Tod Browning is simultaneously one of the most compelling and neglected figures of Hollywood’s silent film era. Such a statement may seem paradoxical considering that much has been written on the director known as the “Edgar Allen Poe of the Cinema”. He has been the subject of a careful biography by horror aficionado David J. Skal and historian Elias Savada (1). Two English-language collections of essays on Browning have been compiled and edited by Bernd Herzogenrath (2), and there are numerous excellent essays and articles left uncompiled. Critics as well-known and clear-eyed as Nicole Brenez (3), Adrian Martin (4) and Martin F. Norden (5) have each been compelled to engage with Browning’s cinema, its contexts and its many legacies.
Yet Browning remains neglected because most of the available English-language writing on his films, valuable as it has been, focuses on the thematic singularities of his oeuvre, to the near-exclusion of any analysis of his aesthetic strategies (6). What discussion there is of Browning’s mise en scène almost invariably tackles his work in talking pictures and shunts aside his silent films. Faced with this situation, a researcher might conclude that Browning was, apart from his macabre and outsider subject matter, undistinguished as a filmmaker. Or even that he was not a true filmmaker at all but a primitive, a showman who happened to make his name in the mass medium of his time, yet did not really make his mark upon it. It seems Browning’s eagerness to embrace darkness and the dispossessed so captures the imagination of even those drawn to consider him seriously that he will forever remain a fringe figure (irrespective of how widespread his works may become, at least in comparison to his contemporaries, in this age of digital distribution).
This brief article has already given too much of itself over to Browning’s current critical position, and will not provide a coherent and complete argument rescuing his reputation from the dustpile of “subjects for further research” (7). In the meantime, the most lucid arguments for his mastery of visual storytelling are his great silent films, especially those starring Lon Chaney. West of Zanzibar may be the greatest of these. Bret Wood said as much in his still-definitive 1991 article (8) on the film’s production and reception. Kenneth M. Cameron, in his book on the topic, called it “the best movie ever made in America about ‘Africa’” (9), that is, the near-mythical continent of hostile inhabitants and unseized opportunities as portrayed by Western storytellers in need of an exotic ideal, or of a “white hell”, as Cameron describes the Africa of West of Zanzibar.
Browning’s film was, uniquely among his collaborations with Chaney, based on a hit play. Tropical melodramas like White Cargo, Rain and The Shanghai Gesture were indeed popular on the mid-1920s New York stage. According to Wood, actor Chester De Vonde returned from a voyage to the Congo River Basin with the material with which to write Kongo, and with a tropical disease that would kill him within a handful of years. De Vonde survived to see his play a success on the “Great White Way”, with Walter Huston in the lead role, but not to see the movie rights purchased by Irving Thalberg’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM exercised these rights twice, turning the play into West of Zanzibar in 1928, and back into Kongo for a 1932 talkie version directed by William J. Cowen. The title change was part of MGM’s method of skirting the silent-era Hollywood censorship regime, the Formula, which dictated that salacious plays be placed on a list of titles verboten to film adaptation. The truly pre-code Hays Office routinely turned a blind eye to such adaptations when a powerful studio like MGM proved willing to forego exploiting ready-made controversy and public attention by altering titles and character names from their notorious stage counterparts. By 1932, the Formula had been replaced, and Kongo was remade with its original title and Huston restored to the Chaney role.
Though Cowen’s Kongo was able to refer openly to taboo themes like drug addiction and miscegenation that its screen predecessor was not, it doesn’t possess the uncomfortable elegance that marks the latter’s most powerful scenes. Browning, as he had in The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), uses the convention of silent cinema’s voicelessness to engage the viewer’s aural imagination in a crucial moment of West of Zanzibar’s narrative. When one character’s sobs, evidenced by his body language and by the assumptions we hold about his motivation for grief, are revealed to in fact be hiccups of laughter, the surprise has an emotional impact unapproached by the corresponding scene in Kongo – which relies on the cackles of an observing character to drown out all other audio elements and thus feebly uphold the sonic illusion.
When in West of Zanzibar Browning bares his carnival showman background it is not to betray himself as an aesthetic primitive, but to display his complete comprehension of the presentational mode, and of the film frame as proscenium. In the aforementioned scene and numerous others he arranges his actors bodies in positions that hide or disclose secrets both narrative and psychological. It’s fascinating to take note of the many instances when one character approaches another from behind. A general pattern emerges: when characters meet each other face-to-face, it signals their meeting as congruent to the unfolding of Chaney’s magician character’s manipulative schemes. When one comes up on another from the back it invariably indicates that his plans are going awry. Sometimes we come into a scene between two characters after it has already begun to play out, and we have no way of knowing whether their approach was head-on or from behind. In these instances it is as if the camera itself has snuck up on the characters and is recording them unguarded. Any disturbing surprises we may find when we gaze in this manner are our own responsibility. Whether these shocks may include confrontations of the physical and psychic traumas leftover from war and colonialism, I’ll leave for Browning’s theme-chasers to decide.
- David J. Skal and Elias Savada, Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning – Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre, Anchor Books, New York, 1995.
- Bernd Herzogenrath (ed.): The Films of Tod Browning, Black Dog, London, 2006; The Cinema of Tod Browning: Essays of the Macabre and Grotesque, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 2008.
- Nicole Brenez, “Body Dreams: Lon Chaney and Tod Browning, Thesaurus Anatomicus”, The Films of Tod Browning, pp. 95-113
- Adrian Martin, “An Incident in the History of Surrealism: On a Sequence in The Devil-Doll”, The Cinema of Tod Browning, pp. 198-213
- Norden has written frequently on Browning in numerous articles and his in book The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J., 1994.
- Robin Blyn’s article “Ventriloquism and the Advent of the Voice in The Unholy Three”, The Films of Tod Browning, pp.117-127, is a noteworthy exception that in fact makes a very similar point in its second footnote.
- Andrew Sarris categorised Browning as such in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996, pp. 228-229.
- Bret Wood, “West of Zanzibar”, FILMFAX: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television February-March 1991, pp. 42-49, 98.
- Kenneth M. Cameron, Africa on Film, Continuum Publishing Co., New York, 1994, p. 75. Of course, Cameron’s quote raises the question of what the best American-made movie about Africa, no scare quotes, might be.
West of Zanzibar (1928 USA 65 mins)
Prod Co: MGM Prod, Dir: Tod Browning Scr: Elliott Clawson, Waldemar Young, based on the play Kongo by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon Phot: Percy Hilburn Ed: Harry Reynolds Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Mary Nolan, Warner Baxter, Jacqueline Gadsden, Tiny Ward, Kalla Pasha, Curtis Nero