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Quick, who is the mysterious Golden Age Hollywood film director about whom so little was recorded that authors run up smack against a wall when conducting research? David J. Skal and Elias Savada's biography Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning generates a great deal of interest in the director but even it must scrape for sources, going so far as to interview a neighbor who knew the man only across the backyard fence. The little known about Tod Browning before his time as a film director forms a vague picture of a circus background. He seldom gave interviews and revealed almost nothing about himself to associates.
That leaves students of Hollywood looking for clues in the films that Browning directed and wrote. An entire string of his macabre dramas, often with circus backgrounds, are constructed around a short list of similar, rather perverse ideas. 1929's Where East is East is no exception. It is almost the last silent feature for both Tod Browning and MGM's big star Lon Chaney; it was released with synchronized music but uses standard text inter-titles for dialogue.
Although not as horrific as Browning's The Unknown nor quite as perverse as West of Zanzibar, Where East is East has its own disturbing quality. Somewhere on the border of Laos and French Indo-China, the rugged animal trapper Tiger Haynes (Chaney) and his courageous native helpers trap a large Asian tiger for an American circus. Haynes returns to his villa in Vien-Tien, where waits his beloved and devoted daughter Toyo (Lupe Vélez). Haynes' face is a fearsomely scarred, but he and Toyo make merry and play like children in the courtyard of the house. Toyo introduces her father to the young man she wants to marry, Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes of The Lost World), the son of one of their circus clients. Haynes is initially hostile to Bobby, but the young man makes the grade when he risks his life to protect Toyo from a tiger that has gotten free. Haynes accepts him.
Bobby is transporting Tiger's animals downstream to Saigon. The two men board the boat together, and quickly run into the woman Haynes hates most in the world, Madame de Sylva (Estelle Taylor). The mesmerizing de Sylva seemingly seduces Bobby with her eyes alone, and the young man is ready to succumb when Haynes intercedes. He explains that de Sylva is the mother of Toya who abandoned both of them soon after the girl was born. Now she's a notorious femme fatale. With Tiger's help Bobby resists the woman. The men return to the villa -- only to find Madame de Sylva already there, ready to ruin Toya's life as well as Tiger's.
Where East is East works up a heady subtropical atmosphere at the Vien-Tien docks and on the river. The visuals are appropriately steamy, with cameraman Henry Sharp using filters and a slight overexposure to make everything look suitably overheated. Tiger Haynes travels by elephant, and in one scene both Chaney and Vélez climb down from atop the enormous animal.
Several Tod Browning movies with and without Lon Chaney involve older men, actual fathers or father figures, engaged in uncomfortable relationships with their daughters. In this film Haynes and Toyo's physical roughhouse-play comes off as an unhealthy sort of pre- pre- foreplay. It's fatherly love with a hint of incest, all the more disturbing because we can't help but think that Browning might be expressing his own suppressed feelings. Haynes would clearly prefer to keep Toyo to himself always. He relents only when he sees how happy she is with the handsome and worthy Bobby.
The other theme familiar from other Browning dramas is a lover's vengeance expressed in horrible crimes directed at the offender's child. In West of Zanzibar a vengeful man purposely turns his rival's daughter into a debased prostitute, just so he can enjoy the spectacle of the man discovering what has become of her. Here in Where East is East equally powerful and unforgiving ex-lovers seem engaged in a duel to the death. Tiger wants to spare Toyo the pain of her heritage, but the perverse de Sylva revels in her ability to steal her own daughter's beau, just to get back at the man she hates.
The movie has no fantastic element but treats the Asian or Eurasian Madame de Sylva as having almost supernatural sexual powers. Estelle Taylor's "exotic" makeup is as effective as Chaney's gruesome scars. The way Taylor is photographed makes it seem as though de Sylva possesses some kind of sinister, hypnotizing erotic whammy, like something out of Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip. The effect is reinforced by Tiger's reaction -- he knows de Sylva's seductive powers firsthand, and doesn't blame Bobby at all. This part of the film billboards two wholly outdated ideas: the racist concept that "native" women are aggressively sexual and therefore demonic; and the sexist idea that when a man's affections stray from home, a malicious woman is always at fault. In this film Madame de Sylva might as well be Dracula's Daughter.
Viewers familiar with jungle movies will know what to expect when Tiger introduces Bobby to Rangho, a ferocious gorilla inexplicably kept in a cage inside the house (downwind, I hope). It's an ancient Hollywood axiom -- a killer gorilla introduced in the first scene will always break loose and cause havoc before the curtain comes down. And Tiger informs us that Rangho has a major hate on for the slinky, sinister de Sylva.
Chaney is marvelous as usual in a role that requires a wide range of expression. His scar makeup is fascinating -- it looks like Haynes took several swipes from a killer cat, requiring his entire face to be sewn back together. Pretty Mexican actress Lupe Vélez shows her infectious spirit as Toyo, this time playing in "innocent" mode. Estelle Taylor is the big surprise as a thoroughly wicked woman of the rivers. At the time the movie was made the Delaware beauty was married to boxing champion Jack Dempsey; her big roles were in the part-sound Don Juan (1927) and the Best Picture winner Cimarron (1931). Taylor and Lupe Vélez remained close friends until Vélez' untimely death in 1944.
Where East is East is not a horror film per se but an effective, intriguing collaboration between Lon Chaney and Tod Browning, with yet another excellent characterization by the Man with The 1,000 Faces. Collectors of horror will probably want it just the same.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Where East is East is a good encoding of a well-worn archival copy of this Tod Browning classic. The film has a good texture but is pitted with many light, small scratches. For viewers who have Turner copies of West of Zanzibar, it does look better than that show. Otherwise the film is intact and runs smoothly; I thoroughly enjoyed it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Where East is East rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.