Written by: Chester De Vonde & Kilbourn Gordon (play), Elliot Clawson, Joseph Farnham (titles), and Waldemar Young (adaptation)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, and Mary Nolan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“How did God ever put a thing like you on this earth?"
As the penultimate collaboration between Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, West of Zanzibar began drawing the curtains on one of cinema’s great early creative teams. Over the course of a decade, the duo collaborated nine times, with their most famous output being the presumably long-lost London after Midnight. A similar fate befell a couple other films, and each surviving effort only highlights what a loss that must truly be. Case in point: West of Zanzibar, a most strikingly mean-spirited film that’s akin to a primal yelp that still manages to muse on the destructive twin forces of fate and vengeance.
Chaney is Phroso, a popular magician whose wife (Jacqueline Gadsen) is on the verge of leaving him for another man, Crane (Lionel Barrymore). She doesn’t have the heart to break the news herself, so Crane does the job and inadvertently cripples Phroso during the encounter. A year later, Phroso finds his wife dead in a church and in the presence of her crying child; vowing immediate revenge against both Crane and his child, Phroso concocts an elaborate scheme that sees him move to Africa. After ruling a small outpost for eighteen years, he finally puts those wheels into motion by sending his men to fetch both Crane (now a successful ivory merchant) and his now-grown-up daughter (Mary Nolan), who has been raised in a Zanzibar brothel her entire life.
Even by today’s standards, West of Zanzibar is pretty seedy, sort of a Jacobean revenge tragedy by way of Heart of Darkness, the film is pure, unfiltered cruelty. While it looks like the stuff of melodrama, its underlying themes tap into the horror of the destruction of man’s body and soul. In an echo of Victorian-era fear (which was making a comeback during this decade), it takes the exotic badlands of Africa to truly transform the victimized Phroso into a hateful, almost otherworldly specter who rules the local tribes with his stage magic. The film derives much of its power from its exoticism, as there’s a certain unreal quality about the soundstage jungle that amps up its claustrophobic qualities. You can almost feel the “Dark Continent” bearing down on the proceedings, and there’s a wonderful contrast between Phroso’s bogus act and the more mysterious tribal rituals that eventually play a large role in the magician’s plot. Browning crafts an incredibly ominous vibe from the setting that elevates West of Zanzibar from silly pulp to serious business; its plot is truly outrageous and maybe even a bit silly, but it takes on Shakespearian levels of import.
It helps that the story itself is ultimately no laughing matter; sure, it’s a little ludicrous that one man would go to such great lengths to take revenge on a rival, but Phroso’s plan is wildly despicable and edges into seriously lurid territory. Given the film’s brevity (it runs about 65 minutes), it’s difficult to get into specifics without spoiling the majority of the film, but let’s just say the scheme involves Crane unwittingly leering at his own daughter when the two are introduced (they have had no knowledge of each other during the past eighteen years). Browning doesn’t continue to push that particular envelope, but Phroso’s plan somehow becomes even more deranged. However, fate’s own mechanizations may be even more unhinged, as West of Zanzibar spirals into a depraved experience that finds audiences being repulsed by both plots, with their loyalty constantly shifting to and from Phroso until the very end.
Such a dynamic character deserves a suitably malleable actor, and Chaney is still arguably the most versatile actor of all time. West of Zanzibar finds him putting on several of his thousand faces, but he remarkably does so without the assistance of a whole lot of make-up. He’s actually more dolled up at the beginning as a cheery, Joker-faced magician before he magnificently transforms into “Dead-Legs,” his African alter-ego that’s forced to skulk around the floor due to his paralysis. It goes without saying that the transformation is incredible, so much so that you’d assume two different actors brought the role to life if you weren’t aware of Chaney’s legacy. Dead-Legs is a unique accomplishment in its relative simplicity; instead of burying the actor’s visage under a mountain of prosthetics, he’s instead stripped down to a primal, skeletal appearance (there’s shades of Brando’s Kurtz here) that allows for an tremendous range of expression. What’s most striking is how unbelievably human he is; though consumed by anguish and vengeance, Dead-Legs is far from a simple character, as Chaney infuses him with rage, grief, despair, and even guilt (all without the benefit of spoken dialogue, of course). He even convincingly pulls off the physical aspects of playing a paralytic, so it’s as complete a performance as you’ll ever see—Chaney is the center of the film’s gravity, with everyone else caught in his orbit.
A lesser director might not have made this work, but Browning plays off of Chaney’s energy throughout the film. Barrymore is nicely understated but precise as Phroso’s rival, and the film features a pair of star-crossed lovers who get caught up in this feud when Crane’s daughter falls in love with Phroso’s physician (Warren Baxter). These two have seemingly strolled from the set of a typical exotic adventure film into this hellish nightmare, but the duo’s purity is like a light glinting through the jungle carapace. Nolan’s Maizie is also intensely fascinating and no doubt subtly underlies the terror to contemporary audiences: here’s a beautiful, blond white girl left to the horrors of Africa, and she even undergoes a transformation herself after staying at Phroso’s jungle abode for a while. That’s one of many staggering images that Browning finds to unify the film—there’s a singular intensity to his vision that’s stunning in its complete, immersive qualities. There’s a broadness to the proceedings, of course, but it’s grounded by an core darkness and eeriness; the film opens with a familiar intonation—“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—and proceeds like a bull-rushed funeral march towards an inevitable doom.
Each surviving Chaney film also serves to remind us of what we were likely robbed of by his untimely passing at the age of 47; he was of course all set to move into the talkie era, where his voice may have become as famous as his many faces. There’s little doubt that he would have been Browning’s Dracula a few years later, and there’s no telling just how much more golden the Universal age might have been with him around. What’s left is still quite a legacy, and West of Zanzibar is among the actor’s most forceful and powerful performances that I’ve seen; it might not be as immediately and visually iconic as the Phantom or the vampire from London after Midnight, but it’s an incredibly layered and human performance that captivates and mesmerizes. That it comes at the service at such a delirious and entrancing film is like so much icing on the cake, I suppose. West of Zanzibar would be remade a few years later as Kongo, which found Walter Huston taking over for Chaney. This take is so good that I have to wonder just how anyone dared to top it, but that’ll have to wait for another day. Warner Archive has actually rescued both of those films during the DVD age, with West of Zanzibar arriving on the format about a year ago. Both it and Kongo have popped up on Turner Classic from time to time as well, so either keep your eyes peeled or check out Warner Archive’s release to witness some of the final fruit born from one of silent cinema’s most productive pairings. Buy it!
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