Sunday, 26 June 2011

West of Zanzibar (1928)

Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney          
              Lionel Barrymore
              Mary Nolan
              Warner Baxter
Run time: 65 mins
Studio: MGM
Black & White

West of Zanzibar was the penultimate collaboration between director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney (the following year's Where East is East was the last) and explores familiar territory, with Chaney cast as yet another down-at-heel showman grievously wronged in love and out for revenge. But whereas 1927's The Unknown, morbid though it is, had an almost fairy-tale quality to it (owing to its circus setting and central love story) West of Zanzibar has no such redeeming feature; it’s a nasty, grubby little film, and quite possibly the most morally depraved of its era. That sounds as if I’m getting ready to knock it, but nothing could be further from the truth: although critical opinion generally favours The Unknown, I actually prefer West of Zanzibar. Indeed, it's one of my favourite films from the 1920s.

Browning wastes no time in laying his cards on the table: the film begins with a quote from the Anglican burial service - “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – before cutting to a shot of a bleached skeleton propped in an upright coffin. Having symbolically established that death is going to be a prominent feature of the film, Browning then reveals that the coffin is part of a cheap trick being performed by a downmarket stage magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney), in which the skeleton is transformed into the beautiful form of Phroso’s wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden).

Anna, we quickly learn, is a very unhappy woman. Leered at by the unsavoury-looking audience, she smiles and goes through the motions of putting on a show; but behind the scenes she is wracked by guilt and self-doubt as she contemplates leaving her husband and running away to Africa with a businessman named Crane (Lionel Barrymore) who is hoping to establish himself in the Congo region as an ivory merchant. We are given to distrust Crane from the start: when we first meet him he is lurking in the corner behind the dressing room door, waiting like some predatory animal for Anna's return. Realising that Anna's guilt is preventing her from telling Phroso about their affair, Crane offers to do the job for her and confronts Phroso in the theatre flies. As might be expected, Phroso is devastated on hearing the news, and the situation is only made worse by Crane's manifest delight at the sight of the magician's heartbreak and despair. Since there is no evidence of any history between the two men, or that Phroso has ever treated Anna badly, one can only assume that Crane's unfeeling behaviour stems from him simply being a sadistic bastard rather than from anything Phroso might have done to deserve such cruelty. Unfortunately, the confrontation turns physical and ends with Phroso falling from the balcony and breaking his spine on the stage below.

The action moves forward a few years and in the following scene we see that Phroso has lost the use of both his legs and has been reduced to moving around on a wooden trolley. He also appears to have lost his livelihood and has the appearance of a man who, if not exactly homeless, is certainly living on the edge of ruin. As the scene opens we see him on his trolley, propelling himself with near-demonic fury down the street. We learn from an evil-looking group of gossiping old bag ladies that Anna has returned. What's more, she's brought a baby with her and has sought sanctuary in a nearby church. Phroso arrives at the church and, abandoning his cart, drags his broken body down the aisle, only to discover that Anna has taken her own life at the altar, leaving her child, bawling over her corpse. Wracked with remorse for not having fought harder to keep his wife, Phroso concludes that Crane must have made her life a misery; and with a statue of the Virgin Mary as his witness he swears vengeance on the man who has destroyed his life and everything that he loves.

The action now moves eighteen years into the future and to deepest, darkest Africa. West of Zanzibar, Phroso, now known as Dead-Legs, has secured a position as a trader by using his skills as a magician to exploit the superstitious local natives - a tribe of cannibals - who believe him to be a fearsome voodoo witch-doctor, more powerful than any evil spirit. With his two hulking goons, Tiny and Babe (Roscoe Ward and Kalla Pasha), who sometimes dress as monsters to terrify the credulous savages into doing as they are told, Dead-Legs has the tribe under his almost complete control.

Phroso as Dead-Legs is a far cry from the seemingly gentle, caring man we met at the beginning of the film. The years have turned him into a roughened, shaven-headed thug whose face has become locked in a cruel sneer. He has become "this thing that crawls", as much a part of the jungle as the insects and lizards that we are shown writhing in the mud and crawling through the decaying vegetation. When not plotting in his wheelchair and snarling at the world, he is clambering monkey-like up and down knotted ropes, or slithering through his hut on his belly like a snake. Nor has he forgotten his promise to wreak vengeance on the man who wronged him: he has been using his fear tactics to manipulate the natives into stealing Crane's precious ivory; but this is only part of the plan, a move designed merely to get Crane's attention.

