Released on 24 November 1928, with a synchronised score and sound effects, to reflect fast-paced industry innovations in the wake of The Jazz Singer (1927), Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar is the director’s most impressively lurid work and the best film he made with Lon Chaney after 1927’s The Unknown. A sleazy revenge yarn set in the malarial swamps of the Congo, the plot possessing overtones of Greek tragedy, beautifully illustrates the director was a master of cinema, boasts a potential narrative connection to Freaks and critiques the arrogance of colonial overlords. 

Between 1919 and 1929, they made 10 pictures together, for Universal and MGM, of which West of Zanzibar is the ninth. Several others in the run, such as proto-horror caper London After Midnight (1927) and gangster flick The Big City (1928), have been lost, both incinerated in the 1965 MGM vault fire. The Road to Mandalay (1926), the pair’s first stab at tropical melodrama, partially survives in an abridged 9.5mm print, running thirty-something minutes. This version, all that survives, was unearthed in France. 

In the 1920s, audiences were especially keen to see Chaney (1883-1930) play humiliated men exacting revenge against those who’d done him wrong, before having a change of heart and seeking redemption for ill deeds. He was cinema’s Everyschmuck, the fellow who you couldn’t help root for even if he was a bit of a bugger; the kind of guy who, if life gave him lemons, would still manage to somehow make vinegar. The masses loved his variations of this theme and were fascinated by the preeminent mystery man of the silent screen; a performer who disappeared into grotesque roles with a dedication and commanding artistry impressive to this day. 

The Chaney-Browning brand was a gigantic box-office draw and moneyspinner. The edgy material selected by Browning (1880-1962) and MGM, too, led to the New York Herald Tribune calling the director ‘the first diabolist of the cinema’ and Hollywood’s answer to Edgar Allan Poe. Film Spectator scribe Donald Beaton put it bluntly: ‘With Tod Browning atrocity is assured.’ Indeed. 

The plot of West of Zanzibar is as follows:

Phroso (Lon Chaney), a magician, is cuckolded by Crane (Lionel Barrymore), who plans on taking Phroso’s wife and whisking her off to Africa. Upon discovering this bit of unwelcome news almost immediately after a show, a fight ensues and Phroso falls off a balcony behind the stage. Landing on a table, he breaks his back, leaving him without the use of his legs. Some months later Phroso learns his missus, Anna (Jaqueline Gadsden, credited as ‘Gadsdon’ in the opening credits), has returned to town. He tracks her down to a local church where he finds her dead beneath a statue of the Madonna (an apparent suicide). Nearby is a baby. Phroso, now known by the street name Dead-Legs, is heartbroken. In his sorrow, he concocts a revenge scheme with devastating consequences. Believing the child is Crane’s, he takes her to the Congo and has her raised in the scummiest dive he can find. While not being explicit about the details, we can denote she’s been brought up in a brothel and is a working girl with a drinking problem. To avoid offending social sensibilities, Browning skirts the exact specifics of the bar’s function, but we see several shots of young women conversing with men over drinks. The film, for comic effect, inserts an image of a glum-looking woman smoking a cigarette, sans client. 

In the years since his accident, Dead-Legs has degenerated into a heartless brute. His only true friend is a chimpanzee, which he cuddles clearly as a child substitute. The chimp signals to the audience, this man is still capable of emotion and sentimental attachments. The viewer is invited to understand his heartache, if not condone his hatred. Running an ivory outpost operation to rival Crane’s, he’s fooled the natives, with his bag of magician’s tricks, into believing he is a god-like being with supernatural powers. He has them thinking he can commune with Voodoo lwas (spirits). Dead-Legs gets one of his underlings to routinely dress up as a Voodoo spirit, so he can steal ivory from Crane’s porters, wreck his business and thus making sure he eventually comes calling. Dead-Legs has nutured his grudge for years and orchestrated a perverse revenge, the final part of which is the reuniting of the father and daughter, then have them killed by the tribe at his command. The plot is at once totally crackpot and of course hugely entertaining. 

