2 November 2001 | lugonian
"Lon Chaney Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out!"
"West of Zanzibar" (MGM, 1928), directed by Tod Browning, is the first screen carnation to the Broadway play, "Kongo," which starred Walter Huston. In the silent production made during the dawn of sound, it stars Lon Chaney giving another fine performance, this time playing an embittered cripple out to avenge the man who had wronged him.
The story opens with Phroso (Lon Chaney), a lime-house magician who is assisted by his wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsdon) with his magic tricks. After she goes to her dressing room, she is confronted by Crane (Lionel Barrymore), her lover, who wants to take her with away with him to Africa, but Anna hasn't told her husband about their upcoming plans and of her intentions of leaving him. Crane advises her to get ready while he breaks the news to Phroso. After being given the shocking news, Phroso becomes upset, which finds Crane accidentally pushing Phroso over the railing where he crashes into the platform below, causing his spine to break and to become crippled for life. One year later, Phroso is seen heading for a church on a wooded platform on wheels where he is to meet Anna. By the time he gets there, Anna has died, leaving behind a little girl child. Believing the baby to be Crane's, Phroso decides to avenge himself on Crane for all the suffering he has caused by raising the child of his own choosing, and to have her suffer when the time comes. Eighteen years later, the now bald-headed Phroso, now known as "Dead Legs," is living in Africa where he occupies his time in performing magic tricks to the natives. He sends for Maizi (Mary Nolan), the child now a grown woman, and Crane, who is in Africa collecting elephant tusks and ivory, to make preparations to satisfy his long awaited revenge.
Supporting the legendary Chaney are Warner Baxter (only a year away from his Best Actor Academy Award for "In Old Arizona" in 1929) as the young doctor; Roscoe Ward as Tiny; and Curtis Nero as Bumbo, all acting as assistants to Phroso/Deadlegs.
"West of Zanzibar" was one of the 13 silent MGM movies that initially premiered in New York City on the PBS series, MOVIES, GREAT MOVIES (Original air date: WNET, Channel 13, November 1, 1973), accompanied by a new orchestral score. Currently shown on Turner Classic Movies, "West of Zanzibar" is presented with its original musical score and sound effects. If that musical score that accompanies "West of Zanzibar" sounds familiar, portions of it were used for the 1930s presentation of the TARZAN adventure series starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. Remade by MGM in 1932 as "Kongo" starring Walter Huston and Virginia Bruce in the Chaney and Nolan roles, the sound version became longer and more of a more violent nature than the Chaney film.
"West of Zanzibar" adds to the long list of Chaney's many screen characters. As for his many faces, he presents two of them. One as a young magician with make up and dark hair, the second as a mean-faced bald-headed cripple with hate in his heart, dragging himself around by his hands with his useless legs behind him. One thing about Lon Chaney, he never ceases to amaze his audience. Although bizarre as the Chaney-Browning combination is concerned, it's worth a look. (***)