Walter Huston Meets Lon Chaney in the Kongo, West of Zanzibar

west-of-zanzibar-kongo-walter-huston-lon-chaneyEditor’s note: This article was originally published in June of 2011.

Think it was “too soon” for a remake of The Karate Kid after 26 years? Was it impolite to reinterpret The Shining after only 17 years? Do you believe Ang Lee’s Hulk should have been given a little more room to stomp around before the action-heavy reboot attempted only five years later to kick its more meditative butt into the dustbin of cinema history?

Are you convinced all this instant remaking and rebooting is a purely modern phenomenon?

Imagine how fans of the 1928 Lon Chaney silent film West of Zanzibar may have felt when word reached them that the talkie Kongo—starring Walter Huston, based on the exact same source material, and even incorporating some of the same stock footage utilized in director Tod Browning’s silent thriller—was being ushered into theaters by MGM a mere four years later!

If the similarities between these two films are striking, the differences between them are even more fascinating, as are the unique relationships between the production of the original play and both screen versions.

The narrative of both pictures concerns the tragic saga of Flint, a stage magician who discovers his wife is cheating on him and confronts her lover, only to get into a brutal fight that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. After his wife gives birth to a child and dies, Flint escapes in despair to the wilds of Africa and uses his skills as an illusionist to hold the local natives in his power.

The man now known as “Dead-Legs” concocts an elaborate plan of bloodthirsty revenge, biding his time until the little girl he leaves behind is a full-grown woman. The wheelchair-bound Flint brings her to his jungle compound and holds her prisoner, abusing and degrading her until he can trick the man he believes to be her father into joining them—whereupon he plans to murder him and have the natives follow their tradition of burning a dead man’s corpse by immediately sacrificing the closest available female relative to the flames.

Nice guy, huh?

west_of_zanzibar_wide-posterWithout getting too much into spoilers—although canny readers will probably be able to anticipate the awful plot revelation that brings the paraplegic madman to his just comeuppance—I found the 1932 film, while engaging in its own right, to be mostly inferior to the Browning/Chaney version. Before we get into details, I should probably point out some interesting ironies about the “original” and the “remake”:

Despite originating the role on film, Chaney did not play the part first in Kongo, the 1926 Broadway play—written by kongo-posterChester DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon—that spawned both films. It was Huston who debuted as Flint in the stage production, but didn’t get to re-create his role until after Chaney had inhabited the character’s tough, sweaty skin in the first big-screen adaptation of the story.

The 1932 film, as a talkie, obviously enjoyed the opportunity to be more faithful to the stage play than the silent film by containing more of (what was probably) the original spoken dialogue. And, while I am unable to consult the actual play script (a brief search turned up nothing for me, but I’d sure love to read it), I am also guessing the Huston version is probably more aligned with the original text because it mostly confines itself to the single setting of Flint’s jungle fortress, and does not visually dramatize any of Flint’s backstory, even in flashback.

The Huston version, directed by William J. Cowen, now enjoys quite the reputation as a lurid pre-Code classic, with many critics ranking it right alongside Browning’s Freaks for its grisly and subversive content. With the Chaney version having disappeared from circulation after a brief release on LaserDisc (UPDATE: It’s back! Get yours now!), there may be many viewers who will watch Kongo and find little reason to disagree. Much of the story’s more repulsive grand guignol moments survive from the Chaney version, leading me to surmise these are elements in the stage play brought forward by both films.

I am going to suggest now that it is the Chaney version, not the Huston film, that should be more widely admired as the edgiest, most unsettling adaptation of the story. Having recently viewed both one after the other, it’s my opinion that the Huston version, be it more faithful to the stage play or not, suffers somewhat from a more conservative and “safe” approach when compared to its more sacrilegious predecessor.

kongo-west-of-zanzibar-lupe-velez-mary-nolanOne of the first crucial differences between the films is the presence of the second female character, Tula (Lupe Velez), who appears in the Huston picture only. As a sexually desirable woman seen to be allied with Flint and already firmly under his control, Tula is clearly meant to counter the innocence of Flint’s pretty, tortured captive—a living, breathing embodiment of the jungle’s steamy sex appeal; her clothing is revealing (very much so for the time) and her exposed flesh shiny with sweat.

What the Browning/Chaney movie had accomplished, however, was to merge those elements into the single person of the daughter that Flint tortures (played by Mary Nolan in Zanzibar and Virginia Bruce in the 1932 film), conflating in our minds both the pity we feel for her filthy appearance and the arousal that her wet, torn clothing inspires. I haven’t the play to reference as I’d mentioned, but it seems to me that having one character available for “pity” and another for “desire” provides a much safer moral equation for the viewer. Combining those elements of the story into one character is the more racy and subversive gesture.

Similarly, the character of the doctor who resides with Flint and eventually falls in love with the young woman imprisoned by him is presented a bit differently. In the Chaney version, the doctor (as played by Warner Baxter) is seen as a strong figure almost from the outset, which makes his eventual rebellion against him a powerful transition of loyalties.

