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This film can be discounted as unacceptable by many modern audiences. It
filmed in black and white. It is silent and it shows African blacks in a
stero-typic manner that would not be accepted today.
Saying all that, it is a must-see film for any serious student or fan of drama. Chaney gives in this film one of the most powerful and convincing acting performances of any actor in any film. Without a single spoken word he shows anger to the point of madness, sly intelligence and overwhelming remorse and sorrow.
There is no feel of "miming emotions " or "mugging for the camera" about this film. The emotions that Chaney display feel so authentic that at times this viewer feels a discomfort for intruding into the personal torment of the character.
The director has used the talents of Chaney and to a lesser extent those of the other actors to relay most of the story with minimal use of "Text Cards", which otherwise would have disrupted the flow of action.
Silent film of crippled Lon Chaney Sr. who blames a man (Lionel Barrymore)
for causing it. He tortures and turns his young daughter (Mary Nolan) into a
drug addict to punish him.
Very strange but absolutely fascinating movie. The story is strong (but not overly gruesome like its remake "Kongo") with great acting. Nolan is very good at playing innocent and drugged out. Barrymore isn't in it much, but he's very good when he is. Chaney is just great in his role--quite possibly one of the best performances I've ever seen on film, and I've seen hundreds of them.
Quite simply, this is one of the best silent films ever. A definite must-see.
"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. (***)
Somewhere WEST OF ZANZIBAR, a crippled magician insanely
plots revenge on the ivory hunter who ruined his life...
Lon Chaney dominates this fascinatingly bizarre little silent movie. More than just a horror actor,' Chaney was a consummate craftsman who, here using a minimum of makeup, could sway an audience with the slightest facial twinge or glance from his haunted eyes. Completely convincing as a cripple, dragging his dead legs behind him across the floor, he becomes more a monstrous aberration than a human being.
Lionel Barrymore, Warner Baxter & lovely Mary Nolan all give excellent performances in supporting roles, but this is really Chaney's picture all the way. The fine production values , courtesy of MGM, only enhance its star's dominance of the medium.
With Tod Browning, Chaney's frequent collaborator, as director, it is fascinating to speculate how much Chaney's physical performance here later influenced Browning's vision in his masterwork, FREAKS (1932).
Crippled during a confrontation with his wife's lover, Phroso, a famous
English magician (Lon Chaney, Sr), vows to exact terrible revenge on wife
and lover. A couple of year's later when the wife, fatally ill, returns to
London with a young child, Phroso's plans are put into action. After she
succumbs to her illness, Phroso emigrates to Africa with her child, where
the wife's lover is an ivory trader, a vocation also undertaken by Phroso.
Now known as Dead-Legs he becomes the most feared and degenerate backcountry ivory trader west of Zanzibar. He raises his daughter, who he presumes is not his own, to be a drug-addicted prostitute. With his wife's child debased, he waits like a spider in his web for the man who cuckolded and then paralyzed him. Dark stuff, this.
It's a morbid although entertaining little tale, and Lon Chaney gives his usual top-notch performance, transitioning from the big-hearted Phroso to the crippled (in both body and sole) Dead-Legs. The movie is worth watching just for his performance. Tod Browning is in his element and delivers up a dark, creepy tale. So what that the plot twists are telegraphed from a mile away, and the portrayal of Africans is negatively stereotyped. If these shortcomings can be overlooked, this is a good example of the Browning-Chaney collaborations. Not bad for a silent film, which has a recorded soundtrack, coming as it did on the cusp of the transition to sound.
Very interesting and unusual silent film starring Lon Chaney as Phrosos
the Magician, a stage show performer who has a wife he really loves -
but she informs him she is planning to leave him for a man named Crane
(Lionel Barrymore). When Crane tells Phrosos he is taking her away to
Africa - he fights with Phrosos sending him falling over the railing of
a second floor landing. His legs now paralyzed, Phrosos goes around
riding a cart or pulls himself around by his arms, with his lifeless
legs dragging behind. When the wife comes back with a baby, he finds
the wife dead - so Phrosos, bitter and full of hate, sets out for
Africa to seek his revenge on Crane and the baby daughter. Eighteen
years pass - Phrosos, now known as "Dead-Legs", uses his magic to trick
the natives with fake "voodoo" so he can steal elephant tusks from
Crane, now a trader. Meanwhile, he has the daughter being raised in a
Zanzibar brothel and he sends for her to come to him - all part of his
evil plan. He now holds the poor girl captive and treats her like dirt
- doing such things to her as making her eat on the floor and giving
all her clothes to the natives. Twists and turns to follow.
This is an absorbing, well done film - odd, creepy, and sad too. Chaney is really excellent in this - he gets such a look of evil and hate on his expressive face and is just SO good at making his legs look completely lifeless. Mary Nolan, who plays the daughter, spends most of the film looking around her with a complete look of disgust (and who can blame her!) - but her facial expressions are slightly over the top sometimes. Warner Baxter is handsome here playing Doc, Chaney's sidekick in Africa who falls in love with the girl. Very good.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Despite the flaws to be expected in a silent film that rushes the story
forward by compressing time and events and bridging the gap with a few
written words of dialog, WEST OF ZANZIBAR remains another interesting,
weird and chilling entry in the cycle of LON CHANEY's horror films.