Reviews of the film were not kind and it’s noticeable how critics were getting a bit tired of Browning and Chaney providing what was called by one sensitive lamb critic as ‘muck for money’s sake’. West of Zanzibar, however, proved another solid hit and took $337,000 in profits. Variety found the plot preposterous and said Browning was in a rush to tell his story. West of Zanzibar will satisfy Lon Chaney fans who like their color regardless of the way it is daubed,’ the reviewer opined. Photoplay snarked: ‘Lon Chaney goes cripple again for the sake of the public.’ Another trade rag, Harrison’s Reports, went into full-on rant mode, addressing distributors directly and making a dig at the studio practice of block-booking. The writer stated:‘How any normal person could have thought this horrible syphilitic play (Kongo) could have made an entertaining picture, even with Lon Chaney, is beyond comprehension. But here it is, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture, which you will be compelled to show to the people of the United States as entertainment.’

Throughout the 1920s American audiences had a taste for the macabre and Browning obliged them. The Kentucky-born ex-circus and Vaudeville performer undoubtedly loved provocative material, weird melodramatic scenarios and even weirder characters, but he was generally careful about what he showed. He disliked being interviewed by the press and after he retired either nobody thought to sit down with him to discuss his career or he demurred offers. The lack of any summary or final word on his body of work is perfectly mysterious, but it’s also let a lot of nonsense fill the space. A notoriously private man, he did expound one time on his theory on the portrayal on intense imagery and horrible things. He believed audiences had a threshold they couldn’t go beyond and, if matters were too much to comprehend, too disgusting or too downright peculiar, the response would be laughter. This strain of conservativism, of holding back, perhaps a Victorian hangover, allowed him to operate in the mainstream. 

The films with Chaney connected because they were compellingly offbeat and his star player was arguably the greatest actor of the silent era. Here was a star personality who illicted sympathy even when playing villains and freaks. Often, too, the characters in the Browning films sort redemption in the third act and recognised the error of their ways. Importantly, the films were never outré to the point of alienation (unlike Freaks, 1932). In other words, Browning’s movies were the right kind of wrong for a mainstream viewership. The pair crucially had MGM’s boy wonder studio executive, Irving G. Thalberg (1899-1936), batting for them. All said, Tod Browning’s films still managed to be transgressive and downright messed up. It’s quite a trick to do that in popular cinema and get away with it for so long. While Freaks is pinpointed as a masterpiece of transgressive cinema, rightly so, extraordinarily made by MGM in its pomp, it’s no less staggering the same studio made a film like The Unknown (1927), in which Chaney plays a murderer who has his arms willingly amputated because the object of his desire cannot stand the touch of men. It is one gonzo piece of work. That the girl, played by Joan Crawford, in an early role, suddenly gets over her fear after the operation is performed, adds further to the cruel irony at the heart of the story. It is a truly unique psychosexual, amour fou melodrama. Made by MGM! 

Inspired by the 1926 hit play, Kongo, by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon, De Vonde had years previously ventured to the then-Belgian outpost and there contracted the disease which would eventually kill him. Before he passed away, he wrote Kongo with Gordon and directed it for the stage at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway. Walter Huston took the lead role played on screen by Lon Chaney and would appear again in MGM’s 1932 remake of West of Zanzibar, a film which this time kept the play’s original title. The early sound redo is fascinating in juxtaposition to Browning’s picture. As well as lifting shots from the 1928 work and reinserting them into Kongo, we can readily see how one film is the work of an auteur filmmaker and the other a studio hack on an assignment. Pre-Code Kongo intrigues, for sure, because it directly refers to drug addiction and other sordidness, whereas Browning either cut it out or cleverly addressed it in purely visual cues and insinuation. Huston’s Flint is much more of a twisted, one-dimensional sadist and while his revenge plan is exactly the same, it lacks the nuance and pathos Browning provided with his adaptation. Neither does its atmosphere compete with West of Zanzibar.

Kongo’s screen rights were purchased by Thalberg, to the tune of $35,000 dollars and, despite strong opposition from the Hays Office, which MGM bypassed by simply changing the film’s title and softened and muted bits which would get them into hot water, it entered production. Shot entirely at MGM’s Culver City facilities, from 25 June to 31 July 1928, the atmospheric sets were constructed around the studio’s water tank on Lot Two. The production design is most vivid. The jungle sets are claustrophobic, while the use of freaky-looking masks and tribal drums pounding away in heightened scenes tip the exotic into the realm of nightmare. The humid look of the picture is heightened by Percy Hilburn’s cinematography. In the film, bodies glisten with beads of sweat and a malerial ambience is palpable throughout. Hilburn’s lighting especially makes the white characters look suitably sickly and degenerate. 

