West Of Zanzibar

Director: Tod Browning
Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Mary Nolan

Although I am not (yet) a world wide famous movie critic, I have been around the block enough times to know that there are some unofficial rules that critics are supposed to follow. One of these rules is that critics are not supposed to criticize other critics, the reason maybe being that the critic doing the criticizing may come across as someone who is deep down insecure and may not be confident his movie reviews alone can convince people to follow him. But I must confess that there are some movie critics that quite frankly drive me crazy to some degree or another. For example, there is Rex Reed and Michael Medved, and I don't think I have to go into any detail of explaining why I think they are terrible critics if you have been unlucky enough to read their writing. But even with some critics that I like a lot better, there has occasionally been something about them that makes me think that to some degree they are clueless. One such critic was Roger Ebert. I do like Ebert's opinions for the most part, but years ago there was a period where he liked to rant about something specific that was bothering him, and that was when black and white movies started to be colorized by Ted Turner and other people. This got Ebert to get on his high horse and state over and over how glorious black and white movies were, and how lucky they were to be photographed in that process. He called black and white photography more intriguing and mystifying, and when he tackled the argument that kids don't want to watch black and white movies, he stated that kids would watch music videos on MTV that used black and white photography.

Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against black and white movies, and I am not a fan of colorization, mainly because the coloring always seems to be ugly. I've seen a good share of black and white movies, and I have enjoyed many of them. But all the same, Ebert's gushing on black and white photography made him seem he was in la-la land. For example, his argument about MTV might have been accurate in that kids would watch black and white music videos... but I would bet my life's savings that if kids would rather watch a color or black and white movie, more often than not they would watch the color movie. Kids don't usually like to choose stuff that comes across as old to them. I think that the same reasoning would also apply many times to movies that were shot before the introduction of sound. Yes, I have heard stories over the years that when sound technology started to be unfolded in the motion picture world in the 1920s, there was great resistance by many people in the industry. True, there were a few people at the time that correctly saw that sound could add more things to a movie (Buster Keaton was one such person, believe it or not), but there were many more people in the industry who tried to stick to their guns. "Who the heck wants to hear an actor talk?" said studio chief Harry Warner. But as you no doubt know, the public instantly loved sound movies, and within a few years the entire industry was making sound movies by the dozens. The public for the most part did not want silent movies again, and precious few silent movies have been made since. Some of these few more silent movies have been commercial successes (The Artist and Mel Brooks' Silent Movie), but I am confident that if audiences today were given the choice between a sound movie and a silent movie, more often than not the choice would be for the sound movie.

No, I don't have any prejudice against movies that were shot silently. I am a fan of the silent comic movies and shorts by Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and many others. And I have seen a number of non-comic silent movies that have impressed me and kept me captivated; West Of ZanzibarI saw the legendary silent movie Greed in film class at university, and I thought it was a masterpiece. But I do think that silent movies should be viewed in the right light. In one of the few times moron Michael Medved and his equally idiot brother Harry made some sense, they said, "Silents are a separate and unique art form, and that judging them alongside talkies would be like weighing apples together with oranges." I recently remembered reading that statement, and thinking about it some more, I realized that while I have reviewed a few black and white films, I had not yet reviewed a black and white silent movie. Well, I decided that it was time to review a black and white silent movie, and I chose West Of Zanzibar to review, in part because earlier I had watched its interesting remake Kongo, which was made only four years later in the sound era. The star of West Of Zanzibar is the legendary Lon Chaney (The Phantom Of The Opera). In the movie, he plays a professional magician named Phroso, who is married to a woman named Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden, It). Phroso is devastated when Anna one day out of the blue leaves him for her lover Crane (Barrymore, It's A Wonderful Life), and when Phroso confronts Crane, Phroso accidentally gets crippled and loses the use of his legs. A year later, Phroso comes across the dead body of Anna, with a still alive baby girl beside her. Phroso decides to start a long and complicated plan of revenge against Crane and Crane's child, starting by moving to Africa. When he is there, he has the baby girl (named Maizie) raised for the next 18 years in a seedy bar, and during those 18 years Phroso builds an empire of sorts in the African jungle, using his magic tricks to appear God-like to the local population. Then when the adult Maizie (Nolan, Outside The Law) reaches the age of 18, Phroso starts to unfold a plan of revenge against Crane and Maizie... which doesn't exactly go to plan.

