Mary Poppins Returns
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Chaney plays a stage magician whose signature trick is to transform a beautiful woman into a skeleton: This is an absolutely brilliant -- and economical -- visual evocation of the relationship between sex and death, the erotic and the morbid...
What makes this film special is the virtuoso performance of Chaney.
Another successful Tod Browning and Lon Chaney silent pairing; these two seem to have been made for one another. Chaney plays a magician who has been crippled during an altercation with his wife's lover (Lionel Barrymore), and then plots revenge. Left with the pair's daughter (Mary Nolan), he sends her off to a sleazy place in Zanzibar, where as an 18 year old we find her in a dive bar bantering with men. The implication is clear. He steals ivory from Barrymore in order to goad him into coming to him, then sends for Nolan, in order to spring vengeance in the form of her degradation. Things don't go as he plans, but I won't spoil it.
Chaney gives a great performance, and with a range spanning glowering bitterness to frightened horror over some of his actions. He's so great physically in these types of roles, truly appearing as one who has no function in his legs as he pulls himself up and down from his wheelchair. Barrymore, Nolan, and Warner Baxter (in the role of a doctor) are all strong as well. Browning is fantastic at blending macabre elements, such as the natives' practice of burning a wife or daughter alive when a man dies, with psychological shock and horror. As compared to William J. Cowen's remake four years later ('Kongo'), I found this one to have a lesser degree of racism, though the 'savage cannibal'/'civilized man' aspects are present. It's unfortunate that a portion of the footage seems to be missing - in particular, when Nolan's character apparently has run away, only to appear the next day in a bedraggled, dirty appearance. Even so, it holds together and makes for a good watch, if you're in the mood for something dark.
A remarkably dark, twisted movie, even by contemporary standards. And of course, it has a fantastic performance by Lon Chaney, playing a maniacal, vengeful Colonel Kurtz type who has paralyzed legs and laboriously drags himself around on his arms. "West of Zanzibar" is not as well-known as other Tod Browning films like "Dracula" and "Freaks," but it's just as powerful. I feel it desperately needed a flashier title -- "West of Zanzibar" suggests some dull National Geographic travelogue, not this sick, gripping melodrama. One warning: In a movie about African natives made in the 1920s, embarrassing racist stereotypes are a given.
A bit slow and overly dramatic but undeniably interesting and atmospheric vehicle for the legendary man of the thousand faces, Lon Chaney. well crafted revenge flick.
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