Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Walter Huston goes KONGO (1932)

My eyes are still popping out of my head after seeing Kongo (1932) which ran on TCM earlier this week (and for you who missed it will hopefully run again or be seen on DVD sometime in the GODDAMN CENTURY, Jesus X Christ, what are these studios waiting for?) I begged into the winds of blogginess last spring that the powers that be would release a special Forbidden Hollywood Pre-Code Set: Jungle Horrors! With White Woman and Island of Lost Souls, but those two titles are like Shirley Temple musicals compared to the gleefully over the top sadism that runs rampant in KONGO! After Kongo I'm so sweaty and drained I hope they NEVER realease any of these lurid jungle horrors on DVD! They're EVIL!

Based on a play that originally ran in 1926 with Walter Huston and Virginia Bruce, (who also star in this film version), Kongo is also a remake of the Lon Chaney silent film West of Zanzibar. Silent film devotees might laud Chaney, and/or say Huston is channeling Chaney here, but I'd say it's more the reverse since Huston originated the role in the theater. Plus, if you love Huston as I do, you will know he would never just emulate someone else or walk through or just ham around in a role where he's the center stage tyrant. Lupe Velez is in the Jean Harlow role of good natured floozy who lives at Flint's trading post/bar, where she spreads her charms liberally and gets drunk with Flint's two dimwitted white flunkies. All is "well" until Flint makes his move for revenge... involving pulling a sweet innocent white woman played by Virginia Bruce out of her Cape Town convent and dragging her into the pits of HELL!

Infamous for his tight control of a vast 80 mile section of the Congo, Flint hoards ivory and controls the local tribes via displays of magic tricks all while planning his OLDBOY-style revenge against the guy who carved up his face and left him crippled to die. This plan involves Flint taking custody of his enemy's daughter and putting her through an all girls convent school, only to pull her out on her 18th birthday and throw her into a Zanzibar brothel for a year or two (it wouldn't any fun if she grew up debauched and had no height to fall from; Flint gets her all holy virginal before tossing her to the crew, as it were). After she's sufficiently debauched he drags her out to his godforsaken corner of the jungle, gives her "black fever" and strings her along on booze and beatings. Meanwhile, a white doctor (Conrad Nagel) in the throes of addiction to some kind of local opiate root shows up, and Flint tries to get him clean (via leeches!) so he can operate on Flint's back. But Lupe Velez secretly risks having her tongue cut out in order to bring the doc all the root he can handle in exchange for sex. And that's not all! A parade of sadistic horrors are either narrowly escaped from and/or inflicted offstage while Huston roars in sadistic laughter; and what about the native practice of burning women alive on their dead husband's funeral pyre? GOOD GOD! This was made in 1932!? It's actually too much to handle, even for a pre-code junkie like me!

In short this movie has everything! Man, I haven't felt this traumatized after a 1930s film since catching the unedited Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1933). Part of the pleasure of the pre-codes is in trying to fathom just how X-rated and lurid they can be; we're just conditioned from childhood to think of old black and white films as being safe, innocent fun. When we see something like Kongo or Jekyll, it's like having the bottom drop out on all our socialized expectations; like being all prepared for a boring three hour lecture and having the professor start shooting up speed, passing around brandy and reefers, flogging the latecomers, and cutting off the tongues of anyone who talks without raising their hand.

Bruce and Huston's performances here are beyond "riveting"-- each feels very "lived in" (thanks probably to their time spent together in the 1926 play version); like they've been dragged through the ringer, hating at each other like tomcats tied together by the tails. If you've had a chance to catch Huston's wild-eyed cattle patriarch perfection in Criterion's The Furies, you know how ably this man can embody a super-manipulative, authoritative nut job, roaring in laughter when a man tries to shoot him, weilding his whip like a cross between Indiana Jones and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, and playing with his weird chimp companion or awarding bottles of brandy as rewards for debased behaviors. Like Brando in Streetcar, you hate him for crushing the spirits of the weak, but love him for his canny bravery and raw animal humor. (as opposed to, say the just plain shitty Rocco in Key Largo, who wont give his poor alcoholic mistress a drink even after she debases herself by singing - that I will never forgive). For her part, Bruce is a powerhouse who matches Huston in sheer seething rage, and despite all her torments, she still possesses a sense of humor and a grip on sanity and dignity that can't be destroyed; for all her ranting she's much more an Anna Christie than a Broken Blossom.

