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.