Written by: Carroll Jenkins on May 12th, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: USA, October 1st, 1932
Approximate running time: 86 minutes
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Director: William J. Cowen
Writer: Leon Gordon
Cinematograper: Harold Rosson
Cast: Walter Huston, Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Bruce
Synopsis: A stage magician’s wife has an affair and he is crippled while confronting his nemesis. “Dead Legs” becomes an ivory trader in darkest Africa and plots a devious revenge.
If you seek the most perverse and sordid pre-code melodrama ever made, look no further than MGM’s Kongo. It’s a quaint tale of adultery, alcoholism, forced drug dependency and prostitution, voodoo, human sacrifice, sadism, rape, madness, murder and revenge.
Kongo (1932) is technically a remake of the silent West Of Zanzibar (1928) made by the legendary partnership of actor Lon Chaney, Sr and director Tod Browning (Freaks). Walter Huston plays the lead in the remake, but considering his starring role in the Broadway play (‘Kongo’ 1926) upon which the Chaney film was based, which is the original? The “man of a thousand faces” delivers two as a magician and a cripple [same character]. The photography and atmosphere are compelling, and the performance by Chaney is masterful.
Some of the ceremonial masks are awesome, and scenes of native tribal ceremonial dances and sacrifices were justifiably recycled in the remake (looking like stock footage of voodoo rituals there).
Kongo, however, takes an excellent sleazy melodrama, fleshes it out and turns it into extraordinary melodramatic sleaze. The unsavory elements which spice up the original become the basic ingredients of Kongo. You thought Walter Huston portrayed madness and obsession in Treasure of Sierra Madre? That was just a reprise of his performance here, in arguably his finest role. Virginia Bruce is both captivating and heartbreaking (and near nude) throughout, and Lupe Velez is conniving and exotically sexy.
Both film versions are laudable and have their merits, but Kongo emerges as more compelling and audacious. Depraved, sadistic, and utterly lacking in redeemable qualities, this is one of the films that drove the Catholic Legion Of Decency into a frenzy. Great stuff!
Update: Finally, Kongo has been announced for release on 5/3/11 as part of the Warner Archives collection. A must see feature, this is not under the ‘Remastered’ banner, and obviously from the clip it’s the old TCM transfer. If Warners wants to woo the collector’s market, this should have been a Remastered double feature with Chaney’s West Of Zanzibar. That would be something to celebrate.