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West of Zanzibar

West of Zanzibar(1928)

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teaser West of Zanzibar (1928)

In West of Zanzibar (1928), Lon Chaney's ninth performance for director Tod Browning is undoubtedly his most ferocious. In this fable of unfathomable cruelty, Chaney plays Dead-Legs Flint, a ruthless human monster who engineers a horrifying revenge upon the man who stole his wife. Before he was a wheelchair-bound maniac, Dead-Legs was the amiable Phroso, a music hall entertainer who performs a magic act with his wife (Jacqueline Gadsden). But when Anna runs away with the wealthy ivory trader Crane (Lionel Barrymore), Phroso falls from a balcony and injures his spine. The incident renders him unable to walk, and incapable of any thought other than diabolical cruelty. He takes Anna and Crane's love child and has her raised "in the lowest dive in Zanzibar" (i.e. a brothel), and sets up his own kingdom in the jungles, where he deceives the superstitious natives with his magic tricks.

When Maizie (Mary Nolan) turns eighteen, Dead-Legs introduces her to the horrors of the jungle and gets her hooked on alcohol. Then, Dead-Legs invites Crane to visit his compound and be reintroduced to his thoroughly defiled daughter. Unforeseen events complicate the father-daughter reunion, and reveal that Dead-Legs' elaborate plot is more ungodly than even he imagined. Chaney's over-the-top performance was a major influence on the growth of the horror super villain, and shades of Dead-Legs can be found in such contemporary anti-heroes as Chucky (Child's Play, 1988), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984), and Jason (Friday the 13th, 1980). West of Zanzibar is so mean-spirited and vile that it provoked watchdog organizations to call for a more stringent system of censorship in the film industry.

Director: Tod Browning
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg, Tod Browning
Screenplay: Elliott Clawson (based on the play Kongo by Chester de Vonde & Kilbourn Gordon
Cinematography: Percy Hilburn
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Lon Chaney (Phroso), Lionel Barrymore (Crane), Warner Baxter (Doc), Mary Nolan (Maizie), Jacqueline Gadsden (Anna), Roscoe Ward (Tiny).

by Bret Wood

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West of Zanzibar (1928)

West of Zanzibar was based on the controversial play Kongo (by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon), which had starred Walter Huston as Dead-Legs in its New York run (opening March 30, 1926). The New York Sun reported it was "apt to disgust anybody who has no liking for profanity, immorality, unvarnished sex talk and other forms of smut on the stage."

When the original play was submitted to the MGM story department in 1926, the anonymous reader filed this report, "If there is one clean line or situation in it I don't know where it is... I won't say it wouldn't be successful on Broadway, because it seems the more smut there is cloaked under the name of 'drama,' the more New York likes it, but as a picture there isn't a line of it could be done. If the censors didn't stop it, the public would. It is one play that to my mind should be tabooed... I am unalterably opposed to this play as a picture."

The story was inspired by a trip through the Congo taken by De Vonde (a noted repertory stage actor). According to a newspaper report, De Vonde contracted an "incurable tropical disease" during his jungle excursion, and the quest to bring the play to film became an intense desire in his final days. On January 10, 1928, De Vonde died, without realizing his goal. Two hours after his death, MGM purchased the motion picture rights for $35,000.

Kongo was on a list of literary properties that censorship czar Will Hays "recommended" never be adapted to film. MGM changed the name of the film to appease the Hays Office. For a time, it was known as The Dark Continent, and then South of the Equator. In addition, several characters' names were changed to prevent further associations with the notorious play. Hays wrote to MGM, "We should first consider the elements which caused Kongo to be rejected, and then see that those elements are entirely removed... In proceeding you will easily remove all references to dope... to social diseases, miscegenation, seduction, etc."

Warner Baxter plays "Doc," a drink-addicted man whom Dead-Legs keeps at his jungle compound to administer to his paralyzed spine. In the original play, Doc was exiled from America because a patient had died as a result of an illegal abortion he performed.

The jungles were recreated on the MGM backlots, and the tropical foliage was kept alive via underground steam pipes that saturated the soil and provided the surrounding air with humidity.

To create the mud floor of Dead-Legs's hut, set-builders laid down a burlap base, then covered it with a mixture of paint and putty to create the desired consistency and appearance.

Shooting of West of Zanzibar (production #378) began July 2 and concluded July 31, 1928, only one day behind schedule. The crew encountered no major setbacks, although on five days they worked from nine a.m. until after midnight -- one night shooting until 4:50 am (no doubt shooting the night exteriors).

During the shooting of some scenes, Browning had musicians pound jungle drums off-screen to enhance the tropical mood. In the more dramatic interiors, Browning relied upon the talents of Sam and Jack Feinberg (on violin and portable organ), who often provided mood music to silent performers during filming. When it came time for the ceremonial tribal dances, the local extras had difficulty dancing to the jungle drums. To remedy the situation, a radio was brought to the set and played jazz tunes broadcast by a local station.