Many story and detail changes were made in pre-production and during filming too, it seems. The script is attributed to screenwriter Elliot J. Clawson, who had previously worked with the director on The Road To Mandalay. In a May 1928 script, a title card description mentions the Doc character, played by Warner Baxter, as being off his face on booze and hashish. The hashish part was obviously dropped, as no mention of the drug appears in the film. Other potentially offensive scenes and bits of information were discarded in the run up to the shoot or scenes filmed were cut out during the editing process. An establishing sequence featuring Dead-Legs’ early years abroad sees him, Babe (Kalla Pasha), Tiny (Tiny Ward) and Doc (Baxter) perform a grifting routine, in which Dead-Legs is bullied by Tiny and Babe in a bar, causing people to take pity and give the supposedly destitute man money. Like in The Unholy Three, it’s all a carefully staged ruse. An example of Browning’s favourite theme: fooling the suckers. In the final cut, having discarded the scene, MGM’s title card writer, Joe Farnham, bridged the gap and transition between the US and Africa by jumping ahead with a title card: Eighteen years later—West of Zanzibar!’ Browning too had a hand in guiding all his scripts, either by coming up with the story or working on them uncredited. He created the backstory for Phroso/Dead-Legs and Anna and the opening of the picture, in which Phroso is on stage performing his act for an audience. 

One of the best scenes in the film, which in Kongo doesn’t work half as well, is the revealing of a shocking third-act twist! Maizie is really the daughter of Dead-Legs! Crane is left in hysterics, when the grand scheme is revealed and takes further delight in humiliating Phroso. The difference between Crane and Dead-Legs can best be summed up by George Clooney’s line in From Dusk Till Dawn (1995): ‘I may be a bastard, but I’m not a fucking bastard.’ Barrymore is playing the latter, Chaney the former. Once more, despite best laid plans, Chaney’s character just cannot win. What should be a moment of sadistic triumph is anything other. Also, this scene, in which Crane’s initial reaction goes from fake weeping to crying with laughter, highlights Browning’s masterful staging and cinematic skills. The moment in which Barrymore’s body language, sat on a wooden chair, completely changes from sadness to raging hilarity is done without sound, despite the film’s soundtrack of jungle drums and tribal cries. It beautifully conveys a powerful transformation. It is a mesmerising example of silent film craft and illusion. Crane is initially standing when Dead-Legs tells him Maizie is her daughter. He drops his linen suit jacket, stunned by the news. He turns his back to Dead-Legs (and the viewer), sits in the chair and doubles over. He jolts in his chair, as if weeping. ‘When I found Anna—she was dead! And this brat of yours was with her!’ The shot cuts to a medium on Barrymore, concealing his face in his hands. Another cut shows us Dead-Legs delighting in delivering the news. ‘I had her raised in the lowest dive in Zanzibar….so you could be proud of her!’ To share in Dead-Legs’ moment, Browning uses close-ups of the man pointing his finger at Crane. But it evaporates with Crane moving away his arm and revealing hysterical laughter. Anybody who sees this sequence cannot say Browning was a lucky hack; he was a master of cinema. 

