The Pre-Code era of Hollywood when films were much more explicit, suggestive and racy is generally believed to be that period between 1929 and 1934, the year the Production Code was officially enforced. After that the studios had to comply with a long list of restrictions imposed on motion pictures by Joseph Breen (director of the PCA aka Production Code Administration) in terms of subject matter, situations and characters if the producers wanted their films to get a commercial release. Of course, film censorship in Hollywood existed before 1934 but it was not always enforced. Complaints from moral guardian groups and religious organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency were crucial in pressuring Hollywood to reduce the amount of sex, violence and decadence in movies. Some of their earliest targets were three films from MGM, which were a collaboration between director Tod Browning and Lon Chaney – The Unholy Trio (1925), The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). All three of the films contain perverse and unsettling storylines but West of Zanzibar tops them all in terms of shock value even by today’s standards.
The ninth collaboration between Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning, West of Zanzibar (1928) was considered one of their most financially successful ventures together along with The Unknown. Adapted from a popular 1926 stage play entitled Kongo by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon, this tale of revenge and debasement so alarmed Will Hays, chairman of the Motion Picture Production Code Office from 1922-1945, that he warned MGM not to turn it into a movie. Instead, the studio bought the rights to the play, changed the title and character names and eliminated some of the more outrageous plot elements such as venereal disease and miscegenation. The result was West of Zanzibar but its salacious and depraved storyline was hardly toned down for the screen.
The film opens on a picture of domestic bliss. Phroso (Lon Chaney), an English music hall magician, is completely devoted to his wife, Anna (Jacqueline Hart). But appearances are deceiving and Anna soon abandons Phroso for her lover, Crane (Lionel Barrymore), an ivory trader. When Phroso goes to confront Crane, he is permanently crippled in a fight with his rival and becomes better known by his nickname Dead Legs. A year later, Anna, with her baby daughter Maizie, attempts to return to Phroso but dies before she can reach him. Phroso adopts Maizie under the assumption that she was fathered by Crane and relocates to the jungles of Africa where he proceeds to raise her in a harsh and punishing environment among superstitious natives. When Maizie (Mary Nolan) reaches the age of eighteen, Phroso plots his final act of revenge and summons Crane to their isolated outpost under false pretenses. In some ways, you can draw parallels between this film and Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because both Kurtz (Conrad’s primary character) and Phroso have retreated into the depths of the jungle and succumb to the inherent evil that exists in all men due to their isolation.
Considering the sensationalistic aspects of the story, it’s no surprise that some sequences didn’t make the final cut of West of Zanzibar. For one thing, the scene where Phroso makes an appearance as a “duck man” at a side show was deleted. Tod Browning would later use this bizarre costume for the horrific climax to Freaks where Olga Baclanova is transformed into the “duck woman.”
Another sequence that didn’t get pass the censors is one where Phroso crawls into a bar on his wheeled platform, begging for handouts, and is tossed through a plate glass window into the street.
In case you were wondering, West of Zanzibar was not filmed on location in Africa but on the Culver City lot. Phroso’s jungle compound was constructed around the studio water tank and numerous steam pipes were utilized to keep the vast array of tropical plants on the set from wilting in the dry California climate. Due to the studio lights, the rising summer temperatures, and the steam from the pipes, the set was often as humid as a Turkish bath and extremely uncomfortable for the cast and crew members.
It is interesting to note that a large number of African-American actors were hired to play supporting roles and extras in West of Zanzibar. Most prominent among them is Noble Johnson (the native chief in 1933’s King Kong), a childhood friend of Chaney’s, but neither he nor his fellow black actors received screen credit for their work. This may have been due to racist Jim Crow laws that would have prevented distribution of the film, particularly in the South, where white and black actors were rarely seen together on the screen unless the blacks were playing domestic help or subservient workers. Equally offensive is the depiction of the African natives in the movie who are superstitious and savage in the cliched manner of most Hollywood movies set in Africa at that time.
For a special Halloween showing at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in 2018, the presenters created a new trailer for West of Zanzibar which exploits all of its lurid virtues. Accompanied by primitive drumming, the text only narration proclaims in a facetious manner,”From the team that brought you The Blackbird, The Road to Mandalay and London After Midnight [all Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations] comes a film with something for the whole family – magic, murder, adultery, voodoo, human sacrifices, bad dancing, revenge.” Yet this teaser preview leaves out the most disturbing aspect of West of Zanzibar which is the twisted relationship between Phroso and Maizie. After being debased, tormented and slated for human sacrifice, Maizie is revealed to be the true daughter of Phroso and not Crane. Phroso’s last-minute change of heart and regret ends with him sacrificing himself and letting Maizie escape and return to a normal life. But the semi-happy ending barely registers after 65 minutes of depravity. The sleazy ambiance of the film is so potent you’ll probably want to take a hot shower or bath afterwards.
When West of Zanzibar was released in 1928, the industry trade newspaper Harrison’s Reports responded in outrage, calling it a “piece of filth” and commenting, “How any normal person could have thought this horrible syphilitic play could have made an entertaining picture, even with Lon Chaney, who appears in gruesome and repulsive stories, is beyond comprehension.”
Still, many of the reviews were positive. The New York Times stated, “It is a well concocted narrative and Mr. Chaney gives one of his most able and effective portrayals as he drags himself through scene after scene without using his legs.”
Even more curious is this review from Motion Picture Magazine which noted, “This is a mad, weird, grotesque, and completely nutty melodrama. You will get lots of laughs out of it, and I think it’s far more entertaining than some of the Lon Chaney pictures that make sense.”
You could take the stance that West of Zanzibar is simply too outrageous and over-the-top to take seriously but one thing is irrefutable: Chaney is absolutely mesmerizing as Phroso. You can’t take your eyes off him. Equally impressive is Lionel Barrymore, in one of his least mannered and hammy performances, and Warner Baxter as the sad sack alcoholic doctor who can’t seem to break Phroso’s hold on him is genuinely pitiable in the role. Ditto for Mary Boland as the long suffering Maizie.
In 1932 MGM remade the movie under its original stage title of Kongo with Walter Huston reprising his Broadway role. The result is just as demented and depraved as Browning’s version and Walter Huston gives a commanding and powerful performance as the lunatic Phroso. Both films are rife with racism, misogyny, sadism and other appalling behaviors and serve as perfect examples of why the Production Code office began to actively monitor and censor Hollywood movies in the early 30s. Although West of Zanzibar might not be as iconic as Chaney’s roles in Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) or Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925), his nightmarish persona might be even more haunting than those fabled productions.
West of Zanzibar was released on DVD by The Warner Archive Collection in May 2012 and is still your best option to see this movie. Perhaps WA will consider a Blu-ray upgrade in the future.
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