Monday, 14 March 2016

Hearts of darkness… West of Zanzibar (1928) & Kongo (1932)

Mr Chaney
It says a lot about the shift in audience tastes that both these film were produced so differently in just a four year period.  Technically, of course, one’s a talkie but how much did that influence the presentation of what are both fairly claustrophobic tales? The former film could easily have been a talkie such is the focus on Lon Chaney whilst parts of the latter could work equally well as a silent with so much superb physicality from Walter Huston in the same role
A number of people have written about the talkie after watching the silent but I’ve done it the other way round: not much of a USP but it’ll have to do. The sound film struck me as incredibly lacking in hope and more than unnecessarily sleazy whereas the original trusts in Lon Chaney to act his way through the outlandish narrative emerging with something like believable redemption. Huston’s so far damned St Peter’s bookies have stopped taking bets on which level of Hell he’ll end up in… but for Lon… Purgatory is still a long shot.

Mr Huston
The sound film starts in the heart of darkness whereas the silent explains the backstory more clearly and our sympathy is in place for a more morally-complex story. Maybe it’s slower than the sound, or maybe they just wanted to get straight to the steamy action, a more than vague hint of sadomasochism and eye-popping views of Ida Lupino’s exceptionally tight dress.

But in silence, we get caught up with another tragedy for Lon Chaney and his acting, as always, is peerless. Not that it’s so cut and dried as Walter Huston is no slouch and played the role first, starring in the 1926 Broadway play by Chester de Vonde.

Silent back-story: Phroso and Anna
In the Browning version, we see Chaney’s character in civilisation – a stage act called Phroso – another of his tragic clowns – who is very much in love with his wife Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden). Sadly, Anna’s not getting what she wants from the relationship and is making eyes at another performer, Crane (Lionel Barrymore). Anna decides to leave with Crane and in the bitter altercation that follows, Phroso is pushed from on high, falling silently, his legs lost for ever. It’s a tragedy and we feel for Phroso…

Cut forward to the talkie, directed by William J. Cowen, we start only with Huston now known as “Deadlegs” Flint. He drags himself around with the determined ease of a man who has had to re-purpose his body and who force of will still enables him to dominate all those around him. He’s a self-made monster driven on pure indignation with his remaining faculties refined by pure hate. We only discover the cause of his burning hatred later.

Flint holds court over a group of misfits all of whom are physically and mentally incapable of leaving his domain. There’s the English Cookie Harris (Forrester Harvey) whose criminal past locks him into African exile, Hogan (Mitchell Lewis)  and a woman whose purpose can only be guessed at, Tula (Lupe Velez  who is distractedly wrapped in a very pre-code cloth).

Lupe Velez and Walter Houston
This is very much the heart of darkness and Flint maintains control over the locals through magic tricks and stage craft, persuading them to do his bidding in stealing ivory from competitors. He’s saving up for a rainy day and the visit of an old friend… here called Gregg (C. Henry Gordon).

Phroso too has created his little empire on the same basis but his entourage is rather more homely – even including a Doctor (Warner Baxter) there to help control his constant pain. “Dead-Legs” Phroso has his men and the natives steal directly from Crane and his plan becomes clearer early on: he has been keeping tabs on a woman born to his ex-wife while she was with Crane and is intent on dragging her from her protected world into his as a part of his ultimate revenge on Crane.

Lionel Barrymore and C. Henry Gordon
The girl, Maizie, (played by Mary Nolan) arrives and is soon degraded and turned to drink by his vengeful master. Phroso will break her father’s business and force him to come to deal with him and thereby find the humiliated husk of his daughter…

Back in 1932 – is this getting confusing? – Flint has used a mixture of drugs, slavery and drink to pervert not only the girl, here called Ann Whitehall (Virginia Bruce) but also the doctor, (Conrad Nagel) who comes along just before she arrives. The two are helpless, addicted and drained with Crane intent on killing them both as softly as it takes…

Mary Nolan - before
The modern vogue for “pre-code” is based on seeking out evidence of a continuity of thought – un-guarded expressions regarding crime, sexuality and the desire to lift both legs up from the floor onto the bed should the need so arise. But this film is so dark I’ve even seen modern commentators describe it as more than a little depraved.

In 1928 a lot was left to the imagination and Chaney’s unmatched expressiveness carries across so much more than just a reptilian thirst for revenge.

He encounters his nemesis and the end game begins with Lionel Barrymore’s Crane edging C. Henry Gordon’s Gregg – he is much fuller as a character and his greater role in the plot is another way the story is made more complete.

Virginia Bruce - after
Flint’s actions, remaining unexplained largely, carry less impact and are seemingly just sadistic for the heck of it until long into the story. Phroso has motivation, if not necessarily full sympathy, but that may come later.

The two doctors are men of honour, the talker perhaps the less strong-minded but both the young women perform well – both pulled down from their pure-mannered education to the life of drug-addled, jungle prostitution:  Virginia Bruce just edging it with her words actually giving her the advantage over Mary Nolan for the only time in the contest.

Warner Baxter, Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce
No spoilers… how could I? This isn’t just one film but two although I’d strongly recommend a hot bath after the talkie and a strong drink after the silent.

Walter Huston does give a spectacular performance as the man with mind and body twisted by the need for the most distasteful revenge against the man who robbed him of his wife and his legs. But Lon Chaney edges it for his uncanny physicality: you believe his legs are useless and you not only hate him you cry for his loss as well.

Both films are available from Warner Archives the talkie is here and the silent is here.

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