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Anyone who thinks that "sick" filmic subject matter began with the abandonment of the Production Code in 1968 should take a look at the output of MGM's Lon Chaney / Tod Browning features, both silent and sound. Tod Browning's perverse filmography is stocked with dramas about mutilation, death curses, and incestuous desires. Perhaps the most obsessively twisted Browning title is 1928's West of Zanzibar, a silent Chaney vehicle with Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter. It embraces the obsessions most central to director Browning's peculiar filmic tastes -- even researcher-author David J. Skal had difficulty finding an explanatory "Rosebud" for Browning's attraction to these uncommonly sordid tales. 1
West of Zanzibar actually began as the1926 Broadway play Kongo, starring Walter Huston and Virginia Bruce. MGM remade West as a talkie in 1932 under the original title Kongo, returning Huston and Bruce to their most bizarre roles. The remake may also be a partial return to the original stage book. It reorders some characters from the silent adaptation, but eliminates prologue material in a big-time stage variety show.
The scarred, wheelchair-bound malcontent "Deadlegs" Flint (Huston) has set himself up as the Joseph Conrad-like witch doctor of a central African tribe, using cheap stage magic ("Juju") to impress the natives and keep them in line. As part of his activities Flint steals ivory shipments from neighboring trader Gregg (C. Henry Gordon), using a demon mask to frighten away Gregg's porters. When the drug-addicted medic, Dr. Kingsland (Conrad Nagel) arrives at his doorstep, Flint offers him room & board in exchange for performing an operation that will relieve some of his chronic back pain. Flint's mixed-breed native concubine Tula (Lupe Velez) defies her unpredictably violent lover and sneaks more of a native root-drug to Kingsland. At this point Flint sets in motion a horrible vendetta that has warped his personality for the past eighteen years. He sends one of his lackeys disguised as a Priest to recover Ann Whitehall (Virginia Bruce) from the coastal convent where Flint has had her raised in total ignorance of her background. Thinking she'll be reunited with her wealthy planter father, Ann agrees, only to find herself imprisoned in a Zanzibar brothel. After she's thoroughly demoralized by drink, drugs and (presumably) forced sex, Ann is brought to Flint's filthy jungle outpost for further degradation. Why is Deadlegs Flint committing this abomination? Nineteen years ago the trader Gregg, then known as Whitehall, stole Flint's wife and broke his back. Flint intends to exact his revenge on Gregg by forcing him to confront the daughter he never knew, now reduced to a creature of utter depravity.
West of Zanzibar remains the classic version of the story, as Browning's direction is more exacting and Lon Chaney's stylized acting (and with those dead legs, pantomime) more memorable -- his Deadlegs has a more convincing and uncompromised character arc. But Walter Huston also impresses as the filthy, crazed man committed to an obscene vengeance. MGM's makeup department gives Huston some wicked facial scars, including a gash across his face that appears created by creasing his cheek with a string or wire anchored in his mouth.
Even for a Pre-Code feature Kongo is a catalog of perversions not seen again until the 1970s. It begins with a decapitation by sword, before we know that Flint is staging a magic act for his natives. Lupe Velez is a saucy plaything in a daringly abbreviated costume; her skin is soaked in perspiration to the point that she seems visibly slimy. We get the idea that Tula is Flint's property when she climbs a rope to sleep with him in an upstairs room. But she seems to have something going on with Flint's lackey and cook as well, and takes an immediate shine to Dr. Kingsland. Conrad Nervig's drug addict talks about his condition as he trembles and stares with wild zombie eyes; it's a bizarre depiction of a vice that would disappear from mainstream screens until 1955's The Man with the Golden Arm. Finally we have the spectacle of Ann Whitehall, a convent girl transformed into a fallen alcoholic. When she forms a relationship with Dr. Kingland it's clear that her biggest trauma is the loss of her self-respect. Flint refers twice to "other men", allowing us to imagine to what extent she was prostituted in Zanzibar. From there we wonder if Flint has violated her as well. Kongo encourages a lot of sick and sordid conjecture from its audience.
Director William Cowen (Oliver Twist '34) and the art department create a convincingly hellish African jungle on the MGM backlot. Flint's tribe of stereotyped infantile black natives react in awe and terror to his stage tricks converted into "Juju" sorcery. Although never expressed as such, it's implied that any abomination can occur in a Godforsaken corner of creation like Darkest Africa, where no responsible "white civilization" rules. The local custom is for any man who dies to be burned on a pyre, along with his wife or daughter. Flint's scheme is to satisfy his vengeance by watching both father and daughter go up in flames.
Kongo is shot through with the kind of fanatic, soul-consuming sadism only found in Pre-Code pictures, when Grand Guignol was still part of theater tradition. LIonel Atwill in Mystery of the Wax Museum and Doctor X revel in their gruesome tortures, as does the wonderfully hammy Charles Laughton in the (hopefully soon forthcoming) Island of Lost Souls. Huston leers in anticipation as a native girl is thown atop a funeral pyre, and chortles at every sign of revulsion and horror on Ann's miserable face. 1932 was also the year of MGM's Freaks, when Irving J. Thalberg must have decided to open the floodgates on really horrible horrors. They don't make them like Kongo any more. Today's perverse torture porn may have the edge in realistic effects and outright violence, but it can't match the psychological malice of The Bad Old Days.
The acting is good all around in Kongo, even with the stage-stylized delivery of much of the dialogue. Lupe Velez's dusky-dame troublemaker is quite a contrast with her later comedic turn in the Mexican Spitfire series. Her romantic pairing with Conrad Nagel is soaked in sordid "glamour". Just by playing his role straight, C. Henry Gordon bests Lionel Barrymore's hammy perf in the Chaney original; he'd return as a Capone-like gangster to Walter Huston's fascist President in 1933's Gabriel Over the White House. John Huston's next film was another tropical drama, this time playing an inflexible Protestant preacher in an independently produced version of Rain, co-starring Joan Crawford as an excellent Sadie Thompson.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Kongo is in excellent shape, showing off Harold Rosson's moody B&W cinematography. The soundtrack is in almost as good shape, with only a couple of dialogue lines hard to make out -- they may have been that way in the original tracks. The release's colorful package art appears to be sourced from a vintage lobby card.
Kongo is not a short movie, but the WAC generously offers a special extra in an entire extra feature, 1933's Untamed Africa. The 56-minute film appears in an older transfer but is intact and has clear audio. It's a fairly unexploitative "bring 'em back alive" - type show apparently compiled from a set of serialized short subjects from two years before. "Produced under the supervision of Wynant. D. Hubbard", the show covers an African adventure with Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard that consists of encounters with natives, fun with local monkeys and other impromptu/staged events. Although the traditional staple of this subgenre is combat between baited animals, only two instances of such activity are included and the editing doesn't dwell on gory details (although the voiceover definitely goes in that direction). The MGM production values in the editing and sound work distinguish Untamed from some of its more exploitative competition, although the narrator tells us that a final scene is being cut short "due to censorship". It's an excellent glimpse into the days of jungle movies before the Tarzan franchise tossed the entire subject into the realm of escapist fantasy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.