In the Huston redux, the physician (portrayed by Conrad Nagel) is a drug-addled fellow who falls under the influence of Dead-Legs largely because he is carefully kept in a state of near-withdrawal by the vengeful trickster. His alliance with the girl provides a useful romantic element, but it’s not as strong a journey for the character since, in the 1932 film, both characters are relatively helpless and eager to escape Flint’s grasp.

Most importantly, let’s have a look at “Dead-Legs” Flint himself. Because West of Zanzibar incorporates Flint’s backstory into the opening part of the film, we get to experience a much fuller transformation of the character. Director Browning—whose taboo-shattering Freaks would be released (unleashed might be the better word) the same year as Kongo—had a background in carnival work, so it would no doubt have been very appealing for him to dramatize Flint’s history as an illusionist.

Here, the character even has another name, Phroso (which sounds a bit like Echo, the character Chaney played in both the silent and sound versions of The Unholy Three), and this prologue sequence follows the character from the discovery of his wife’s infidelity to the tragic fall that paralyzes him (a great stunt), to a church where he grieves the death of his wife and arrives at the determination to enact his revenge.

Where the Huston film does manage to outshine Chaney’s is with the surprising level of violence it depicts onscreen. No blood is shown, but the scene of the doctor’s hasty surgery on Flint’s back is grim nevertheless. And in the opening moments of the remake, we’re shown the character’s mastery over the natives by way of a grisly, phony decapitation (!), but the silent picture more neatly foreshadows the film’s climactic sequence at the outset by instead introducing the very same coffin trick Dead-Legs will later employ to save the girl and seal his fate.

Sometimes it’s the smallest variation that makes the biggest difference. Towards the end of the story, the girl held prisoner by Dead-Legs forgives him for his sadism once she trusts he is engineering her escape from the jungle. In the silent version, it’s Nolan who reaches her hand out first, hoping Chaney will accept her forgiveness. Contrast that with the remake, where Huston is the first to outstretch his hand. It was clearly not intended to do so, but this choice actually makes his character seem weaker, more petty: It’s all about what I want. Chaney’s Dead-Legs earns our pity, and becomes more tragically heroic, because while he knows he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, he takes the girl’s hand anyway. She will never know what he knows.

Flint’s final moments in the story—and again, I wish to give not so very much away because the ending is so darkly satisfying in both films—are truly as different as night from day. In the Chaney film, Flint greets his ultimate destiny with a dark and knowing scowl, fully aware that he is about to reap what he has sown. In the Huston version, Dead-Legs chooses to make an earnest, desperate prayer asking his God for strength in the name of pity. Is this how the play ends? I do not know, but I do know from a storytelling standpoint, it’s Chaney’s character that remains the most perverse: You feel for him in spite of the fact he never asks for any kind of salvation.

What remains now are the performances by both Chaney and Huston. While he does alter his appearance in the film by shaving his head and dutifully manifests his handicap by crawling across the floor like an insect (“Don’t step on it! It might be Lon Chaney!”), the “Man of a Thousand Faces” enacts the role of Flint without the addition of any horrific makeup. Contrast that to Huston, whose face is frighteningly disfigured by scars.

Walter Huston was a terrific actor (watch him later in his career in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and marvel as he holds his own with Humphrey Bogart while being directed by son John Huston), but I favor the Chaney interpretation of the role Huston originated on Broadway. Not just because Chaney’s actual choices feel more nuanced—in a silent film, no less!—but because all of the other elements in the film afford Chaney the opportunity to deliver a more fully-formed portrait of a man who turns to evil and finally embraces good.

Lon Chaney conjures evil spirits in West of Zanzibar (1928)

Just watch the fireworks at the film’s climax when Chaney puts on a bizarre voodoo mask to conduct the climactic ritual and compare that to what Huston does with the same scene. Huston is pretty much waving his hands. That’s OK and it works just fine…but with Chaney, those fleeting few seconds are filled by a creepy and unforgettable pantomime.

It’s unfair to the good work Huston does deliver, but today, his performance can’t help but bring to mind a little of Burgess Meredith’s snarky Penguin from the Batman TV series. Maybe it’s the way the giant scar twists his grin, I don’t know. If that sounds like a cheap shot, I don’t mean it to come across that way—but it remains something of what I experienced while viewing it, fitfully anxious to rewatch the 1928 silent version.

These two pictures set side by side offer movie fans an amazing opportunity to see one sordid tale told twice in both much the same way (sometimes shot for shot, cut for cut) and yet with some hugely different choices in writing, acting, and directing that result in substantially different films.

So, by all means, check out Kongo because it’s a hoot and a half—but do scrounge around for whatever opportunity you may have now or in the future (whenever the Chaney film is properly reissued) to behold the sublime and dark oddness you will find in the “original” West of Zanzibar.