With typically detailed MGM production design, Kongo's action doesn't play out in the jungles so much as the bar and bedrooms of Huston's compound - and holds just enough stock footage (probably taken from West of Zanzibar)to make it interesting: The only animals you see are crocodiles, snakes and spiders! No boring zebras or antelope herds. More than anything, Kongo is a valuable window into a time when "going native" in the mind of Hollywood and post-Victorian morality meant being a law unto yourself and indulging in whatever capricious and kinky cruelty suited your mood. The implied notion of Africans as inferior savages to be manipulated and abused runs strong and deep, and once the flames of sadism get going, the white woman is next! We see in pre-code jungle horrors like Kongo that the tortures and degradations of SAW, HOSTEL and their ilk are nothing new. Though this kind of kinkiness was abolished during the bloodless reign of "the code", before 1934 there was still a place for drugs, sex, slavery and sadism... it was called the jungle.


  1. Great comments! I just watched this and it's amazing as you say. One thing: I am wondering if a scene showing Virginia Bruce in a brothel was cut out. We see her briefly at the beginning, clean and healthy, then suddenly she appears bedgraggled, filthy, a half-mad alcoholic. I love the dark jungle atmosphere and use of drumming sound effects, along with the performances. See other pre-codes like THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, 13 WOMEN, and Huston again in BEAST OF THE CITY. Great stuff.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I personally dont think a brothel scene was cut out, as this was based on an original play - and there's a distinct break between the first and second acts - I doubt the scene of Virginia at the convent was in the original play - the second act was probably - same place - 2 years later - in the playbill... though, who knows? I can't imagine ANYTHING was cut from this film, it's so goddamned lurid.

  3. You're probably correct and you have probably seen the film more than once. But I thought the second time we see the daughter the scene starts abruptly as though something before had been cut. In fact, I had to figure out who the woman was, not recognizing her from her first appearance. Well, anyway, a great little pre-coder!

  4. I saw West of Zanzibar after Kongo and it really doesn't compare. Huston has it all over Chaney in this role.

  5. Hey Jay, I agree with you about the strange sudden appearance of the daughter, perhaps you are right after all. And Brian in Atlanta, god bless you for bucking the silent film star sanctimoniousness of so much film scholarship and daring to suggest anyone could top Chaney!

  6. So you did notice that too? Maybe some day we can have an answer on that. If TCM/Warners put out a Pre-Code DVD set including KONGO maybe we'll find out more.

    Now, in defense of Lon Chaney. I think he was a great silent movie actor. His acting looks sometimes overdone, but I find him riveting to watch and I get emotions from him. I haven't watch WEST OF Z in a while but he's incredible in several others, including both versions of THE UNHOLY THREE. That's a film I recommend highly. Chaney is great in the silent one (1925) and in the talkie one (1930) his only talkie and I think you'd be impressed.
    None of that takes away from Walter Huston in KONGO or anywhere else. My favorite Huston may be in an utterly different kind of film, DODSWORTH (1936)

    1. Chaney's acting was not overdone, it was the style required in silent film. Expression was everything in communication before sound.

  7. Wow. I am surprised. I don't watch much old movies, and did have a misconception (it seems)as to how naive they are.
    It seems as if I have some serious catching up to do.
    This was a very enlightening post

  8. Anonymous03 June, 2010

    "Kongo" also has female nudity. 43 to 44 minutes into the film Virginia Bruce struggles with a native, she pulls away and her right breast falls out of her blouse as she turns to the camera before running stage left.

    You can see for yourself at 4.12 in the following YouTube clip:

    (part 6)

  9. Nobody, not even Walter Huston, can best the acting ability of Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar.


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