One of the great creative duos of the silent era was that between “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney and his most frequent director, Tod Browning. The two came from similar professional backgrounds—on the low end of the theatrical world—entering movies at around the same time (1912–1913). They first worked together at Universal then, after a fashion, reunited at MGM.
Though the works for which both are best remembered—Chaney for Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, Browning for Dracula and Freaks—were made without one another, their decade-long collaboration has only gained stature in the century since. Their cinema of the macabre, so often built around the fear and pathos induced by “freakish” outsiders, has only grown more aligned with popular taste. The so-called horror subjects rarely put on screen in 1920s Hollywood are now central to an entertainment industry revolving almost entirely around fantastical themes, from malevolent supernatural forces to comic-book superheroes.
When Browning and Chaney first teamed up on 1919’s The Wicked Darling, World War I had just ended, and the permanently maimed and disabled were still flooding homeward. It has been the matter of much scholarly speculation that the popularity of their movies—whether made together or apart—reflected the public’s queasy fascination with physical “difference” as such war veterans returned, their visible hard luck so at odds with the glittering ethos of the “Roaring Twenties.”
By the same token, what some have termed the “Browning-Chaney freak circus” struck certain cultural watchdogs as aesthetically repugnant and morally suspect. Famous for elaborate physical metamorphoses and painstaking makeup in his screen roles, the actor always generated respect. However, critics were often sharply divided about the director and the seamy results of their work together. Perhaps none of those works ignited more soapboxing disgust as West of Zanzibar, the pair’s penultimate collaboration.
It surprised many back in 1928 that Chester de Vonde’s drama Kongo, which ran for 135 performances on Broadway in 1926, was adapted for the screen at all. It was lurid stuff even for the wicked stage, centering on a magician who is crippled during an altercation with his wife’s lover. Determined to wreak vengeance—particularly after the wife dies, leaving a baby behind—the conjuror takes off for Africa, hoping to lure his nemesis (now an ivory trader) into a trap. His scheme involves playing “white god” to a local tribe of superstitious natives while keeping the now-grown child in a state of debasement. There is redemption at the end of the film adaptation, but it’s not enough to remove its taint of leering intrigue, aboriginal stereotypes (including human sacrifice), and hate-fueled relationships.
Nonetheless, the material had the kind of ingenious- criminal-con-job hook Browning deployed in his own original screenplays and it provided Chaney with yet another impressive physical transformation, this time with little makeup required. After his first-reel fall in a struggle with Crane (Lionel Barrymore), Phroso becomes “Dead-Legs,” the actor scuttling around the rest of the movie with a vicious energy even as he drags his useless lower limbs behind him, convincingly inert. Mary Nolan, as Maizie the daughter, and Warner Baxter, as “Doc” (just before his Oscar-winning success as In Old Arizona’s Cisco Kid), play the lovers who, in this bleak vision, must pass through a hellfire of implied prostitution and explicit alcoholism before being allowed an escape.
In fact, dipsomania was a polite substitute for a different affliction in the original stage script. Harrison’s Report, a self-described advocate for independent exhibitors, remembered Kongo and asked in a front-page editorial, “How any normal person could have thought this horrible syphilitic play could have made an entertaining picture?” The film fueled the crusades of the censorship-minded, who used it as blatant evidence of Hollywood’s “cesspools.”
As usual the censors were out of touch. Sensational potboilers from the workshop of this dark duo were box-office catnip and West of Zanzibar did quite well at the box office, thank you very much. After its premiere in late 1928, Motion Picture News, another exhibitor-focused trade publication, wrote: “If you do not have a Standing Room Only sign in your theatre … you had better order one immediately before playing this picture.” The film is enjoyable today as florid melodrama, with its typically fine Chaney performance, even if it’s not the best of his work with Browning. That title may belong to their vampire thriller, London After Midnight. Alas, the last complete print of the 1927 film was lost in a 1967 studio vault fire.
West of Zanzibar’s success aside, time was running out on their creative partnership. MGM couldn’t help but notice that Chaney’s biggest hits were for other directors—and the biggest of all, 1926’s Tell It to the Marines, wasn’t even a “grotesque” role but a conventional nails-tough-with-heart-of-gold military sergeant one. (The real-life U.S. Marines liked his portrayal so much they granted him honorary Corps membership.) After their underwhelming tenth and last feature together, Where East Is East (1929), MGM did not renew Browning’s contract. He accepted an offer to return to Universal, which left Chaney’s only talkie The Unholy Three—a remake of his 1925 Browning smash—in the hands of another director.
The actor died just weeks after its release, complications from pneumonia and lung cancer having spiraled out of control. He’d been originally cast as the star of what proved to be Browning’s own greatest box-office success, 1930’s Dracula. With Chaney gone, the role went to its stage interpreter, Hungarian thespian Bela Lugosi and another horror star was born.
Dracula’s enormous popularity fast-tracked Browning’s return to MGM, under highly favorable financial terms and the protection of longtime ally, production chief Irving Thalberg. But if West of Zanzibar irked the censorious, his Freaks from 1932 set them afire. Its cast of real-life carny performers struck many as deeply distasteful and it proved a major contributor to Hollywood’s stringent enforcement of the Production Code beginning in 1934. Though not universally decried at the time, Freaks was enough of a scandal and money-loser that Browning’s career never fully recovered. In subsequent decades, however, it has been cultishly re-evaluated, even adored.
“When I quit a thing, I quit it,” Browning snapped later on, claiming he no longer had any interest in seeing (let alone making) movies. But then the “Edgar Allan Poe of cinema” was always taciturn, with former coworkers describing him as “hard to please”—among other, blunter terms. Despite making two of the best fantastical films of the mid-1930s, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil Doll, his gruesome sensibility grew increasingly out of place amid MGM’s reach for glamor and prestige. By the end of 1941, his status at the studio was so reduced that he preferred retirement. Sadly, soon after, his wife Alice died—also of complications from pneumonia—leaving him something of a Malibu recluse for the two remaining decades of his life.
West of Zanzibar (which bears no relationship to a 1954 British adventure movie of the same name) went unseen for many years, resurfacing in the 1970s after the Production Code was retired in favor of a ratings system. But despite all its outré racial politics and other unsavory aspects, it never quite went away. Footage from it was incorporated into other later “jungle” movies, including its own official remake in 1932. Kongo not only restored the original play’s title but also its Broadway star Walter Huston, while managing to out-sleaze the silent version.
There is another curious connection between the two films, an odd footnote: A strapping African- American actor named Curtis Nero appears as a menacing tribesman in both, virtually his only credited screen roles. As “Bumbu” in Zanzibar, he stands around looking fierce, his sinewy torso glisteningly oiled-up, before getting one of the great purple intertitle lines of all time: “Fire … ready … for … white … girl!”
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius