Friday June 03, 2022

Movie Review: Kongo (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS

1932 was a helluva year for jungle horror movies in which a crazed martinet terrorizes secondary cast members, two of whom fall in love, and who wind up escaping even as the martinet is killed by the local population he once controlled with an iron fist. At least that pretty much describes “The Island of Lost Souls” and this. “Lost Souls” is better.

Both have literary pedigrees—sort of. “Souls” is based on an H.G. Wells novel, while “Kongo” came from a 1926 Broadway play, written by an actor (Chester De Vonde) and a producer (Kilbourn Gordon), which starred Walter Huston as “Deadlegs” Flint, the martinet. Two years later it was made into the silent film “West of Zanzibar,” starring Lon Chaney. Four years after that, this, with Huston again.

Since then, nobody's touched it. For a reason. You know about revenge being a dish best served cold? This is a tale of revenge served old. And odd.

Sins of the father
Flint is a scarred man in a wheelchair in the middle of the African jungle who nevertheless controls huge swaths of territory because he’s convinced the local, dominant tribe, via magic tricks, that he’s some kind of god. He’s got two white servants, Hogan (Mitchell Lewis), tall and potentially menacing, and Cookie (Forrester Harvey), a squat comic-relief Cockney, as well as a Portuguese hottie, Tula (Lupe Velez), wearing a sarong, sweat and not much else. He controls them because he controls the booze supply, the fortune in ivory they have stashed, and the tribe. “The cripple can stop anyone from getting in or out of the juju circle,” Tula says. “I know, I’ve tried.” 

He’s also got a sign tacked to a wooden post, “HE SNEERED,” below which he marks off time. Biding it, you could say.

Eighteen years earlier, a man named Gregg (C. Henry Gordon) had an affair with and impregnated Flint’s wife, then beat him up and crushed his spine. While he was doing the crushing, he sneered at him. Thus the sign on the wooden post. Flint has been planning his revenge ever since.

He should’ve planned it better. The revenge will fall mostly upon the child from the affair, Ann Whitehall (Virginia Bruce of “Winner Take All”), who, all but orphaned, has been raised in a convent in Cape Town. Flint sends Hogan to retrieve her, and the next thing we see, she’s crazed, crawling and booze-addicted like everyone else. Then we get another arrival: a Brit doctor named Kingsland (Conrad Nagel, playing Brit), who was once a gentleman (“FRCS,” he says). He came to the jungle to help those who were byang root-addicted but got addicted himself. Flint keeps him around because he wants him to operate on his back. He has no hope of walking, he just wants Kingsland to relieve the pain. 

Of course, Kingsland falls for Ann, and helps relieve her jungle fever. Then Tula gets Kingsland addicted on the byang root again. (Don’t get her motivation here.) Then Flint uses the leeches in the swamp to cleanse Kingsland of his addiction so he can operate on his back. Along the way, Ann falls for Kingsland, too.

It’s all pretty stupid. No one acts against Flint when they should, and everyone tells Flint what they shouldn’t. And all of it leads, finally, please finally, to the showdown with Gregg.

Oddly, Gregg barely remembers him. (Just how many men has he cuckolded and crippled?) Then Flint reveals Ann, who’s crazed and drug-addicted again. He tells him it’s his daughter. He tells her tale with relish:

Forced through the squalor of a night house in Zanzibar, dragged here through the swamps, fed germ-laden water seeped in brandy, and here she stands before you—fever-ridden, broken, hopeless, degraded! I did that, Gregg! Do you hear?

Hearing all this, Gregg collapses. A few moments later, he rises, laughing. Because it’s not his daughter. The timeline is wrong. It’s Flint’s daughter. He did this to his own flesh and blood.

Which … of course. I mean, even if Ann had been Gregg’s daughter, it was a lousy plan—punishing the child for the sins of the father. And why suppose Gregg would immediately love the grown-up offspring he’d never met and didn’t know he had? And that her degradation would cause him immense pain? Part II was also nonsensical. He planned to kill Gregg, and, per native custom, his offspring, Ann, would then be burned alive. The majority of pain and suffering is again on Ann.

Instead, it’s Flint who immediately cares for Ann, who feels pain for all the suffering he’s caused her. But by now Gregg has been killed trying to escape and the natives are gathering for Ann. So Flint tells Kingsland about the tunnel to safety—that old bit. Then he holds off the natives with some hocus pocus and unga-bunga talk, stands, collapses, is killed. Everyone else gets away.

I like how, on the train home, Kingsland talks of marriage while Ann eyes him with something like doubt in her eyes. She almost looks trapped. Not sure if Virginia Bruce is a worse actor for this, or better. No word on whatever happens to Tula. 

Anyway, I get why they don’t remake it anymore. Won't even get into the racial politics of it all.

And by god he knew voodoo
An MGM film, “Kongo” was directed by William J. Cowen, assistant director on the silent classic “The King of Kings,” whose own career didn’t go much further. “Kongo” was his third feature and he only directed two more. And then? Did he go into theater? Radio? He was married to Lenore Coffee, a successful writer, but most of his bio is about his WWI heroics.

I found more on the aforementioned playwrights. As an actor, Chester De Vonde was kind of a big deal in the late 1890s and early 1900s, had his own stock company, etc., but at some point he supposedly went into the jungle, came out with knowledge of voodoo, and then wrote this play with Kilbourn Gordon. Because of that, I assumed Gordon was a writer. He wasn’t. He was a producer. His biggest hit was “The Cat and the Canary,” which helped jumpstart the whole “reading of the will in a creepy mansion and people start dying” trope. He was also responsible for a string of 1920s plays that feel like they influenced comic book writers a decade later: “The Bat,” “The Spider,” “The Green Beetle.”   

In a 1927 Wilmington, Del., Evening Journal profile, Kilbourn expounds on his artistic philosophy. It wasn’t very artistic: 

“Somehow for a period, playwrights seemed to think that so-called artistic drama was the essential meat for the public and they wrote that sort of play. Just when that era was at its height I came upon ‘The Cat and the Canary’ and it proved by its success that they were all wrong. Then I encountered Chester De Vonde, actor and playwright these many years. Mr. De Vonde, with my collaboration, wove out of his experiences in Africa the play called ‘Kongo.’ And that scored.”

Though De Vonde died a year later, age 55, Gordon lived for another 50 years, until 1975; but for his final four decades there’s almost no mention of him in the newspapers—just society-page stuff about his children and grandchildren getting married. I can’t even find an obit. For decades he watched his legacy fade. One wonders how the “so-called artistic dramas” he disparaged fared during this time.

“The cuckolding and crippling I don't mind. But sneering is beyond the pale.”

Posted at 08:53 AM on Friday June 03, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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