Lon Chaney’s Gonna Getcha…
West of Zanzibar (1928) ~ Forget Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame and even London After Midnight, Lon Chaney as Phroso/Dead Legs in West of Zanzibar is truly his most chilling role. Phroso is a magician who finds his wife is leaving him for rival Crane, played by a very young Lionel Barrymore. The two fight and Crane throws Phroso off a balcony paralysing him from the waist down. Crane and the love of Phroso’s life seemingly flee into the night afterward. A year later the wife returns and dies in a church with a newborn daughter in her arms.
Beware of spoilers from here forward…
Phroso moves to Zanzibar, where he knew his rival Crane to be, hunting ivory in the jungle. This is where Chaney sets up shop as ‘Dead Legs’ the white chieftain and witch doctor of the superstitious native cannibals there. He also sends the daughter he believes to be Crane’s off to be raised in a brothel in the city. Dead Legs uses magic tricks to make the natives believe he can control evil spirits and disrupts the ivory trade, seeking to bring Crane to him. He wants revenge, by showing Crane what he’s made of his daughter.
When the two meet again, Chaney introduces the daughter to Barrymore, and Lionel does an impressive bit of silent acting – appearing to cry, when he’s actually laughing. The daughter is Chaney’s! The mother had left Crane when she found out he’d crippled her husband, and then stayed away to have the child, knowing Phroso wanted nothing to do with her. Barrymore’s thespianism is then completely overshadowed by Chaney’s reaction to this news. In less than a minute we are witness to the full talent that is Chaney, as well as perhaps the greatest acting shot in silent film. It is both brilliant and heart-breaking.
The rest of film follows with Dead Legs accepting his fate and a dire danger from the natives. It’s all done in typical Tod Browning directorial fashion. Grim and foreboding. Browning is at his best in silence I think, if you’ve seen and liked his Dracula and Freaks, you should definitely look into his silent work.
The irony of seeing Barrymore act opposite a wheelchair is heartbreaking at times knowing his future but his acting is outstanding. And that’s also the word for Chaney as he drags his dead legs around throughout the film. He was truly a master actor who put his everything into his parts. And here, in West of Zanzibar, Chaney’s make-up-less face and expressions are more terrifying than any other monster of his career. This is a must-see.