The Sunday Intertitle: Black Christmas

WEST OF ZANZIBAR is a peculiarly sweaty, grubby, nasty MGM African adventure starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning — the remake, KONGO, is even more unpleasant, with Walter Huston taking the Chaney role and crawling leglessly away with it clamped in his dentures. While Huston’s performance as “Dead-Legs” is a tour-de-force of ham (“He sneered!”) and extraordinary physical acting (climbing down a rope and dragging himself to a wheelchair, legs limp as over-boiled broccoli), Chaney’s is, as you’d expect, even more powerful, with paralysis as the gimmick and blind hatred the guiding emotion.

Even for the period, the movie is shockingly racist (KONGO is at least as bad), some of which is inherent in the concept, with a white stage magician lording it over the natives with magic tricks they believe to be real. Chaney’s stage name, Phroso, was recycled for the clown in FREAKS a few years later — Browning was not a man to waste anything. And the brothel-keeper in this movie is played by Rose Dion, the same actress who was the sympathetic “Madame Tetrallini” in the later Browning.

The plot itself is one of those “I’ve made a terrible mistake” jobs, like THE SHANGHAI GESTURE. Chaney sets out to “ruin” his enemy’s daughter, only to discover she’s his own. All grand melodramatic stuff, although THE UNKNOWN, where Chaney learns he’s mistakenly amputated his own arms based on duff information, is perhaps the best of all the “IMATM” movies: Chaney assumes a series of expressions, none of which have ever passed across a living human countenance before in the history of physiognomy, but all of which are specific enough to all us to read specific sentences upon his fevered brow —

“Phantom limbs, come to my aid!”

“I am trying, as best I may, to defecate out my own soul.”

“Oh, I’ve made some colossal boo-boos in my time, but this one takes the Bournville Creme.”

More on THE UNKNOWN soon. And I may have to post something on the brothel featured in WOZ. A Tod Browning brothel is something you have to see.

16 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Black Christmas”

  1. I love this stinking movie. Based on your recommendation, I watched Kongo, and it’s a doozy all right, but Browning and Chaney always take the cake. Lovely to see the same story being recycled, however back-to-front and upside-down, in a recent critically acclaimed Korean arthouse/extreme cinema hit. Can’t name names for fear of SPOILERing it for somebody. But you’ll know if you’ve seen it.

  2. Guess I haven’t seen it, then.

    Both movies conjure an unpleasant, unwashed atmosphere in a way that makes it almost surprising they were achieved in the studio. But Browning is very much a studio animal. This may be his most TEXTURED work.

  3. This was featured yesterday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s “winter event” at the Castro Theater, along with Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, J’Accuse, and Sherlock Jr. West of Zanzibar was the marquee-featured film because Lon Chaney is such a draw, but I’d heard so many foul things about it that I skipped it. Did engage in a brief movie-line colloquy about whether they actually looked at a map before calling it West of Zanzibar, or could it equally easily have been east, north, or south of Zanzibar?

    A couple of years ago the festival featured a mutilation double-header: The Man Who Laughs followed by The Unknown.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    “Kongo”: defiled blonde Virginia Bruce (she didn’t need Hitchcock)! Hoochy-coochy brunette Lupe Velez!! What M-G-M’s “Africa” did to corrupt women is absolutely horrifying . . . (African-American female extras on the set reduced to ooga-booga booty-shakin’).

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Lon Chaney’s Phroso, from the waist up, is, stylistically speaking, not too far from contemporary gay B/D culture/porn.

  6. Watching Chaney wriggle around his jungle home to get into his chair it’s just pain awful – its realistic without being poignant or pitiable. It’s just great and gross, like the crevasses in his face.

  7. Also, another moral in these Browning / Chaney works, don’t befriend midgets unless you want people to distrust you.

  8. Christopher Says:

    Krakatoa!West of Zanzibar!….Haven’t seen Zanzibar in quite some time but I have seen The Unkown a couple of times recently and i have to repeat what I think i said before,They had some pretty wild imaginations back in the silent days.The story lines were far more revolutionary than many things being done now..Its amazing to find how many Chaney films there are where he portrays a cripple ..Who would do such a thing now?.I guess its part of how people looked on such things at the time,Cripples were as exciting as monsters and chinamen..
    Chaney a big draw in San Francisco..Isn’t that the home of his “criminal empires” usually? The Shock..The Penalty…

  9. Yeah, Chaney’s a big man in Frisco! There IS a queasy side to the portrayal of disabled characters as fascinating monsters. Actors still get kudos for playing crips, but Chaney ups the exploitation level considerably. For all its “foulness” I would unhesitatingly recommend WOZ as a great night out! It’s only a shame Chaney couldn’t play an overtly gay character with the same maleficent gusto!

    Doesn’t Gance’s J’Accuse feature a parade of WWI disfigured vetarans?

  10. Um, which J’Accuse? I think I’ve only seen the 1938 version, and I honestly don’t remember. It also reminds me of the Where’s My Forgotten Man number in Golddiggers of 1933, where a lot of the soldiers were walking/limping/being carried back with disfiguring injuries.

  11. There’s a march of the dead in J’Accuse — followed by a backwards march of the dead after they’ve supposedly been placated, though it’s not clear how — but as far as I could see, the dead were bloodied but intact. Ditto with the otherwise startling panoramas and closeups of the dead on the battlefield.

  12. (I’m talking about the silent J’Accuse, of course. Hadn’t known there was a sound version until yesterday.)

  13. Brownlow includes closeups of disfigured soldiers from one or other version in his Universal Horror documentary — one of his little excursions from the main thread of the piece. You have to give Brownlow a chance to get some world war in to everything he does. I’m not 100% sure which version the clip came from though.

  14. West of Zanzibar is indeed racist, but not shockingly so as compared to The Birth of a Nation ( that remains the ne plus ultra of racism as it revived the fortunes of a then-failing Ku Klux Klan, and is responsible for any number of lynchings.)

    My favorite silent Vhaney-Browning of all those I’ve seen is the Unknown.

    A few years back a partial reconsruction through stills was made of London After Midnight. Quite lovely.

  15. Does anyone know of a DVD version of “Kongo,” which I’d like to see as part of some research I’m doing? It was at the Harvard Film Archive last year but unfortunately I couldn’t see it, and I can’t find a copy here.

  16. By stretching a point, I include London After Midnight amongst those films in the Gifford book I’ve seen, since I’ve seen the reconstruction.

    Gareth, I can probably get you a copy of Kongo, which is unlikely ever to get a release on DVD. Let me know.

    The racism is complicated by the fact that it’s also xenophobia, a view of another culture as both barbaric and exotic. Birth of a Nation is similarly dishonest and fearful about Griffith’s fellow Americans, and in a particularly savage way, so I’d agree it’s worse that anything else.

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