Wednesday, April 06, 2011

KONGO -The ultra lurid 1932 saga of jungle sin!

If you know in your heart that 1931-1933 was the most lurid era ever of movies, then dear heart, KONGO is your new king!

Here's what I wrote about the film in a post from last time it played TCM, October 2008:

Based on a play that originally ran in 1926 (with the film's same stars, Walter Huston and Virginia Bruce), 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 phone it in, or just ham around in a role where he's the center stage tyrant. He gives it 11,000,000 percent. 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 (and other things) 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. 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 almost too hot to handle even today. With all the implied sexual and physical abuse and degradation it would likely get an NC-17.

Aint no doubt Billy Bob Thornton be good in the remake
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  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.

Time to bleed the junky...
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 together. 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, for example, Rocco in Key Largo, who wont give his poor alcoholic mistress a drink even after she debases herself by singing -like Brando in THE GODFATHER, that I do not 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 as much in the jungles (though they are represented) 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 vice and evil stockpiled in repression's cobwebbed basement suddenly elevated to the drawing room, and the roof blown off. In addition to the vice, sex, violence, and vengeance, racism abounds: the film sees the native Africans as inferior savages to be manipulated and abused, 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. Long may it reign, though thank god it's safely in the past... except for YOU, if you tune in today... on TCM!


  1. Had the day off and saw it this afternoon. Wow! These African horror films really tell us more about us back then than they do about Africa. I got the same vibe from Kongo that I did from the crazed torture scenes from Tarzan the Ape Man. In more than one way this stuff is more horrific than the official horror films.

  2. Right? Jesus Christ! I caught the 1932 Tarzan on TCM recently too and realized I'd forgotten how grisly and disturbing the big gorilla pit + 'pygmy vs. elephant' assault is at the end!

    Then you have other stuff like Island of Lost Souls, East of Borneo, even King Kong, there was definitely some racist/xenophobic hostility at work.

  3. Just wanted to step in and say I agree with everything here -- I rewatched Kongo and again couldn't believe my eyes. And I especially coulnd't believe that TCM rated it "TV-PG!" What the hell!

    You're right about a lot less stock footage in this one, but it sounds to me like MGM did re-use the "native chanting" from Tarzan for the "death drums" song.

    And just like the last time I watched this, I can't stop wondering -- did they cut out Lupe's tongue after all? Notice how she never speaks again in the movie. Man this film is creepy in what it doesn't show.

    Lastly, have you seen Josef von Sterberg's 1941 film "Shanghai Gesture?" It's almost a loose remake of Kongo, and also features Walter Huston, but in "Gesture" he plays the one who is being plotted against, the one who is being set up for diabolical payback.

  4. And good lord -- I was just looking around the web, only to discover that Kongo was officially released as part of Warner Bros Archive series a few months ago!,default,pd.html?cgid=ARCHIVENEW


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