The second part of the plan involves dispatching Babe to Zanzibar to collect a present - "a little sweetheart...a blonde one"- for Dead-Legs' alcoholic doctor, Doc (Warner Baxter), the fourth member of the gang. The leering expression on Dead-Legs' face as informs Tiny of the plan leaves the viewer in little doubt that he intends Doc to enjoy his present to the full. The 'present' is currently living in a sailor's dive in Zanzibar. Her name is Maizie (Mary Nolan) and we later learn that she is none other than Anna's child, now fully grown. It transpires that following Anna's suicide, Phroso took the child with him to Africa and arranged to have her raised in the brothels and gin dens of Zanzibar, with no knowledge of her background. When we first meet Maizie it is clearly a lost soul: alcoholic, almost certainly a prostitute (the establishment's proprietess expresses regret at the loss of one of her girls) and probably drug-dependent, too. Her joy when Babe (in the guise of a colonial gentleman) explains that he has come to take her to meet her father is almost pitiful to behold. Seeing an opportunity to escape her empty life in Zanzibar and discover who she really is, Maizie readily agrees to accompany Babe back to the jungle outpost. 

When they arrive back at the trading post during a native funeral ceremony, Maizie's first reaction on meeting Dead-Legs is one of alarm - could this crippled, brutish-looking man possibly be her father? But with a sneer of contempt Dead-Legs informs her that, no, he is not her father and he has no intention of telling her who least not yet. As Maizie takes in her surroundings, the realisation that she has been lured there under false pretences begins to sink in - Doc is a drunken wreck, Babe is no longer a white-suited 'gentleman', but an obese, sweaty cutthroat, and beyond the hut the jungle is alive with the frenzied sound of voodoo drums. Dead-Legs dons a grotesque mask (which, it has to be said, does make him look a little like Gonzo the Great) and slithers off into the night to join the ceremony. As they watch him go, Babe explains to a confused, but oddly amused, Maizie that Dead-Legs is playing the part of a spirit chaser. His role in the ceremony is to ensure that demons stay away while the natives cremate the dead man's body. Maizie's amusement, however, soon turns to horror when Babe informs her that as the deceased was a man, cannibal law dictates that his female relatives must burn with him. As Maizie watches the dead man's wife (or maybe it's his daughter) being dragged to her grisly death, the true horror of the situation, as well as perhaps a realisation of the hopelessness of her own, causes her to break into hysterical laughter.

Realising she is a prisoner, Maizie attempts to escape through the jungle; but the next time we see her she is back at the trading post looking soiled and messed-up. She agrees not to try again, and we are left to wonder exactly what happened to her. Did she return because she realised she wouldn't get very far in the jungle at night? Or was she pursued and physically forced to return? Maybe even sexually assaulted? If so, then it wasn't at the hands of Doc, who, when sober, betrays traces of humanity by expressing concerns about Maizie's treatment. She tries to appeal to his good nature, but he is either too loyal, or too weak, to stand up to Dead-Legs, who takes every opportunity to humiliate and degrade the girl. When she takes a drink, he tells her to smash the glass, lest he should ever have to drink from it.  He mocks her attempt to hold back her tears and orders her to eat off the floor, like a dog. As a final humiliation he gives all her clothes to the natives to play with and despoil. Despite the fact that Doc finds this hilarious, Maizie continues to try and get him on side. She can see that Dead-Legs is using alcohol to control the doctor and bend him to his will, so she tries to get Doc to remember a time when he was in control of his own life; but there are things in Doc's past that he is trying to forget, so from his point of view Dead-Legs is doing him a favour. Nevertheless, he slowly begins to grow close to Maizie, and together they hit the gin...

Meanwhile, on instruction from Dead-Legs, the natives have informed Crane that it is Dead-Legs who has been stealing the ivory. Crane is now on his way to the outpost to confront the trader and will arrive in the next few days. This is the news that Dead-Legs has been waiting for. He instructs a native representative to inform the rest of the tribe that the white girl living with them is Crane's daughter. Unfortunately, Lon Chaney chooses this moment to break the 'fourth wall' and give the audience such a knowing look - as if to say "Yep, you know where this is heading" - that for a brief moment all pretence at reality goes out of the window. Fortunately, it's the only such moment in the film and therefore doesn't ruin it - but it's still incredibly inappropriate, not to mention unnecessary: anyone who has been following what's going on will have worked out that Dead-Legs intends to have Crane murdered and then have Maizie burned alive at the ivory merchant's funeral . 

