Saturday, July 28, 2012

El Professore Movie: Kongo

Director: William J. Cowen
Starring: Walter Huston, Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Bruce
* * * 1/2
A sound remake of the silent film, 'West of Zanzibar', 'Kongo' is conceptually one of the most depraved motion pictures ever made, lensed right at the peak of Hollywood's Pre Code era.

The story centers on King Deadlegs Flint, a handicapped white man who rules an area of Africa as nothing less than a living God to the locals. He keeps the natives living in fear through stage magic and use of local superstition. The few white people are treated as prisoners where they are frequently tortured. Deadlegs you see, is quite crazy and about as twisted mentally as his is physically. He exists for the day that he can avenge himself on the man who stole his wife and crushed his spine.

The above plot synopsis only scratches the surface of the almost unfathomably nasty and macabre goings on to be found in this jaw dropping pic. The original 'West of Zanzibar' was rough enough, but with 'Kongo', the filmmakers made every attempt to out sleeze and out shock it's silent inspiration. This film perhaps more than any other of it's vintage, was responsible for the implementation of the Catholic Church backed 'Hays Code' of 1934 which cracked down on filmmaking that was deemed unfit for public consumption. Many films from the early thirties were soon edited down to remove 'offensive' material. In some cases, the films were banned outright and shelved, never to be seen officially again for many decades. Kongo falls under the latter and was one of the biggest and most gleeful offenders of all..

Starring in this jungle sleezefest was acclaimed character actor, Walter Huston (who likely drew upon his perf here for inspiration when playing a similarly sinister character in 'Treasure of Sierra Madre'). Huston had originally played the part on stage before being replaced in 'West of Zanzibar' by the legendary Lon Chaney and it must be said that as powerful and menacing as Huston is here (and he IS very much both), his does not quite match up to Chaney's absolutely terrifying interpretation in the original. Lupe Velez one of the first Spanish actresses to break into Hollywood, portrays Tula, Deadlegs' sexy assisstant. Conrad Nagel plays a drug addicted doctor and Virginia Bruce plays the daughter of the man Deadlegs is after. To get back at his rival for ruining his life, he has the man's daughter raped and forced into prostitution (all done offscreen, but still...) only to discover a devastating secret about who she really is.

Complete with whippings, tortures, rape, drug abuse and just about any other excess that can be brought to mind (to say nothing of it's racist portrayal of natives), 'Kongo' is the kind of no scruples filmmaking that is sure to shock viewers unaware of just how wild and wonderfully wrongminded early 1930s Hollywood could be.

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