“An outpouring of the Cesspools of Hollywood! … How any normal person could have thought that this horrible syphilitic play could have made an entertaining picture, even with Lon Chaney, who appears in gruesome and repulsive stories, is beyond comprehension.” That was the judgment on West of Zanzibar by Harrison’s Reports, a trade journal for independent theater owners that fashioned itself as watchdog against motion picture excesses. The “syphilitic play” was Kongo, a 1926 Broadway success that starred Walter Huston as “Flint,” an obsessive avenger unleashed in the jungles of colonial Africa. Hollywood’s censor-in-chief Will Hays recommended Kongo not be filmed at all, but MGM bought the property, changed the title and character names, and excised references to abortion, drugs, miscegenation, and venereal disease. What remained was still unsuitable for the squeamish: adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, bloodthirsty savages, and a monomaniacal magician Phroso, played by Lon Chaney.
Chaney began his film career in 1913 at Universal Pictures. Advancing from uncredited bit parts to featured roles and eventually to stardom, he was signed by the newly merged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. He played the lead in MGM’s first production He Who Gets Slapped and went on to star in 17 straight hits for the studio. Eight of these were collaborations with director Tod Browning, and included The Unholy Three (1925), in which Chaney crossdresses as a grandmotherly burglar; The Unknown (1927), with Chaney as a murderous, armless circus performer; and West of Zanzibar.
Browning and Chaney’s MGM films have been described by scholar Gregory William Mank as “the most incredible catalogue of vengeance, cruelty, deformity, and sexual aberration in horror history.” Small wonder, then, that their efforts drew the attention of the many self-appointed guardians of morality. The Unholy Three was attacked as a “debasing spectacle” at a convention on child welfare. The Unknown was lambasted in the press as irredeemably morbid. West of Zanzibar became fodder for an ongoing campaign to institute a national censorship regime in the United States.
In 1907, Chicago became the first major city to regulate motion picture content by requiring that films be reviewed by a police censor board. The idea of local censor boards spread across the country and, in the 1910s, state boards proliferated as well. Boards tended to apply arbitrary, unpredictable criteria in issuing prohibitions, basing decisions on vaguely defined “community standards” as well as on political allegiances and personal interpretations of the films in question.
In 1922, frustrated film companies banded together to self-police their content, organizing the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, headed by former Postmaster General Will Hays. Performing a delicate balancing act, Hays was charged with appeasing the profit-minded studio heads on the one hand, and, on the other, calming the politicians and religious leaders who demanded that Hollywood clean up its act. In 1924, Hays issued “The Formula,” guidelines for turning notoriously scandalous books and plays into films. Intended to prevent such adaptations, his “Formula” was easily circumvented by a change of title and other cosmetic details. Thus Rain became Sadie Thompson (1928) and Kongo became West of Zanzibar. Then, in 1927, Hays devised “The Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” a list of 11 screen taboos, from “pointed profanity” and nudity to “scenes of childbirth” and “ridicule of the clergy.” Despite all these edicts, Hays was essentially powerless to enforce his recommendations if the producers disagreed.
For crusaders like Canon William Shaefe Chase, an Episcopal clergyman from Brooklyn, these measures were insufficient. Chase joined Senator Smith Brookhart in pressuring the U.S. Congress to pass the Brookhart Bill designed to free independent theaters from the studio’s block-booking practices, which moralists felt forced theaters to screen films that went against “community standards.” As ammunition in this campaign, Chase quoted the Harrison’s Reports review of West of Zanzibar, which concluded: “If you run West of Zanzibar, you will run it at the peril of alienating many of your regular customers. Demand that it be taken off your contract.” In spite of the campaign against it, West of Zanzibar was a commercial success, domestically and abroad. Chaney was voted the biggest male box office draw in 1928 and 1929 by American theater owners. The Brookhart Bill was ultimately rejected. Hays, however, convinced producers that only a code with specific, enforceable guidelines would silence the high-profile outrage against their product. Known as the Hays Code, it was enacted in 1930 and enforced from 1934 until 1967.
West of Zanzibar also stirred up censorship issues in Tanganyika, the British colony west of Zanzibar (the two countries now form Tanzania). According to historian James R. Brennan, the picture was denounced as misrepresenting Africa as the “Heart of Darkness.” “Just as British or American films require control before exhibition in front of Africans,” wrote the editor of the Tanganyika Times, “so is it just as necessary to have a proper censorship of films from Africa intended for exhibition in those civilized countries.” Tanganyika already enforced a multitiered censorship system in which films were passed for all races, for “non-native only,” or banned completely. African blacks may not have had the chance to see how Hollywood portrayed them.
In the United States, African Americans typically saw films in separate theaters, separate sections of the theater, or at separate screening times, called “midnight rambles,” courtesy of racist Jim Crow laws. Lon Chaney pictures often featured particularly large numbers of African American extras, who were normally paid five to fifteen dollars per day. West of Zanzibar included approximately 200 black actors, nearly all of them uncredited extras. Even Chaney’s childhood playmate Noble Johnson, co-founder of an all-black film production company and character actor in dozens of top Hollywood productions, performed in it without screen credit.
Throughout his career, Lon Chaney embraced provocative material. We can only speculate how his choice of roles would have changed under the Hays Code, as he died of lung cancer shortly after its official adoption. Zanzibar’s director struggled to maintain his reputation as the “Edgar Allan Poe of the Cinema” under the new censorship regime. In 1931, Browning made the popular Dracula with Bela Lugosi at Universal, but few of his subsequent films met with success. Freaks (1932) was heavily cut, then poorly received upon release. In the crucial British export market, it was banned outright for three decades. When Browning tried to set The Witch of Timbuctoo in Africa, a London censor nixed the script for fear it might incite revolt among blacks in the British Empire. All references to Africa were removed from what became Browning’s penultimate picture, The Devil Doll (1936).
MGM remade West of Zanzibar in 1932 as Kongo. Walter Huston reprised his Broadway role in the talkie, which also restored characters and taboo themes that Browning had eliminated. It failed to draw audiences and is rarely seen today. When Universal’s Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces was released in 1957, it only briefly mentioned the actor’s work with Browning, a collaboration that today defines them both. In the 1970s, after the Hays Code was abandoned in favor of MPAA ratings, West of Zanzibar was finally given new life, appearing on television and burning itself into the consciousness of generations of Lon Chaney fans.
Presented at Silent Winter, December 2009 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurltizer