Wednesday, May 4, 2011

West of Zanzibar (1927) vs. Kongo (1932)

Violence, Sex, Prostitution, Corruption, Drug Addition, Alcoholism, Torture, Sadism, Murder....

Welcome, my friends, to old Hollywood's vision of Black Africa: where the natives are superstitious, the white men stinkers, and the women are...., well, not the type you would take home to meet mother.

Ah, but it is the habitat of a certain fiend known as Deadlegs Flint, a tough paraplegic who, for the eighteen years that he has inhabited his hut in the middle of the jungle, has been focused on one thing, and one thing only: Revenge. Revenge on the man that cost him his legs, his wife, and his pride. In the meantime, he plots and plans. If he can't harm this man directly, Flint knows the next best thing that will devastate his enemy hardest: the ruin of his daughter.

And how! For all those who think that all old movies are quaint and tame, and oh so fluffy, the silent West of Zanzibar and the pre-code Kongo should prove to be an eyefull. These are a pair of strange and disturbing films, both different versions of the same tale. They are adaptions of a Broadway play called Kongo, and some of the actors from the original Broadway run return to reprise their roles in the film of the same name. Unfortunately, I am not able to say which version sticks closer to the one presented on the stage, for the script was never published, and I have yet to track down a manuscript of the original.

The men who play Flint on screen, Lon Chaney in the former and Walter Huston in the latter, are both great. They are imposing, cruel, and very memorable. I rather like how the silent presents Flint before his life was ruined, showing what a nice, good man his was before Lionel Barrymore entered his life (and yes, Barrymore did play S.O.Bs before It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and boy, is he detestable here). That makes the broken and cruel figure that he becomes all the more intriguing and horrifying.

But Walter Huston is just plain mean, if not more so. Heck, he threatens to twist his mistress's tongue with a piece of wire (and from his and everyone's reactions, you can tell that he has done this before). He is not just satisfied with letting his wife's daughter grow up in an African brothel, as Chaney did in the silent version. No, Huston has her raised in a convent, and then throws her into a brothel when she turns 18.
....and After.
Which one do I prefer? Actually, I think Kongo, on the whole, is superior. It felt less stagy than the silent, had, if not better, more memorable actors (Lupe Valez is a special treat), and frankly conjured up a better sense of depravity and perversity. But do not let that deter you from seeing Zanzibar; Chaney's performance alone is worth the price of admission, and he is in top form here, making a more persuasive paraplegic than Huston.

The bad news: Zanzibar is not available on video (though you can see its minuscule form on youtube). The good news: Kongo is, thanks to Warner Archives. Be sure to check them out, as they are unforgettable examples of how far Hollywood could go before a certain Code was enforced.

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