The MGM Story
The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davis
The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters
Classics of the Silent Screen: A Pictorial Treasury by Joe Franklin
The Horror People by John Brosnan
Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning by David J. Skal & Elias Savada

Research compiled by Bret Wood

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West of Zanzibar (1928)

Kalla Pasha, a former professional wrestler, appears as Dead-Legs's cockney thug "Babe." Pasha had previously appeared in Browning's 1919 film The Wicked Darling.

A former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Mary Nolan (aka Imogene Wilson) was cast for her large pleading eyes, "the most tragic eyes on the screen," Browning said. Nolan was the victim of several abusive relationships and was unofficially blacklisted when she filed complains against blackface comedian Frank Tinney for "kicking and beating her once too often and too hard."

The stage play occurs entirely within the jungle hut of Dead-Legs (who, in the play, is known as Morgan). Browning devised Flint's vaudeville background, and the entire music-hall prologue. The idea of Flint's magic tricks was retained in the 1932 remake, Kongo.

By mid-1928, when West of Zanzibar was shot, many big-budget films in Hollywood were being shot in sound. Chaney was resistant to the sound revolution, so the film was shot silent. For its initial release, however, a Movietone score was commissioned, comprised of original music and sound effects. This soundtrack exists today and accompanies TCM's showing of West of Zanzibar.

West of Zanzibar was first screened in Los Angeles in November 1928. Its official opening was December 28, 1928 at New York's Capitol Theatre (the palace where MGM premiered its major productions). The response was overwhelming. It earned an unbelievable $88,869 in its first week at the Capitol. Motion Picture News wrote, "If you do not have a S.R.O. (Standing Room Only) sign in your theatre... you had better order one immediately before playing this picture."


In one scene missing from release prints of West of Zanzibar, Dead-Legs devises his own "detox" method. To help sober up the alcohol- and drug-addicted Doc, Dead-Legs took a small knife and made "little jabs at his legs and arms," explaining, "Just making a few marks for the leeches to work on!" The patient was then thrown into a swamp so the leeches could "suck the poison out."

In one of the most notorious "lost scenes" in film history, Browning had shown Dead-Legs' rebirth after his crippling accident. First he is a beggar, wheeling himself into a barbaric cantina on the East Coast of Africa. (see photo) Two men taunt him and throw him through a plate glass window. The tormentors experience drunken remorse, and take up a collection for the abused man. Browning reveals it was all a ploy, and the tormentors are actually Tiny (Roscoe Ward) and Babe (Kalla Pasha), his new accomplices in crime. Next, we see a carnival tent in Zanzibar, a "pit show" advertising "The Human Duck." (see photo) Doc is the spieler outside, Babe is the ticket-taker and Tiny is the musician, strumming a guitar himself. Dead-Legs is the Human Duck, wallowing in the sawdust in a monstrous half-man/half-duck costume. This costume was put in mothballs after the shoot, but was revived four years later when Browning employed it in the final shocking scene of Freaks (1932).

Although never shot, the film's original ending has Maizie stabbing Dead-Legs to death while he sleeps in his hut.

The MGM Story
The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davis
The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters
Classics of the Silent Screen: A Pictorial Treasury by Joe Franklin
The Horror People by John Brosnan
Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning by David J. Skal & Elias Savada

Research compiled by Bret Wood

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West of Zanzibar (1928)

"An out-pouring of the Cesspools of Hollywood!... How any normal person could have thought that the horrible syphilitic play could have made an entertaining picture... is beyond comprehension."
Harrison's Reports

"Of course, there is a school of motion picture thought that regards the Browning-Chaney romantic ugliness as a sin against the fine wholesomeness inherent in the art of cinema. To this observatory, however, it has always seemed that the films were so disgustingly healthy in their outlook that the trace of perversity in the works directed by, say, Browning and von Stroheim was enormously refreshing."
Richard Watts, Jr., New York Herald Tribune

"A grim, ingenious, but somewhat artificial tale... It is played by an especially good cast."
The New York Times

"After years of acting [Chaney] appears in his best photoplay since The Unholy Three (1925) which, if you recall, was his very best."
New York Sun

"Flint is a part that calls for some real acting. Mr. Chaney is superb, and West of Zanzibar is the best vehicle he has had in several years."
The New York Review

"Staged by Tod Browning, the picture is gruesome, almost terrible in its atmosphere, but it will rank with Chaney's best among those who seek horror thrills."
Zit's Theatrical Newspaper

"It's an interesting movie, gruesome and bizarre enough to please the most exacting Chaney fans. Witchcraft, superstition, horror and powerful dramatic suspense, repulsive make-up and a walloping story, fit it perfectly to the Chaney talents."
New York Mirror

