Top Three Clips from Todd Browning’s West Of Zanzibar (1928).
William Cowen’s 1932 soundie remake: Kongo.
Todd Browning, second from right.
If I had to pick an all time favorite movie, it might just be William Cowen’s Kongo, a 1932 re-make of Todd Browning’s 1928 West Of Zanzibar. In fact, both titles along with Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign Of The Cross (making a rare big screen appearance this Sunday in NYC at the Film Forum), make up my top three.
Based on the play by Chester DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon (which was titled Kongo and was a huge hit on Broadway), West Of Zanzibar/Kongo is one of the most gruesome, sensational and lascivious re-writings of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness ever unleashed, it makes Apocalypse Now look like a an episode of Rocky & Bullwinkle.
The convoluted story line (which starts in London in Browning’s version, although Cowen’s remake cuts straight to the non-chase in Africa), revolves around a stage magician Dead Legs (the character’s given name changes in the two versions from Phroso to Rutledge) who in an altercation over his girl gets his spine crushed and ends up a dead legged cripple. In Browning’s version Dead Legs is played by Lon Chaney (Browning’s greatest leading man), in Cowan’s by Walter Huston (who had played the role on Broadway). Dead Legs follows his rival, Crane (an ivory trader, played by Lionel Barrymore in the silent), to Africa where he sets himself up as a deity amongst the the natives, controlling them with sugar cubes, tongue twisting torture, and his old stage magic routine disguised as folk religion. When the rival shows up at Dead Legs’ hut, the story then moves on to the long lost daughter of the now deceased woman they fought over. Thinking it was his rival’s daughter, Dead Legs’ takes possession of the girls upbringing, raising her in a sheltered convent only to degrade her in the jungle when she reaches her majority. I won’t ruin the plot twist. But there’s enough depravity for a dozen sideshows (Browning’s specialty), my favorite being Lupe Velez as an alcoholic jungle nymph in Cowan’s version of the story, although how a Mexican spitfire ended up in a shack in the Congo is never explained, I can’t say I mind. I give Cowan’s version a slight edge for it’s incredible dialogue, much of which revolves around the words– “He sneered”. Browning’s version looks a bit better, although both have an incredibly claustrophobic, sweltering, disturbing feel, much like Werner Herzog’s wonderful soliloquy about the jungle heard in Les Blank’s Burden On Dreams (“fornicating, writhing, strangulation,…the birds don’t sing so much as scream in pain….”). It’s hard to decide who was a better Dead Legs, Chaney has never been less than brilliant, or Huston who really brings something of his own to the role. Either, or. West Of Zanzibar and Kongo are two must see films for anyone who likes their movies twisted, depraved, and sensational. TCM shows them on occasion, or you can watch them in short segments on YouTube.