels he needs to protect her constantly. Alonzo attempts to sabotage Malabar’s chances with Nanon. He tricks Malabar, telling him he is lucky he has strong arms and encourages him to take Nanon into his arms. While talking to Cojo about Nanon, Alonzo says, “No one is going to have her! No one but me!” Crazed with love, Alonzo proclaims, “There is nothing I will not do to own her. Nothing!” He believes if he is with Nanon, she will belong to him. The film portrays Alonzo as the love-struck underdog, relentlessly competing for Nanon’s love, while Malabar appears as the hero who wins the girl in the end. But, by expressing his obsessive, domineering feelings over Nanon, Alonzo exposes himself as just another man objectifying her.
Nanon and Malabar being together in the end of The Unknown symbolizes their eternal love while also loosely represents a marriage. In “Women Are Afraid Men Will Get Ahead of Them.” Hedda Hopper voices her opinions on women’s independence and marriage. Hopper believes marriage is not the “sole end and aim of women’s existence” (qtd. in Tildesley). She goes on to describe how “A man must be worth marrying before a woman will give up her independence” (qtd. in Tildesley). Men viewed marriage as a way to control women and to rid their fears of women surpassing them (Tildesley).
Though the introduction of the flapper helped arouse a new era of independence in the twenties, women were, however, unable to gain it fully due to their reliance on men. Women’s hunger for independence is always overruled by their undeniable appetite for security and comfort.
Conor, Liz. The Spectacular Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920’s. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004. Print.
Hall, Morduant. “The Armless Wonder.” New York Times 13 Jun. 1927: 17. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2005). Web. 30 Mar. 2009.
Ross, Sara. “ ‘Good little bad girls’: Controversy and the flapper comedienne.” Film History 13.4 (2001): 409-423.ProQuest. Web. 25 Mar. 2009.
Tildesley, Alice L. “Men Are Afraid Women Will Get Ahead of Them: But Marriage No Longer Is the Sole End and Aim of Woman’s Existence, Says Hedda Hopper, Wife No. 5 of the Much-Married De Wolfe Hopper, for Man Now Must Be Worth Marrying Before a Woman Will Give Up Her Independence.” The Washington Post 22 Jul. 1928. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877-1992). Web. 1 Apr. 2009.
The Unknown. Dir. Tod Browning. Perf. Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry. MGM, 1927. DVD.
Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, And the Women Who Made America Modern. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006. Print.