As to be expected, Chaney once again suffers for his art. He plays a man so damaged by a fall during a struggle with LIONEL BARRYMORE, that he must spend the rest of his life as a cripple, vowing to get revenge against the man who claimed he was going to take Chaney's sweetheart to Africa. Chaney then discovers the woman dead in church (a probable suicide) with her little girl crying near her body.
The scene shifts to Africa where Chaney is bent on revenge and the tale takes some really darker turns involving natives immersed in Voodoo practices, the death of ivory merchant Barrymore, and some revelations about the identity of the girl who is part of Chaney's plan to seek revenge against the man who wronged him.
It's typical Tod Browning/Lon Chaney melodrama and some of it looks pretty primitive by today's standards but silent film lovers will undoubtedly put this one near the top of their list as a film great.
Chaney reveals himself to be a great actor, capable of instilling fear and hatred in his expression and a number of other grimaces in between. As expected, LIONEL BARRYMORE proves that even as early as silent films he was given to much blustery overacting, as is WARNER BAXTER in his drunk scene. MARY NOLAN, as the blonde beauty, seems to be smirking most of the time rather than smiling, probably to suggest the hard life she's been living as a part of Chaney's scheme--but she's effective most of the time.
Well worth viewing for any Lon Chaney or Tod Browning fan.
Tod Browning is a marvelous director. I guess I've known this since i've seen his two most famous films, Dracula (the Bela Lugosi version) and Freaks. But neither of those films could have prepared me for the two films that I saw tonight (well, okay, maybe Freaks did; Dracula's not all that great a film). First, The Unknown from 1927 and, second, West of Zanzibar from the next year. Both of them starring Lon Chaney (Sr.). They are two of the most well-acted, well-directed, inventive, literate, powerful, and beautiful films I've ever seen. The difference between the two is that I had before heard of The Unkown - it's plot is too bizarre to be all that unknown. It's easily mentioned in the same breath with Freaks (in my opinion it is a step above it; that film is only interested in showing the freaks, although there are a couple of great, great scenes); there are thematic and plot similarities. But West of Zanzibar - it's not a typical film at all (not that The Unknown is, either, mind you!). In fact, it would be pointless to reveal any plot here, for if you've seen it (and I have no clue how many have), you'll likely remember it. If you haven't, it would be nice to come in fresh. See this underrated gem, I implore you!
This movie is totally Lon Chaney - now almost forgotten - but an acting
talent for the ages. Thousands of actors then and now pale to the breadth
his gargantuan talent. I tremble and shake before the gifts he has bestowed
His utter concentration literally consumed me as I held my breath before the fabulous spectrum of his delivery.
In West of Zanzibar, this still-reigning and consummate master of make-up shows us just how high he could jump.
Catch him if you can...I dare you.
What would appear on the outset to be another insane horror feature
along the lines of Freaks (at least from the definitely deceptive
publicity picture with Lon Chaney as a chicken or other, which never
happens in the film), West of Zanzibar is just another melodrama.
Actually, that's a lie. West of Zanzibar is one of the finest examples
of the wild, over-the-top melodrama in the silent era. This is a
filmmaker who understands what makes a melodrama tick and tickle, and
in this film it's about the details of its plot unfolding at a quick
clip but with enough characterization to make it never less than
fascinating. At worst, it is painfully dated (the stereotypes of tribes
people on screen seem a little flagrant), but at best its an example of
what could be possible when a director could get his cast to convey all
necessary through pantomime and gesture, of grandiosity loaded with
little details stitched in there.
It helps that Lon Chaney is starring, however. This is probably what makes it a must-see for me; between just seeing two of his films, this and Phantom of the Opera, he appears to be one of the giants of his time. Maybe even more-so in the case of Zanzibar, one sees Chaney's skills without make-up, with the only gimmick of his "Dead-Legs" not obfuscating what is most interesting about him which is his face and eyes. This man conveys so much without ever, for a second, going too far over the top, at least to how far Browning's melodrama commands. Lionel Barrymore, for the supporting-role time he's on camera, doesn't disappoint either, and character players Mary Nolan and Warner Baxter don't do bad at all, but Chaney just hits it so far out of the park it's without compare in this case.
Playing especially this character, a man with a revenge plot that he has 18 years in the making (sound like that guy in 2009 Star Trek to you?), is a leap of faith, but its one the audience will make since this actor is so determined in this character, invested to the point where we believe how he's a jaded guy, as Doc describes him as despicable and very human at the same time. It's far more complex a character than I would have ever expected going in; the casket he has isn't too shabby, either.
As for Browning fans looking for mood, there's lots of it, especially of the voodoo kind (again, some of it is a little squirm-in-your-seat variety, just in terms of the faces not necessarily the rituals and fire-dances). It's never too laugh-out-loud funny, but it has its moments, like when Maizie's clothes are used for ritual purposes by the tribe-folk. There's also a very sublime touch near the end, perhaps expected in the bittersweet vein but still very satisfying, and I'm sure that was the filmmaker's sensibility all the way. It's a wonderful movie, for fans of the star and director, and if you can see it with a live piano by any chance it's highly recommended.
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