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teaser West of Zanzibar (1928)

More than 27 years had passed between the release of the 1932 version of Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Johnny Weissmuller and this 1959 remake. Over that period of time - and dozens of movies released by several studios - Tarzan had married, acquired a son, been to New York, battled the Nazis, learned perfect English, and assisted in a Guatemalan treasure hunt, among many other improbable plot devices and settings. MGM, which produced the 1932 hit, must have thought it was time to return to basics. What the studio ended up with was its least popular entry in the series. In fact, for many years it was considered the worst Tarzan movie ever made until John and Bo Derek's Tarzan the Ape Man arrived on the scene in 1981. Seen today, the 1959 version has a certain camp value and how could it not with our jungle hero wrestling stuffed animals amid fake jungle greenery?

The movie does return to the original in more ways than one. It focuses on Tarzan's first meeting with Jane, who was eventually dropped from many of the ensuing movies in the popular series. It also uses footage lifted not only from the 1932 release but from MGM's sequel Tarzan and His Mate (1934), throwing in costumes and stock shots from another of the studio's African-set adventure flicks, King Solomon's Mines (1950). The pygmies whose village is wrecked by elephants are played by students from Los Angeles' Fairfax High School in the later release; in the 1932 version they were played by real pygmies.

Casting followed the tradition of having a former athlete play Tarzan. James Pierce (Tarzan and the Golden Lion, 1927) was an All-American college football hero. Bruce Bennett, still billed under his real name Herman Brix when he made a series of Tarzan movies in the 1930s, had been an Olympic shot-put champion. And Buster Crabbe; star of Tarzan the Fearless (1933), and later famous as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, was an Olympic swimming medalist like the movies' most popular Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller. So, if Denny Miller, star of the 1959 version, looks more like a Southern California jock than a denizen of the jungle, it's because he was a basketball star at UCLA when he was signed by MGM. To his credit, Miller has the physique and attitude for the role and is certainly not the worst Tarzan ever to swing from a vine. But for good measure, the producers dubbed in Weissmuller's trademark jungle call anyway. The role of Jane, originally created by Maureen O'Sullivan in 1932, was assigned to Joanna Barnes, who was appearing at the time in the TV series, 21 Beacon Street. Neither she nor Miller displayed as much skin as Weissmuller and O'Sullivan were allowed to show in 1932 before the more stringent enforcement of the production code.

Producer Al Zimbalist was also responsible for the story and production of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and later wrote the lyrics to the theme from Taffy and the Jungle Hunter (1965). The script was written by Robert Hill, author of She Gods of Shark Reef> (1958), Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), and the Joan Crawford vehicle Female on the Beach (1955). The original score was composed by jazz musician and arranger Shorty Rogers.

Director: Joseph Newman
Producer: Al Zimbalist
Screenplay: Robert Hill
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Hans Peters
Original Music: Shorty Rogers
Cast: Denny Miller (Tarzan), Joanna Barnes (Jane Parker), Cesare Danova (Harry Holt), Robert Douglas (James Parker), Thomas Yangha (Riano).

by Rob Nixon

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teaser West of Zanzibar (1928)

The ninth collaboration between Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning, West of Zanzibar (1928) is probably the most successful of their films together along with The Unknown. Adapted from a popular stage play, this tale of revenge and debasement is disturbing, even by current standards, and is not recommended for timid viewers. MGM even remade it in 1932 under its original stage title, Kongo with Walter Huston reprising his Broadway role.

West of Zanzibar opens on a picture of domestic bliss. Phroso (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. 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 degrading environment among superstitious natives. When Maizie reaches the age of eighteen, Phroso plots his final act of revenge and summons Crane to their isolated outpost under false pretenses.

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.

Director: Tod Browning
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Screenplay: Elliott Clawson (based on the play Kongo by Charles de Vonde & Kilbourn Gordon
Cinematography: Percy Hilburn
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Lon Chaney (Phroso), Lionel Barrymore (Crane), Warner Baxter (Doc), Mary Nolan (Maizie), Jacqueline Daly (Anna), Roscoe Ward (Tiny).

by Jeff Stafford

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West of Zanzibar (1928)

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." - Introductory title card to the film

"We'll end up being a mess of chops for those cannibals!"

"White master... greater... than... all... Evil Spirits! He... fears... nothing!"

"The idea, Babe... wastin' our good gin on them cannibals!"
"We've got the gin, Tiny! I put kerosene in that bottle!"

"He made me this thing that crawls... now I'm ready to bite!

"Dead-Legs is the chief Evil Spirit chaser 'round here!"

"I'm particular who I eat with! Feed her on the floor!"

"I had her raised in the lowest dive in Zanzibar... so you could be proud of her!"

"There's nothing too vile for you to do!"

"How did God ever put a thing like you on this earth?"

"Gee, but you're a strange man."

Compiled by Bret Wood

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