Archive for The Unknown

The Sunday Intertitle: Black Christmas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on December 13, 2009 by dcairns

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.