A Forgotten Pre-Code to Remember: Kongo

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This month, TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight, titled Classic Pre-Code, boasts an impressive line-up of both familiar and little-known movies released prior to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Despite the diverse selection, there is one film I wish could have been included. With its racism, prostitution, drug addiction, perversion, and torture, Kongo reveals just how far pre-Code films could push the limits of shock and taste.

FLINT AND HIS ONLY TRUE FRIEND, A CHIMP

FLINT AND HIS ONLY TRUE FRIEND, A CHIMP

Kongo, also known as Conga, stars Walter Huston as a cruel, sleazy jungle lord named Flint. As hardened as his name implies, Flint has to be the most unpleasant character Huston ever played. Those accustomed to seeing Huston as George M. Cohan’s kindly father in Yankee Doodle Dandy every year on the 4th of July will be stunned by his portrayal of this sadistic monster.

Huston originated the role on Broadway in 1926. Two years later, Tod Browning directed Lon Chaney as Deadlegs Flint in a silent film based on the play, though the title was changed to West of Zanzibar. I have not seen the Browning version, but I am sure the director’s predilection for dark tales of twisted carnival folk served him well with this material. I love Lon Chaney, one of the most gifted physical performers I have ever seen on the screen, but there is something about the way that Huston growls his venomous dialogue that makes me believe his portrayal of Flint is the definitive one.

"HE SNEERED."

“HE SNEERED.”

Kongo belongs to a subgenre of lurid melodramas that were popular in the early sound era in which down-and-out characters are trapped by their sins in tropical or jungle locations. While the exotic location offers a refuge from the mainstream world, it also brings out the worst behavior in the characters. Other examples include Safe in Hell and Rain.

The tale takes place in the darkest part of Africa, where Flint presides over a 50-mile section of jungle by manipulating the natives with their own pagan beliefs—called “juju” in the film. Flint hijacks the ivory shipments of a trader named Gregg by mesmerizing the native porters with his parlor tricks and fake witchcraft. His goal is to ruin Gregg because 19 years earlier the trader had seduced Flint’s wife, impregnating her. During a physical altercation, Gregg had stomped on Flint’s legs and left him paralyzed. Flint rages that not only did his enemy take his wife, his livelihood, and his legs, but he sneered while he was doing it.

LUPE VELEZ AS TULA

LUPE VELEZ AS TULA

Two decades later, Flint darts around his sordid jungle barroom in a wheelchair with his constant companion, a chimp, on his lap. The chimp is a prop to symbolize Flint’s savagery and to suggest just how much he belongs in the jungle. At night, he and the chimp sleep in a hovel above the bar accessible only by a rope that hangs from a hole in the ceiling. Early in the film, he slides down the rope and crawls to his wheelchair, like a snake through the jungle. Lupe Velez costars as Tula, a half-breed who serves Flint in more ways than one. At night, she shimmies up the rope, leaving audiences to imagine the nature of her relationship with the debauched paraplegic. As a reminder of his mission to destroy Gregg, a sign is nailed to a post in the middle of the bar; it says simply, “He Sneered.”

One of the first aspects of the film that stands out is the racist depiction of the African natives. While classic movie lovers have come to expect black characters to be portrayed as painful stereotypes, I was still taken aback by their depiction as disposable underlings in this film. To sway a native’s loyalty, Flint gives him sugar, noting that it “takes missionaries a lifetime to convert a native,” but he “can undo it with one lump of white sugar.” As the native walks out the door with his gift, Flint accuses him of theft and shoots him in the back as a lesson to the other Africans. Tula and one of Flint’s thugs play a joke on a tribal chief by offering him a bottle of gin. As the chief begins to drink, they laugh because they know it is really kerosene.

