Lurid. Now there’s a word you don’t see very often.
And that’s a shame because it calls to mind some images and feelings that, if you didn’t use the word, would require complete sentences to convey. Plus, how can you write about the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney film collaborations without using the term “lurid melodrama”? Maybe you can do it, but you’ll be sweating blood before you’re through.
“West of Zanzibar” and “The Unknown” are the most lurid of the team’s productions, and among the most lurid mainstream Hollywood movies of all time. In the former, Chaney stars as Phroso (a name re-used by Browning in “Freaks”), a vaudeville magician in a baggy clown costume. As we watch Phroso perform what will become his signature trick—making a woman disappear from a coffin-shaped box standing upright on the stage—Chaney emphasizes a comic way of moving. He shuffles along, then stops to look back over his shoulder at us in the audience.
Browning, an old carnie veteran himself, cuts to the rear of the coffin so we can see how the trick is done, with a revolving back panel that allows Anna, Phroso’s wife (Jacqueline Gadsden—her name has also been given as Jacqueline Hart and Jacqueline Daly; such is fame in the movies) to exit the box while a skeleton swings around as a substitution.
Backstage after the performance Anna reveals to the magician that she is leaving him to run away with Crane, a dealer in ivory (Lionel Barrymore). Phroso pleads his case but gets into a shoving match with Crane, who causes the performer to lose his balance and fall from the second story onto a table below.
Over a year passes and we rejoin Phroso. As a result of the fall, he has lost the use of his legs and now gets around by scooting himself along on a board with wheels under it. He receives a message that Anna has returned with a baby and that he can find them at a church. He rolls up to the altar where Anna lies dead. The baby girl sits next to her.
From here we jump forward eighteen years. Phroso, now known as “Dead-Legs,” has moved to equatorial Africa where he lives with Doc, an alcoholic physician (Warner Baxter) and two factotums, Tiny (Roscoe Ward) and Babe (Kalla Pasha).
Phroso has changed, and not for the better. His head has been shaved and he dons stubble on his face and pate. He has become hardened and cruel, berating his companions—especially Doc—and treating the natives, who regard him with some awe because of his reliance on stage magic, like slaves. It must be said that Browning’s depiction of native Africans is far from sympathetic. They are cowardly, childlike, and brutal, and are only in the film to provide an unreasoning danger always ready to break out.
Anna’s baby, Maizie, is not part of this uber-dysfunctional family. Phroso, despising her for her entire life as the offspring of his unfaithful wife and Crane, has shipped her off to be raised in a brothel/dive in Zanzibar. As you can see, I didn’t emphasize the word “lurid” for nothing.
But now Maizie has grown into a surprisingly innocent young woman (the beautiful but unfortunate Mary Nolan), and Phroso has sent Tiny to retrieve her with the promise that she can finally meet her father. Tiny, pretending to be a missionary, brings her back to Phroso’s camp, where the crippled man treats her like dirt. He gives her clothing to the native women, he makes her eat off the floor, he humiliates her however he can and gets her addicted to alcohol. Tiny and Babe act as if this bizarre behavior is perfectly normal, but Doc, smitten with her beauty and decency, wants to rescue her.
Just as we come to assume that Maizie’s fate is to be reduced to sub-human status by Dead-Legs’ sadism, we, along with the girl, witness a native ceremony and learn that whenever an important male in the village dies, he is cremated along with his wife or daughter. Then we learn that Crane is in the area trading for ivory, and all becomes clear.
Dead-Legs has been hijacking Crane’s goods and deliberately letting him know how he can be found. Crane shows up to deliver a warning to desist. The relative hierarchy of whiles over blacks is made clear as Crane is carried over a mud puddle by his native workers so he can avoid staining his white trousers.
When he meets Dead-Legs and realizes who he is, Crane slaps his hands together and lets out a whoop of joy. As cruel as the man in the wheelchair, he takes pleasure in his old rival’s devolution into a crawling, sweat-stained creature of the jungle. When Dead-Legs introduces him to Maizie, the old magician rejoices in his brutal treatment of the young woman. Crane himself thinks Phroso is keeping the girl as his mistress and gets a kick from what he must see as a sado-masochistic ménage.
To continue discussing the film’s plot at this point would reveal some of its secrets. It’s a relatively short picture and the final reel speeds by. Perhaps the movie’s brevity is the result of material censored from the final cut. Scenes of Phroso’s dehumanization were excised—him begging for money and being beaten, as well as the debasement of being forced to work as a carnival geek (his employment as a human duck was re-used by Browning in “Freaks”). Shocking as these scenes would have been in 1928, their inclusion would have gone a long way toward explaining the man that Phroso becomes. Without them, the extremity of his hatred of Maizie seems bizarre, but it is what makes the film more than just a sordid revenge tale.
“West of Zanzibar” exists beyond reason. Its ferocity is akin to that of the most hideous Jacobean revenge tragedies, crossing the border at times that separates horror from black humor. The screen practically drips with sweat, and madness seems to be the norm.
Chaney’s performance is remarkable, and not just on the physical level. Dead-Legs is a masterpiece of evil and insanity. Every smile is forced; every gesture of kindliness is a calculation. And it isn’t a performance that is grounded in Chaney’s grease paint and false beards. It springs from Phroso’s psychological make-up.
Chaney and Browning would approach this level of perversion only one other time, in the gob-smacking “The Unknown.” But “West of Zanzibar” may be a more subversive film.
You can’t watch “The Unknown” and not be aware of the Chaney character’s profoundly abnormal psychology. You can watch “West of Zanzibar” and think that you’re reacting only out of pity to Maizie’s plight, or that the acting is keeping you riveted. If there’s anything else at work in the back of your mind, you don’t want to know about it.