The shot also neatly fits into Browning’s visual strategems related to secrets, identity and trickery. We see it from the very first shot, after the pun-style omen ‘Ashes to ashes! Dust to dust’ (given what happens to Dead-Legs in the film’s finale). The first shot of the movie is a coffin (a death symbol). Phroso appears in top hat and tails, with his back to the camera. He takes off a portion of the lid to reveal a skeleton and exits momentarily. Returning, he looks aghast at the skeleton and turns to the camera. Cheating a fourth wall setup, the camera quickly dissolves to an establishing shot of a theatre. The black space around Chaney and the coffin in the opening shot has transformed. Going through the motions of a skit, he walks behind the coffin and we see Anna patiently waiting to perform in the front of the crowd as the magician’s assistant. Again, Browning sets up the shot, like the opening text, as a visual pun on the fates of the characters. As the trick coffin lid turns, Anna disappears and the skeleton model takes her previous place. The scene is also ironic, in that when Dead-Legs attempts the same trick at the end of the picture, in order to save Maizie from the cannibals. They are not so easily duped as the paying audience in America. These sorts of ‘conceal and reveal’ setups are dotted throughout his filmography and there are numerous examples. It points not to lazy fixes but obsessive fixations. Another excellent example occurs post-show, where Phroso and Anna are embracing. Phroso is mooning over his beautiful wife, but as she has her face to the camera and he is hugging her from behind, only the audience sees the look of distraction. Something is bothering her. Conceal and reveal done in compositional framing. When he does see her face, he thinks she’s tired. When Anna walks to her dressing room, the door is wide open. She enters, stops for a moment, closes the door behind her and we see the villain Crane. In a trick mirror shot, Crane approaches Anna, his reflection and weird grin registering a sense he’s malevolent and up to no good. None of this is done with inter-titles, it is through performance, body language and shot composition. In purely visual terms, we know this man is a baddie and Phroso is a bit of a fool in love.

The ending of the film was rewritten several times, but exactly how the tribal elder twigs on to Dead-Legs being a charlatan is never satisfactorily answered. We see him stare at a medallion hanging from the neck of Dead-Legs in a shot and reverse shot setup. That’s all we get. It could be the chief’s epiphany is related to cultural differences between the medallion and African custom. It could just be he finally realised the great white man is a great white fraud. If Dead-Legs really can commune with Iwas, what is the purpose of his western medallion/totem? With this admittedly grasping reading, we can at least try to find an answer to the narrative problem and it psychologically points to the tribal elder’s rejection of Dead-Legs and his supposed powers in a meaningful way. The medallion is seen in the last shot before the fade to the credits. Dead-Legs has been redeemed by his heroic actions in allowing Maizie and Doc to escape. He has been chucked on the pyre built and lit for Crane and Maizie, alive or dead we never learn. All that remains is the silver medallion in the ashes. ‘Ashes to ashes! Dust to dust!’ 

Dead-Legs’ comeuppance, too, allows for an anti-colonialist reading, albeit one which fails to reconcile or redeem the film’s own iffy representations of Africans as savages, backwards idiots partaking in rituals such as cannibalism and the misogynistic practice of Sati, a historical cultural custom of Asia, not Africa, in which a wife or daughter is placed on the funeral pyre of a husband or father and consumed by the flames. It is a film, however, where the degenerate white trader dies for his wickedness and the Africans realise they’ve been duped and exact a brutal revenge of their own. The presentation of white people in the jungle as brutish, drunken, debased and rotten is striking. They lord it over the natives, treat them poorly and are so certain of their superiority. Their influence is entirely negative and they are plundering natural resources (ivory from elephants). It isn’t a remotely positive vision of colonialism, that’s for sure. 

Here’s a final thought. Freaks (1932) could well be a spiritual (or direct) prequel to West of Zanzibar. Browning had wanted to adapt the short story Spurs, on which Freaks is based, in the mid-1920s. He was eyeing Harry Earles and Chaney for roles as they’d appeared together in The Unholy Three. If it had been made in this period, Chaney would have undoubtedly been involved, given the topic. Phroso, lest we forget, is also the name of Wallace Ford’s clown character. And could not Venus (Leila Hyams) easily be Anna? Venus sounds like a stage name, after all. A potential connection is furthered by a discarded makeup experiment devised by director and leading man. Browning and Chaney loved to muck around with character ideas. Extant photographs show to us Dead-Legs was to be transformed into a human duck in a sideshow carnival. Browning eventually used the human duck makeup on Olga Baclanova in Freaks. The intention might not have been there at all and this interpretation way off, but it’s neither a stretch to imagine Chaney appearing as Phroso in Freaks, if he hadn’t died in August 1930, or Phroso and Venus leaving behind the world of the freakshow to work together on something a bit classier, before fate conspired to turn love’s young dream into a febrile yarn of emasculation and hideous vengeance!