FLINT'S "JUJU" MASK

FLINT’S “JUJU” MASK

The natives are easily fooled by Flint’s cheap magic—a leftover from his days as a carny magician. He dons a huge skull-mask with horns and easily manipulates the childish Africans with juju. Flint calls his 50-mile territory “the juju circle,” because he controls the natives so thoroughly via their own superstitious beliefs. Later in the story, the Africans’ savagery is revealed during a voodoo-like ceremony in which a native woman is brutally dragged by a group of men hell-bent on punishing her for some minor indiscretion. They cruelly toss her onto a fiery pyre, burning her alive. Flint is a misanthrope who hates most of humanity, declaring to Gregg that he actually prefers the company of “blacks to whites,” as though that was such an aberrant preference for a white man to have. Even the poster made me wince. If you can read the fine print in the lobby card above, it promises:  “See the black avalanche of savages.”

ANN, PLAYED BY VIRGINIA BRUCE, GOES FROM CONVENT GIRL TO PROSTITUTE.

ANN, PLAYED BY VIRGINIA BRUCE, GOES FROM CONVENT GIRL TO PROSTITUTE.

After Flint’s persona and situation are memorably introduced, the main story starts to unfold, and the sordidness increases tenfold. Flint sends an emissary to the convent where Gregg’s daughter, Ann, has been living since childhood. Ann’s angelic nature is telegraphed through her white costuming and blonde hair. The emissary lures Ann, played by Virginia Bruce, away from the convent by telling her that he is taking her to her father, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a toddler. Instead, Flint sends her to Zanzibar, where she is sold into white slavery as a prostitute. After two years, he retrieves a ruined Ann and forces her to live under his roof. The well-dressed and beautifully coiffed Ann has turned into a half-crazed slattern in a soiled dress and stringy hair. She suffers from “black fever,” which seems to be akin to malaria. She drinks heavily to relieve the symptoms of black fever and to escape Flint’s cruelties—as when he locks her in a room with his tattooed henchman who then rapes her.

Flint sends for the services of a disgraced, drug-addicted doctor, played by Conrad Nagel. He wants the doctor to operate on his back in order to relieve his pain. Dr. Kingsland feels sympathy and affection for Ann and tries to convince her to stop drinking. Flint and his thugs laugh at the doctor’s efforts. Flint cynically remarks, “Looks like our young lady has another romance,” to which a henchman responds, “She’s had so many, one more won’t matter.” Dr. Kingsland manages to refrain from taking drugs in order to help Ann, but Tula falls for the doctor and becomes jealous of her blonde rival. She tempts the good doctor with more drugs, and he becomes so heavily addicted that he cannot possibly operate on Flint.

HAROLD ROSSON'S MOODY CINEMATOGRAPHY AND   'S SET DESIGN REINFORCE ANN AND KINGSLAND'S ENTRAPMENT.

HAROLD ROSSON’S MOODY CINEMATOGRAPHY AND CEDRIC GIBBONS’S SET DESIGN REINFORCE ANN AND KINGSLAND’S ENTRAPMENT.

For me, the most astonishing scene involves Flint’s method for curing the good doctor of his addiction. His henchman slices across Kingsland’s chest with a knife, causing him to lightly bleed. The doctor is dragged to the swamp, where he is tied to a post. Attracted by the open wound, the leeches in the swamp attach to his torso and suck out “the tainted blood.” By the time Ann makes her way to the dark, dangerous swamp to pull him out of the muck, his addiction is cured.

I won’t spoil the surprising turn of events that follows. Suffice it to say that the narrative has not yet dragged the main characters to their lowest points.

Most of the action takes place on a limited number of locations, revealing the film’s origins as a stage play. However, this facilitates a sense of claustrophobia that, along with Hal Rosson’s low-key lighting, creates a hot-house atmosphere that traps the characters in their appalling circumstances. Though TCM is not airing Kongo as part of its Friday Night Spotlight, the film is available through the Warners Archive Collection. Pre-Code aficionados will definitely want to add this to their collection.

10 Responses A Forgotten Pre-Code to Remember: Kongo
Posted By Cathi : September 8, 2014 8:42 pm

Thanks for the synopsis of Kongo. I added it to my watchlist on Warner Archive.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 8, 2014 8:47 pm

You are welcome, Cathi. You will definitely be entertained.

Posted By george : September 8, 2014 9:25 pm

I watched KONGO a few months ago, and it lives up to its lurid reputation.

