Thursday, April 21, 2011

Somewhere in Africa

I used to think that Freaks was an aberration for MGM. I mean, it's not the usual sort of movie one associates with the so-called "Dream Factory." You think MGM, you think musicals and epic dramas. You think wealth and opulence. You certainly don't think of pinheads crawling through the mud. I think the notion that Freaks was an aberration was planted in my head by Carlos Clarens in his Illustrated History of the Horror Movie, one of the essential reference volumes on my bookshelf. But Clarens was wrong, and so was I for believing him. There's too much evidence to the contrary. I mean, it's not like Freaks was the first movie that Tod Browning ever made for MGM, and the studio counted Lon Chaney among its marquee stars. That alone counts for a perverse appetite for grotesquerie on the part of the studio. Most of these thoughts ran through my head as I tried to come to grips with Kongo (1932, directed by William J. Cowen), a film that begins with Leo the Lion and then dives headlong into batshit insanity.

Maybe I need to start with Browning. Kongo, after all, is a remake of Browning and Chaney's West of Zanzibar. Like most of Chaney's signature films, external deformity is a mirror of an interior derangement. His paraplegic Phroso "Dead Legs" is another of the actor's tragic monsters. Obsessed with revenge on the man who crippled him, he corrupts the man's daughter only to realize, too late, that its his own daughter he's debauched. Set in the Belgian Congo where Phroso has set himself up, Kurtz-like, as a kind of god-king, it's a bitches brew of racism and perversity that somehow escaped the gaze of the censors in 1928. The same story pulls the same trick four years later. I think it's the veneer of racism that got it past the bluenoses in the same way National Geographic used to avoid charges of obscenity when showing native women topless. It doesn't count if it's the darkies, apparently. West of Zanzibar has Browning's auteurial thumbrints all over its depiction of Phroso as a charlatan and magician, which totally represents Browning's version of the world as viewed through a carnival glass, darkly. Interestingly enough, this element caries over into the remake, where all of its characters are only a step up from carnies and where the downward spiral is recognizably the same one found in Nightmare Alley.

Kongo, like its predecessor, is based on a play. The remake brings in Walter Huston as Phroso--renamed Flint--who played the role on the stage--and he's a fair replacement for Chaney. It's probably an unfair comparison. There was only ONE Chaney, and there's no shame in being a "fair replacement." It surrounds Huston with Conrad Nagel and Lupe Velez, where the Chaney film had Warner Baxter and Lionel Barrymore. As a story, Kongo is absurd, but it's absurd in the same way as Greek tragedies. There's a steep fall at the end for Flint, though by the end of the movie, he's demonstrated such utter depravity that it's hard to find any sympathy for him. I don't normally insist on the bad guy getting killed at the end of the movie, but I have to admit that Flint's ultimate demise is particularly cathartic. His fate lacks only the murmer of "the horror, the horror." The other characters--the protagonists with whom the audience identifies --suggest a production with an antic sense of subversion. Our "hero" is Dr. Kingsland (Nagel), sent to the Congo to look into the drug problem only to fall victim to it. He's a raging addict. The object of his affection is Anna (played by Virginia Bruce), Flint's daughter, who has been shamed in the brothels of Zanzibar and transformed into a dipsomaniac holding illness at bay with brandy. Even its noble characters are types that the audience of the day--hell, even audiences now--would view as the dregs of humanity. But they're more human and more humane than Flint, which I suppose is the point. This is all very interesting and it's all pitched at a level of performance that stops just short of mustache twirling. But only just. As the programmer for this showing noted, this is the kind of film in which it's almost impossible to over-act, and, boy howdy, do the actors know it.