Crane arrives a few days later and is remarkably calm and reasonable considering that he’s come to confront the man who’s been stealing from him. There is a flicker of recognition when he first encounters Dead-Legs, but it is not until the erstwhile magician throws open the lid of his old coffin stage trick to reveal the skeleton within that Crane finally realises who he’s dealing with. Why, it’s old Phroso! What a funny coincidence! Indeed, Crane seems to find the whole situation highly amusing – after all, how could an insignificant nobody like Phroso possibly be a threat? His laughter wanes, however, when Dead-Legs opens the coffin again to reveal Maizie in a wretched drunken state. Who is this "terrible wreck"? Dead-Legs is on the verge of telling him when Doc bursts in, threatening Dead-Legs and declaring his love for the girl. As the incredulous Crane watches, Doc lifts Maizie from the coffin and carries her off into the jungle. Amused again, Crane demands to know what is going on and Dead-Legs finally reveals that miserable creature he's just revealed is Crane's daughter; that he found her in the church with her dead mother and brought her to Africa to be raised in the lowest dives so that Crane could be proud of her.

On hearing the news, Crane appears to break down in tears; but Dead-Legs’ victory is only momentary – Crane isn’t crying tears of sorrow, he’s crying tears of laughter. Dead-Legs has got it wrong…very wrong indeed. Maizie isn’t Crane’s daughter – she’s Phroso’s. Crane explains that Anna never ran away with him to Africa; when she found out what he’d done to the magician she hated him and stayed behind. Knowing she could never return to Phroso she chose to give birth to their child alone; and her guilt over what happened drove her to take her own life.

Dead-Legs is devastated by the news. In what must surely rank as one of Chaney’s most heartfelt and moving performance, we watch as the truth of what Crane is telling him sinks in and the mask of hatred slowly slips from his face to reveal the tormented human being beneath. Crane departs, still laughing, while Doc and Maizie return, startled to find that Dead-Legs is no longer the callous thug they left a few minutes before, but a broken man wracked with remorse and regret. In a desperate bid to make amends, Dead-Legs explains that he has a boat and that he is willing to take Maizie away from the horrors of the jungle; but Doc will hear none of it, and as far as Maizie is concerned Dead-Legs is still a vile worm to be despised for what he has done to her.

At that moment a group of natives arrives and deposits Crane's body on the floor. In accordance with Dead-Legs' earlier instructions, they have shot the ivory merchant. They will be back later for the body, and also for Maizie. But Crane isn't quite dead. Dead-legs orders Doc to keep him alive, but to no avail - Crane passes away and Maizie, believing that Crane was her long lost father, faints. As the drums for the funeral ceremony start beating, Dead-Legs cradles the unconscious Maizie in his arms and lets slip that he is her real father. Doc overhears the remark and when Maizie comes to, just as the natives arrive to collect the corpse, he calms her hysteria by telling her that Crane wasn't her father, after all; that they lied to her and that her real father died many years ago. Having hid Maizie in a back room, Doc tries to convince Dead-Legs to tell the natives the truth, but he won't; he doesn't want to risk Maizie learning the truth about him, at which point the cannibals return to inform him that "Fire...ready...for white girl." And so the race is on to prevent Maizie from becoming toast....

If the above makes West of Zanzibar sound a tad melodramatic, that's because it is - which is probably why it has never quite achieved the status of some of Browning's other films - but it benefits hugely from Chaney's ferocious performance (for my money, a more realistically frightening one than the more lauded performance he gives in The Unknown) and its genuinely grimy atmosphere.  Browning's demon-infested jungle is a moral cesspit, hot, steaming and putrid. His characters are soiled, sweat-stained and rotting from within. All his trademark themes - obsession, jealousy, lust and revenge - are here, but in concentrated form. Browning's Africa may look cramped and artificial, but this only adds to the claustrophobic tension of the piece, as does Browning's liberal use of close-up shots. It's a film about the ease with which people will renege on their humanity in the pursuit of revenge, willingly degrading themselves in order to degrade others. The pessimism isn't absolute, though - Chaney's character does achieve redemption in the end, but at a terrible cost.

All the performances are noteworthy (although Lionel Barrymore does veer dangerously close to overacting at times), but special mention must go to Mary Nolan, who manages to turn in a thoroughly modern and convincing performance as the defiled Maizie. Nolan clearly had the makings of a great actress; but, tragically, her own life mirrored Maizie's in too many ways as she struggled with a string of abusive relationships and an eventual decline into obscurity and drug-dependence. She was only 42 years old when she died on 31st October 1948.

West of Zanzibar was remade in 1932 as Kongo.

1 comment:

  1. If anyone has this, you will. I would LOVE to find a pic of that scene at the end of Phantom of the Opera when he hoaxes the mob by pretending to have something in his hand and then reveals his hand to be empty.

    The unmasking scene of course is legendary, but there is a whole other level of cool to this silent era "psych!--as the youngins might say. Do you have an image of that scene anywhere that you could share? Hope everything is going well with the family illness you mentioned. K