And, Susan, you haven’t seen WEST OF ZANZIBAR? It’s probably the best Chaney-Browning film. Also available from Warner Archive.

Posted By Phil Marchesseault : September 9, 2014 2:56 am

Enjoyed your review immensely.

Both KONGO and ZANZIBAR are excellent films, but I prefer the Chaney version – mostly for the opening “back story,” which is a bit more compelling than that in KONGO. Some of the scenes in KONGO of the natives in the jungle/swamp are clearly lifted from WEST OF ZANZIBAR (with sound added).

Posted By Susan Doll : September 9, 2014 3:04 am

Thanks for the kind comments Phil. They are appreciated. Now that both you and George are fans of WEST OF ZANZIBAR, I am going to find a copy for myself. I have seen many, many Lon Chaney movies when I used to attend the Chicago Silent Film Festival but this one escaped me.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : September 9, 2014 4:36 am

Here’s another nod for WEST OF ZANZIBAR. KONGO is good, but the back story provided in Browning’s film enriched the twisted depth of the main character, and as everyone else has noted, Chaney was exceptional. In short — SEE IT!

Posted By george : September 9, 2014 8:08 pm

I said ZANZIBAR is “probably the best Chaney-Browning film” because LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT and THE BIG CITY are still lost films, alas.

Here’s where you can get WEST OF ZANZIBAR:

http://shop.warnerarchive.com/product/west+of+zanzibar+1000298287.do?sortby=ourPicks&refType=&from=Search

Posted By Jlewis : September 13, 2014 4:10 pm

One reason I have this DVD in my collection is on account of the delightful documentary “extra” UNTAMED AFRICA, which is culled from a 1931 series of Warner Bros. short subjects profiling Wynant D. Hubbard and his family’s stay in Rhodesia. Surprisingly that feature has aged rather gracefully with an even-mannered take on “native” life. We see the American film crew getting along quite well with the resident hunter-gatherer society and little (if any) real mockery of the different lifestyles. There is one exploitative scene involving tribal rituals at the end, of course.

Dusted this off from an old post of mine on the Classic Film Union. Copied it from a BoxOffice magazine scan at this site: http://www.boxofficemagazine.com/the_vault

What is amusing is how shocked viewers in 1932 were with this feature.

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Kongo (MGM) Reviewed by New England Film News, December 1, 1932

There was less excuse for making this picture than there has been for many other that Metro has turned out. Unpleasant, revolting and disgusting, it offers no entertainment to a depression-ridden public. Its only virtue is the presence of Walter Huston, Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce. They do as good a job as possible with the material at hand. But the story is filthy and implausible and has already suffered severely at the hands of the censors. Furthermore, it is unbelievable. Huston is a trader who lives within an 80-mile circle. No one leaves or enters without his knowledge. He was crippled from the waist down by a man who also seduced his wife and in revenge 18 years later he lures the girl who he thinks is his enemy’s daughter to his little empire and treats her brutally. Nagel enters the scene as a degraded doctor and unsuccessful attempts are made by Nagel and the girl to escape. Finally, with the arrival of his old enemy, Huston discovers that the child is his own and to atone for his brutality to her he allows her and the doctor to escape but is killed by the natives. A nice wholesome story, isn’t it, to foist upon the public in the guise of entertainment? Not only is it unsatisfactory for children, it is also unsatisfactory for adults. Here is another for which the exhibitor will do better to pay a bit rather than play it.

SELLING SEATS: Don’t try too hard. There are few people who would like this film. Surround it with a few good shorts, comedies especially, and sell them instead of the feature to your public.

Posted By Jlewis : September 13, 2014 4:18 pm

Too bad I can’t re-edit my post. That link isn’t a good one. Yet check out BoxOffice’s main site on occasion for old scans of magazine reviews.

Posted By Gesge : September 11, 2015 5:14 pm

I really enjoyed this movie, despite it being dark and disturbing and horrifyingly racist.

Point of correction: The African woman is not being sacrificed for “some minor indiscretion”, she is being sacrified because her husband has died and that is the rite. This ties in to the end, when the natives want to sacrifice Ann because Gregg, whom they think was her father, has died.

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