The elephant in the room with this movie is the history of the Belgian Congo, and, indeed, the history of race in Hollywood and America in general. The rule of King Leopold II over the Congo by hook or by crook in the late 19th Century is one of the darkest moments in the sorry history of the human race, a prelude to the genocidal 20th Century in which estimates of the dead run as high as 13 million people. In comparison, Adolph Hitler was a rank amateur. Kongo represents this in miniature: the white oppressors rule through superstition, guile, and force. When Flint casually murders a man for overhearing his plans, virtually nothing more is made of it. The film seems aware of its setting, but it doesn't care about it. As in Heart of Darkness, Africa is a metaphor for the id, a setting where the baser impulses have license, where white men can "go native," as the saying goes. It's a setting for a white tragedy, and nevermind the black tragedy raging all around it. The Africans in the movie aren't even granted the dignity of a language. The lingua franca of the movie is gibberish, either invented by the actors on set, or cobbled together from pidgin English. The tribesmen of the movie are superstitious or obsequious child-men, easily bought off with sugar cubes or alcohol. From a 21st Century perspective, all of this is more shocking than the sex and drug abuse that form part of the film's intent to outrage. This is the kind of movie that will fill an audience beset by even a sliver of liberal guilt with a profound sense of shame for even watching it. Even though this is fast receding in time, this is still an artifact made within living memory. That's hard for me to process.

And yet, it's interesting as all get out to watch this film without the need to decode its racial underpinnings. It doesn't hide its essential racism, which makes it a more honest film than something like, say, The Song of the South or Gone With the Wind. Kongo is also possessed of a kind of pulp vitality. Sure, you feel shame for watching it, but, man, let me tell you, you can't take your eyes off of it. It sets the narrative hooks, and pulls you along for the ride. It's not without its problems. It has that stilted feeling of early talkies, in which most of the action is confined to a limited number of sets and in which the narrative lurches between edits. Two years pass for the characters in one of the movie's strange lacunae, without giving the audience any hint about it. The lack of a musical score--common in films of this vintage--preserves a sense of breathless claustrophobia, an effect heightened by the diegetic use of drums on the soundtrack. The various set-pieces are memorably nasty, too, including a scene where a woman is burned alive with her husband in a voodoo ceremony, a scene where Lupe Velez seduces the doctor with the promise of drugs, and in perhaps the film's most baroque scene, a sequence where the doctor is submerged in a pool with leeches. This is a movie with vivid imagery.

This film was part of The Ragtag Cinemacafe's current Forbidden Hollywood II series, which is a curated film series with discussion before and after the film. A lot of this was fodder for the discussion period after the movie, which hit most of the points I enumerate here, though even here, I felt a certain amount of discomfort. Here was an entirely white, mostly liberal audience discussing racism in the movie they'd just seen from an entirely theoretical point of view. There wasn't a single African American member of the audience. I mean, I can't blame a theoretical black movie fan for not wanting to sit through this, but, y'know, I think that's a viewpoint that needed to be heard. Pity.


Rupert Pupkin said...

Love this review! Had a friend mention that this crazy sounding film was airing on TCM and I was compelled to DVR it. Still haven't watched, but am all the more excited now!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rupert. Thanks for stopping by.

I'll be interested to see your reaction to Kongo. I'm glad to bump it up your "to see" list. (oh, and nice blog you have. Followed).

Erich Kuersten said...

Wow! Loved this review... your beloved Krell would be super proud of you, Morbius, but don't forget the monsters of the Id, which I think the black tribes represent in KONGO. As for caucasion theorizing, in addition to guilt there's a forbidden charge that comes from the unrepentant racism in this film, like saying a dirty word when you're three... the tighter you tie the constrictive PC straitjacket, the more wild and depraved that old ID monster becomes. It's racism as freak show which makes it much better than, as you say, the grinning minstrels of Gone with the Wind and Song of the South. For a long time the 'commonwealth' has depicted 'blackness' as the unconscious Id of the collective human psyche (I learned this in college reading Hearts of Darkness and James Coetzee!) - not that it's still not racist... god help us... you should see my mind, it's up there with the greats!!