Released 12/28/28 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Director: Tod Browning; Producer: Irving Thalberg; Screenplay: Elliott Clawson and Waldemar Young, from the play Kongo by Chester DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon; Cinematography: Percy Hilburn; Film Editor: Harry Reynolds; Settings: Cedric Gibbons; Wardrobe: David Cox; Titles: Joe Farnham; Assistant Director: Harry Sharrock; 7 reels (6,150'); Print Source: Warner Brothers Classics
CAST: Lon Chaney (Phroso), Lionel Barrymore (Crane), Warner Baxter (Doc), Mary Nolan (Maizie), Jacqueline Gadsdon (Anna), Roscoe Ward (Tiny), Kalla Pasha (Babe), Curtis Nero (Bumbo), Fred Gambold (comedian), Art Winkler (Phroso's Assistant), Edna Tichenor, Rose Dione
SYNOPSIS: Phroso, a popular stage magician, is performing a trick with his beautiful wife, Anna, where he puts her into a coffin and turns her into a skeleton. After the show, Phroso learns that she is running away with Crane, and when Phroso attacks the man, he is knocked over a balcony and paralyzed from the waist down. Months pass, and Phroso learns that his wife has returned with a baby. He finds them in the church; Anna has died, and he swears revenge on Crane and the little baby that is the child of Crane and his wife. Eighteen years later, west of Zanzibar, Phroso has the local natives under his spell with his magic tricks. Phroso, now known as "Dead-Legs," and his buddies, Tiny, Babe, and Doc, are spreading tales of voodoo and evil spirits so they can rob Crane, now an ivory trader, every time he ships ivory through the jungle. He sends Babe to Zanzibar to bring back Anna's daughter, Maizie, who he has had raised as an alcoholic prostitute in the lowest brothel in town. Babe tells Maizie that he is there to bring her to her father, but when they arrive at the jungle shack, Dead-Legs insults her and says he will tell her why he brought her there when he is ready. Dead-Legs always participates as the head witch-doctor in a local ceremony...when a man dies, he and his wife or daughter are burned alive with his body. Doc is a former physician who has fled to the jungle for reasons unknown, and Dead-Legs keeps him around to work on his back so that he can keep crawling. Doc befriends the girl, and tries to comfort her when Dead-Legs abuses her, which is often. Dead-Legs has sent a message to Crane telling him where to find the man who is stealing his ivory. Crane arrives, recognizes Dead-Legs as Phroso, and Maizie is brought out in a disheveled state, and shaking badly from needing a drink. Crane asks Dead-Legs why he ruined this young girl, and Dead-Legs tells him that Maizie is Crane's daughter by Anna. Crane puts his head in his hands as if in anguish, but Dead-Legs realizes that he is laughing hysterically. Crane tells Dead-Legs that Anna never went away with him, and that the girl is Phroso's daughter! The natives carry out Dead-Legs' instructions to shoot Crane, and Doc is unable to save his life. Maizie faints, and Dead-Legs hugs her to him. Doc realizes what has happened, and when Maizie comes to, Doc swears to her that Crane was not her father, and that her father had died years before. The natives come to get Maizie to burn on the funeral pyre, and Dead-Legs concocts a plan to save the girl. Doc convinces her that Dead-Legs is trying to save her, and she reluctantly agrees to say goodbye to him. The natives arrive and Maizie is put in Phroso's trick coffin. After some hocus- pocus, the coffin is opened and only a skeleton remains. Dead-Legs tells the natives that an evil spirit has taken her body, but they do not believe him and they attack him. As Doc and Maizie float down river to safety, a native fishes Dead-Legs' necklace out of the raging fire.
"In a grim, ingenious, but somewhat artificial tale, with a background of an African swamp festooned with cannibals, Lon Chaney once again returns to the impersonation of a cripple...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." - --The New York Times
"With Lon Chaney in the principal role the picture is certain to be a box office drawing card, but there is nothing about the film itself that will cause anyone to go out and rave about it." ---Motion Picture News
"WEST OF ZANZIBAR indicates an over-worked Chaney. The star is there, but the rush of getting his quota on the release schedule is taking its toll in the most important phase of production--preparation. In this respect Chaney's latest impresses as having exhausted the property men and the casting director and allowing Tod Browning to follow religiously one of those cuff scripts...Musical score is regular. Attempts at sound effects are worse, the chanting of savages reproducing like a college boy chorus." ---Variety
"Lon Chaney goes cripple again for the sake of the public, but not for art's sake. Remembering his fine performance in a straight role in TELL IT TO THE MARINES, it seems a great pity that such a good actor should indulge in charlatan tricks...Revenge, dope, crooks- --all the tricks! There is color and little else." ---Photoplay
NOTES: The Hays office, the official Hollywood censor, banned the stage play "Kongo" from the screen, so to bypass the ruling, MGM changed the title first to SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR, then finally to WEST OF ZANZIBAR, and passed off the film as "an original story for the screen by Chester DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon." The film was released with a synchronized musical score and sound effects.
A sequence planned for the original film had a sideshow tent advertising "The Human Duck," and Chaney made himself up as the half-man/half-duck. Stills of the sideshow tent and Chaney's makeup exist, but it is unclear whether the scene was actually shot, or merely planned and publicity stills taken. The original cutting continuity of the film does not contain the scene, so if it was shot, it was clearly removed before the original release. Browning decided to use the idea instead for his finale of the 1932 FREAKS, with Olga Baclanova as a deformed duck-woman, mutilated by the freaks.
Like most other Chaney films of 1927-29, WEST OF ZANZIBAR was a modest production, costing $259,000 with a production schedule of 31 days (one source says 29 days, but MGM records indicate 31 days of shooting). The film earned $337,000 in profits.
MGM remade the story in 1932 under the original title, KONGO, with Walter Huston in the Chaney role. The remake was fairly faithful to the original except that an additional female character (Lupe Velez) was added to the cast. Many of the shots in the remake even used the same camera angles, and some of the jungle footage looks like they were lifted directly from the original.
For further reading on the production of WEST OF ZANZIBAR, readers are referred to the Feb/March, 1991 article in FILMFAX by Bret Wood.
Also, check out this ad art and lobby card in my Poster Gallery.
© 2000,2008 Jon C. Mirsalis
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