Kongo (1932) Kongo (1932) **½

     Few bits of movie-fan jargon irritate me more than “Pre-Code,” the term of art designating Hollywood movies produced between 1930, when the Motion Picture Producers’ and Distributors’ Association bowed to public and governmental pressure by creating the Production Code Administration, and 1934, when they did it again by giving the PCA the wherewithal to enforce its rules in a meaningful fashion. Read that sentence again, and I think you’ll see at once why the handle bugs me so. How the fuck can the Pre-Code era begin with the promulgation of the Code?! That’s what everyone’s decided to call it, though, and it’s far too late now for one crank on the internet to change anybody’s mind. “Pre-Code” it is.

     Besides, I’m not sure I can think of anything that’s both more accurate and equally concise, and the period really does need a handy and memorable name. That’s because the films that came out of Hollywood during the first half of the 1930’s were frequently like nothing else that’s been made in this country before or since. Although the term “counterculture” hadn’t been invented yet, the part of the American movie industry based in Hollywood had become one by the late 1910’s, with most of the movers, shakers, and taste-makers subscribing to a rather different value system from that prevailing in the country as a whole. And by 1930, it had become a self-aware counterculture, thanks to the public backlash against the first great wave of Hollywood scandals in the 20’s. It would be natural, then, to expect a backlash against the backlash, as the unrepentant sinners of the silver screen doubled down on libertinism. At the same time, though, it was obvious that submitting to censorship and adding morality clauses to the standard studio contracts would be smart business maneuvers— especially if it could be arranged for the censors to be beholden to the censored. The resulting tension between a theoretically strict regime of official prudery and the reality of a henhouse guarded exclusively by foxes gave rise to something like a Golden Age of Getting Away with Shit. Note that this is significantly different from the film industry’s descent into sheer anomie in the 1970’s. Getting Away with Shit requires that there be clearly defined rules to bend, to break, to fold, spindle, and mutilate. The Production Code provided just such a body of rules. So what we see in (sigh…) the Pre-Code era is the elevation to high art of techniques for saying things without saying them, showing things without showing them, and sidling right up to every bright-line rule in sight to flout the spirit of it while remaining scrupulously within the letter.

     With all that in mind, consider Kongo. This property had been a persistent problem for head MPPDA morals cop Will Hays since 1926, flaring up like a herpes lesion every couple years. The stage play by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon had filled the seats on Broadway, and the fainting couches everywhere else. At the time, the maximum extent of Hays’s power was to mark certain plays, books, or stories as unfit for cinematic adaptation, and he was quick to file just such an interdict against Kongo. But in 1928, MGM went and filmed it anyway, under the title West of Zanzibar. The same studio filmed it again in 1932, this time using the original title, and although the new Kongo contained nothing technically actionable under the Production Code— no nudity, no blasphemy, no suicide, no miscegenation, no utterance of forbidden words like “prostitution,” “rape,” or “pregnancy”— it was nevertheless exactly the kind of movie that the Code was supposed to prevent.

     Somewhere in the jungle of the Congo river basin, a disfigured cripple named Flint (Walter Huston, from Dragonwyck and Transatlantic Tunnel) rules over a small and sordid empire. His closest companions are a tattooed brute called Hogan (Mitchell Lewis), a gold-digging Mexican hussy by the name of Tula (Lupe Velez), and Eric (Forrester Harvey, of Rebecca and The Mysterious Doctor), the halfwit whom Flint employs to cook for him and the other pair. There’s also an imposing native whom Flint has incongruously dubbed “Fuzzy” (Curtis Nero, returning from West of Zanzibar in an even less dignified role), who was probably the original go-between for Flint and the local savages. Dead Legs (as Hogan and Tula call the boss behind his back) must have been a stage magician once upon a time, because he has a repertoire of professional-grade illusions sufficient to convince all of Fuzzy’s tribe that he’s a sorcerer even greater than their own shaman. Between their warriors, his reputation, and a bit of artfully deployed flimflam involving a homemade monster costume, Flint has created the Juju Circle, an 80-mile perimeter which no human is permitted to cross, in or out, without his explicit say-so. The whole undertaking is directed against Gregg (Thirteen Women’s C. Henry Gordon), an ivory trader and rubber planter apparently affiliated with one of the less savory colonial powers. (My money’s on Belgium.) Gregg’s territory butts right up against the Juju Circle, and his trading caravans are constantly being routed and robbed by men and “demons” doing Flint’s bidding. Curiously, however, Gregg seems not to know who Flint is, or what provoked his private war. Flint isn’t telling us, either, beyond to blame Gregg for his current condition, and to repeat the enigmatic phrase “He sneered” as a kind of bitter mantra.