The director of West Of Zanzibar was Tod Browning, who is best known today by most people as the director of the 1930s cult horror (and sound) movies Dracula and Freaks. Actually, most of his directorial career was done during the days of silent cinema, and by the time of this film he had a lot of practice under his belt with the medium, as well as experience with previous film projects with actor Lon Chaney. And that probably explains why the level of direction in this movie is pretty good for the most part. True, there are some (perhaps inevitable) touches that come across as somewhat dated, with Browning getting the characters to show emotion with heavy arm movements and other theatrical touches. But at the same time, there is a surprisingly raw feeling to the entire enterprise that many directors today might find instructive. Instead of having your standard Hollywood polish, the movie more often than not feels a little sloppy and somewhat dirty; you can almost smell the sweat and dirt covering the characters. There is no real choreography or slickness on display here, and as a result of that, the movie has a more realistic feeling to it. I could buy this sordid cinematic world a lot more than the glitz and glamor associated with movies to come later from the MGM studio. Also, Browning does throw in some striking visuals here and there, my favorite being the shot when Phroso is approaching the gigantic church where his wife is; the character looks like a real dwarf next to this enormous structure, and it does give the message that at this point, where Phroso has lost his wife and ability to walk, Phroso is insignificant in this world of ours. It should come as no surprise when he soon after decides to fight (and fight hard) to make things right in his twisted frame of mind.

Another thing I often liked about Browning's direction is that he keeps the story chugging along at a very brisk pace. For example, the opening sequences that show Phroso losing his wife and his ability to walk, and declaring his intention to get revenge, can't last more than five minutes of screen time. However, I will admit that a few times the movie seems to be a little too brisk for its own good. In fairness to Browning, some of this may have not been his fault. The print I watched lasted only 65 minutes long, and my pre-viewing research revealed that the movie originally ran several minutes longer. This may explain some moments that seem either glossed over or missing altogether, such as when it's suddenly mentioned that Maizie attempted to escape from Phroso - something that was never shown earlier. The fate of the character of Crane also seems a bit abrupt, and it leaves an unsatisfying edge to the remaining part of the movie to follow. There are several more puzzling elements in the movie, such as why it is never explained how and why Phroso's wife died, or why the local native population think that Phroso is kind of a God despite the fact that he makes no attempt to show that his legs no longer work. The biggest issue I had with the script for West Of Zanzibar was that the so-called surprise twist that it eventually reveals was no surprise to me at all. True, I had seen the sound remake Kongo earlier, but I had guessed the same twist in that movie long before it happened. Most likely you too have guessed the twist from the plot description I wrote two paragraphs ago.

But the script for West Of Zanzibar does at the same time have some touches that compensate for its weaknesses. There are some interesting quirks to the characters, such as the fact that Phroso's assistants at his jungle empire freely call him by the nickname "Dead Legs" right in front of him - and Phroso does nothing about this mockery, showing that he has plenty of contempt for himself as well. And the cast of the movie, despite the occasional flamboyant moment that I described earlier, does a pretty good job with what they have. As the target of Phroso's revenge, actor Barrymore surprisingly doesn't have that much screen time, but in his few minutes he does manage to come across as a mocking and smug figure that you will hope will get his comeuppance, and in a long and painful way. Actress Nolan does pretty well also, managing to convey in a believable manner that her character still has a strong spirit inside of her despite the abuse and torture she is put through. And actor Warner Baxter (of the Crime Doctor B-movie series) generates sympathy as an assistant to Phroso who clearly sees that his boss is doing much wrong. But of course, the player in West Of Zanzibar who deserves the most mention is Chaney. His character is put through the wringer, first starting as a loving husband, becoming a broken man with nothing but vengeance in his heart, then eventually realizing that he has done great evil that cannot be fixed easily - maybe not even be fixed at all. Chaney not only manages to go from one extreme to another with ease, at the same time he always manages to keep you interested in what his character will do. Even when his character is doing great evil, you can't help but follow him and even have some sympathy. And Chaney manages to do this despite not uttering an audible word. While we might not hear him, what we do see is all the same real acting; a look in his eyes and his body positions at any moment tells us exactly how his character is feeling. Chaney's performance, and the aforementioned other merit to be found in West Of Zanzibar, show that silence can indeed be golden.

(Posted Februray 14, 2018)

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See also: Because Of Eve, The Rocket Man, Son Of Frankenstein