The Brothel in Zanzibar

“The brothel in Zanzibar” — what visions of gaiety those four simple words call to mind! The film is Tod Browning’s WEST OF ZANZIBAR, again, and the brothel is represented in several shots, of which I have selected but two.

First, the broad view, by means of matte painting, since Browning is a man who would rather repeat his castrational car accident than actually go on location, anywhere. Zanzibar is entirely out of the question. But we love matte paintings, even when used questionably, and there’s no question here — Browning’s universe is a claustrophobic construct of the studio, where a mere gust of fresh air might wither his hothouse creations, the perverse, vengeful, disfigured and demented denizens of his moonlit menagerie.

Second, the close-up, accorded to a supporting character of no narrative significance, who limpidly projects an air of madness and deformity, mingled with sultry eroticism and abandon. I’m proposing her for a posthumous Oscar for that ELBOW alone, a torpid dumpling without a suggestion of bone, the cigarette in lifeless left hand seeming to grant it a supernumary nipple. And say what you like about Adrien Brody in THE PIANIST, he didn’t achieve that.

Browning has this inexplicable reputation for not being good. It’s bizarre. He’s only not good in DRACULA, and only intermittently in the second half of that. He was up against a drinking problem and a cost-cutting regime at Universal, slicing pencil erasers in half to make them go further, according to Lugosi, so that’s perhaps why he seems to leave the camera running unattended at times, but you don’t find that sloppiness in his other hits, and the fact that WEST OF ZANZIBAR scores a wild climax like the little vignette above when Chaney, the man of the match, isn’t even around, shows how artful TB could be.

8 Responses to “The Brothel in Zanzibar”

  1. “Browning has this inexplicable reputation for not being good.”

    Not in MY house. We even like the sound remake of The Unholy Three. Harry Earles – what a career! Only the midget-baby-hallucinations in I Don’t Want to be Born can top his cigar-chompin’ toddler in that film. The ending of the sound version is slightly less heartbreaking than that of the silent, but the knowledge that it was Chaney’s last appearance gives the talkie a poignant edge.

  2. Gee, if we started dismissing every Hollywood luminary with a substance-abuse problem, we’d have a lot less good films and performances to watch, and consider also how many of the great alcoholics of Old Hollywood got that way during Prohibition.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Didn’t Queen Kelly also end up in a brothel in Zanzibar around the same time? Or was it Tanganyika? Somewhere around there. . . since European or American brothels were, it seems, insufficiently sordid.

  4. I forget where QK’s brothel was, but it was plenty decadent. Stroheim’s decision to have a character dribble tobacco juice on Gloria Swanson’s hand (without telling her first) got him fired.

    I’ve read all too many pieces that extrapolate from Dracula to paint a portrait of Browning as incompetent, and use his drink problem as an alibi. Whereas I think, despite his limited use of camera movement, which he was hardly alone in, he’s a very skilled filmmaker. The restraint of his visualisation aids the delirium of his stories and perfs.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    How many other directors (besides Browning) are more famous for their bad movies than for their good ones?

    Bernardo Bertolucci for LAST TANGO IN PARIS? Jane Campion for THE PIANO? Pedro Almodovar for ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and VOLVER? Lars von Trier for BREAKING THE WAVES?

    All of the above have in fact made good movies in their time – but you’d never know it from the unwatchable junk with which their name seems to be forever associated.

    At least DRACULA is half a good movie (well, the first twenty minutes or so). These others are dismal from start to finish!

  6. I haven’t seen The Piano since it came out, but I thought it had some merit at the time. Those who accuse it of being humourless miss the subsidiary characters like the aunties, but then sidelining humour into comic relief characters is rather a humourless way of treating humour, so maybe they have a point after all.

    Last Tango is a creepy, self-important and melodramatic film, but it has actual cinematic virtues to weigh against the very real rottenness at play in it.

    I’m less and less interested in whether Von Trier has made anything good. The work of his I’ve enjoyed looks less and less significant compared to the weight of awfulness in most of his filmography…

  7. My problem with The Piano wasn’t anything to do with lack of humour, it was the clumping, Neil-Jordan-esque obviousness of the subtext, most irritatingly in the shadow-show prefiguring the later disfigurement. I sat through the whole thing in a frenzy of irritation, turned to my Viewing Companion as the end credits rolled ready to discuss how rotten it all was, only to find her in floods of tears at the film’s depiction of doomed womanhood or something…. A very quick about-face was performed on my part.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    Trust me, I can sympathise. Shortly after THE PIANO was released, my best friend telephoned me in floods of tears – and announced that the film had changed her life. Another friend saw it five times in the cinema alone. I’ve tried very hard to like it over the years…but it is just such total crap.

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