     Persecuting Gregg and bullying his own followers aren’t all that Flint is up to, either. He’s also maintained for years a fraudulent correspondence with a now-teenaged girl named Ann (The Invisible Woman’s Virginia Bruce), claiming to be the father she’s never met. For that matter, Flint seems to be the one who arranged in the first place for Ann to be cared for at the Capetown convent where she’s lived since before she can remember. Whatever’s going on here, the time has clearly come for the next phase in the scheme, because Flint dispatches Hogan to Capetown disguised as a missionary. He is to call at Ann’s convent, take the girl off the nuns’ hands with a promise to convey her to her dad’s plantation at long last, and then proceed instead to Zanzibar. What’s in Zanzibar? Oh, just the whorehouse where Ann will languish in captivity for the next two years…

     Of course, once Flint finally summons Ann to his jungle hideout, even a brothel is going to look good by comparison. Kongo elides the whole whorehouse episode in a most confusing time jump, so that the next time we see Ann after Hogan takes her away, she’s drunk, diseased, and three-quarters insane, and it’s on us to piece together what happened from oblique hints in the subsequent dialogue. The motive behind this program of torment won’t come into anything like focus until much later, either, but I’ll give it to you now for clarity’s sake. Flint believes that Ann is Gregg’s daughter, and the reason she’s in his custody instead of the planter’s is because she’s unquestionably the daughter of Flint’s wife. If you want the details, you’ll have to watch West of Zanzibar; even in 1932, the rules wouldn’t bend that far! The upshot, though, is that by torturing Ann, Flint figures he’s vicariously torturing Gregg, and the day will eventually come when he’ll contrive to bring father and daughter together for the most miserable family reunion of all time.

     One day, however, an unexpected visitor throws a whole cartload of monkey wrenches into Flint’s works. That visitor is Kingsland (Conrad Nagel, from London After Midnight and The Thirteenth Chair), a disgraced and drug-addicted ex-doctor who blunders into Flint’s domain on his way to somewhere else altogether. Rumors of the man’s former profession convince Flint to allow him entry. The master of the Juju Circle is having more trouble with his legs than usual, so even a dope-fiend doctor would be a welcome addition to his household staff. But although Kingsland is brought onboard to treat Flint, he rapidly comes to take more interest in Ann. Kingsland doesn’t give a shit about who the girl’s parents were, or about the extremes to which Flint has forced her to lower herself. After all, it’s hard for anyone to lower themselves further than the doctor has since he took up chewing that jungle root of his. And with someone around who needs somebody as conspicuously as Ann does, Kingsland can’t help but be reminded that he used to be a healer, back when he used to be a man. Indeed, it’s enough to get him thinking wild thoughts about becoming both of those things again, and getting Ann the hell out of Flint’s clutches.

     Although I said they were different things before, it turns out that 30’s-style Getting Away with Shit and 70’s-style transgression for its own sake have pitfalls in common. Both approaches, for example, make it easy to lose track of the story amid the Bacchanalia of bad behavior. Kongo, impressively enough, is actually even sleazier than the already strikingly fetid West of Zanzibar. Director William J. Cowen and writer Leon Gordon (who also penned the screenplay to Freaks) run completely amok implying things that weren’t allowed to figure in the movie explicitly— including every single item from that list at the end of my third paragraph, and then some. But precisely because they are limited to implication, they’re also limited in their ability to address why any of this stuff is happening. Indeed, had I come to Kongo without first seeing West of Zanzibar, I’m not sure I would ever have sorted out completely what Flint’s game was supposed to be, or what was supposed to be driving him to take such elaborately heinous action. It also doesn’t help that what little forthright exposition Cowen and Gordon can offer while preserving their plausible deniability comes so late in the picture. This movie may have no equal as a taunt to the censors, but it feels largely pointless for far too much of its length.

     It also turns out that Cowen is just no substitute for Tod Browning at the height of his powers, nor is Walter Huston any substitute for Lon Chaney at the height of his. The latter deficiency is somewhat surprising, since Huston actually originated the role of Dead Legs onstage in 1926. There’s no question that Huston has the part down, but he lacks Chaney’s larger-than-life quality— which is a problem, considering Flint’s larger-than-life sadism. It’s also a problem considering the turnaround from operatic villainy to atonement by heroic self-sacrifice that Flint undergoes once he’s brought face to face with a rather basic misapprehension undermining the core of his scheme for revenge. About the best thing I can say for Huston is that he gets across Flint’s sense of his own brokenness very well. It’s the Browning touch that I really miss, though, especially considering that this version surrounds Dead Legs with a more varied and interesting rogues’ gallery, and one much less loyal to their leader at that. Now to be fair, Browning in the 30’s wasn’t half the director he’d been in the silent era, either, when it came to putting on a lively show. Realistically speaking, Kongo would surely have been at least as disappointing with him at the helm. But since West of Zanzibar already existed, I can’t help but retain it as my standard for comparison, and Kongo devotes too much time to people yakking at each other in a hovel to meet that standard.



     As first international efflorescence of horror cinema receeds further and further into the past, it gets easier and easier to forget how much more there was going on back then than the Universal Studios flicks that get trotted into public view every October. So we B-Masters are taking it upon ourselves to draw some attention to the less obvious but often more interesting things that went on back then in the shadow of Count Dracula's cape. Click the banner below to read my colleagues contributions to the effort:




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