(1928) Directed by: Tod Browning; Written by Elliott J. Clawson; Titles by Joseph Farnham; Based on the play Kongo, by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon; Starring: Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Mary Nolan and Warner Baxter
Available on DVD
“There is something about this that is like a disease, and I suppose I never will be able to stop. I would like to retire and get away, but probably won’t.” – Lon Chaney (On acting – excerpt from 1928 New York Times interview, from The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, by Michael F. Blake)
I’d like to take a moment to thank the sensational classic bloggers Monstergirl from The Last Drive In and Fritzi of Movies Silently for hosting the Chaney Blogathon. Check out this multi-blog retrospective of Lon Sr. and Jr., and their priceless contribution to the world of film.
Long before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp forged a multi-picture director/actor relationship, there was Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. West of Zanzibar represented Browning and Chaney’s ninth collaboration, following heels of presumed lost films London After Midnight and The Big City. Thankfully, this film did not meet the fate of its predecessors, and exists for future generations to enjoy. The bare-bones Warner Brothers Archive Collection DVD has no extras or chapters, but I’m not really complaining. The image quality, while far from pristine, is still quite serviceable.
West of Zanzibar is a perverse tale of revenge set amidst an exotic locale. The opening scene takes place in Browning’s favorite milieu, the circus,* where Phroso the magician (Chaney) performs with his beloved wife Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden). Much like his stage act, however, their blissful marriage is nothing but an illusion. Anna is having an affair with Crane (Lionel Barrymore), and plans to leave her husband. After a tussle with Crane, Phroso suffers a permanent spinal injury that renders his legs useless. A year later, his wife returns with a baby daughter in tow, but by the time Phroso reaches her, he discovers Anna dead in a church (the reason for her demise is never made clear). He vows vengeance against the man who ran off with his wife, and left him a crippled shell of a man. Phroso follows Crane to Africa, while keeping the girl, Maizie (Mary Nolan) under his watchful eye, employed in a brothel for the first 18 years of her life.
* Fun fact: A freak show scene was filmed, but excised from the final print, involving Chaney in a duck suit. While the scene was cut, the duck suit would live on, albeit in a slightly modified form, four years later in the conclusion of Browning’s infamous Freaks, worn by Olga Baclanova.
West of Zanzibar features yet another powerful performance from Chaney as Phroso, a man consumed by hatred and the lust for revenge. Every square inch of his scowling face conveys intense self-loathing, and a desire to carry out his ghoulish scheme to get even with Crane. It’s easy to forget that Chaney had full use of his limbs, based on the way he drags his legs like useless, ancillary appendages. In an impressive demonstration of the actor’s control and agility, he climbs down a rope ladder and collapses at the bottom like a ragdoll, never leading on that his legs could easily support his weight. Chaney’s performance as Phroso is reminiscent of his role as crime boss Blizzard in The Penalty. He barks orders to his accomplices while coldly calculating Crane and Maizie’s horrible fate. He’s a thoroughly contemptible man in most regards, bereft of a conscience, yet you can’t help but feel sympathetic for him by the end. It’s a testament to Chaney’s skills that he’s able to convey his character’s transgression from blind hatred to compassion, and finally redemption, in which he must make the ultimate sacrifice.
Phroso, referred to as “Dead-Legs” by the native tribesmen, ingratiates himself to the locals as a shaman, warding off evil spirits through his magician’s tricks and a tribal mask.* The film depicts the tribal people as ignorant, pidgin English-speaking cannibals that accept his “magic” at face value. While this unenlightened view of indigenous people does little to dispel myths about African tribal cultures, it helps establish the danger that lies in store for Crane and Maizie. Phroso is orchestrating a deadly reunion between father and daughter, which takes advantage of the tribe’s custom of burning the wife or daughter when a man dies.
* At least to this modern-day reviewer, the mask resembles the muppet Gonzo the Great.
West of Zanzibar’s uncompromising vision reminds us that revenge is a dead end, in which evil begets evil. None of the characters leave the film unscathed. The most innocent character, Maizie, is the one who suffers the most damage. The film not only showcases Chaney’s formidable acting ability, but serves as a reminder that Browning and Chaney were one of the greatest pairings in film history.