Kongo (1932): Apocalypse Then

flintTo paraphrase a line from Heart of Darkness, you can’t judge Kongo as you would an ordinary film.

In this monument to morbidity, nearly all the taboos festering at the edges of pre-Code cinema come out and play: blasphemy, drug addiction, prostitution, torture, slavery, bestiality, and (spoiler alert!) incest. The movie positively wallows in depravity. Degradation is its subject, its project, its study.

Even in the annals of pre-Code excess, it is unmatched, I believe—and yes, I’ve seen and written about The Story of Temple Drake, The Black Cat, and Murders in the Zoo.

Kongo is so squalid, so sticky, so saturated in filth that it rises to the level of tragic art, an art of darkness. And, as ‘Dead-Legs’ Flint, the movie’s irredeemable villain/hero, Walter Huston deserves much of the credit for whatever brutal poetry the film attains.

Huston’s performance, possibly the most intense in a screen career that defined intense, runs the gamut from raw, animalistic rage to wry sadism to blank, abject despair. How far can hatred take a man? How much can vengeance distort his soul? Prepare to find out.

And, yes, this is a ludicrously long post. Make it to the end and I’ve got some cute behind-the-scenes anecdotes from fan magazines to cleanse your palate, okay?

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No Bedtime Story

In remote central Africa, a merciless paraplegic ivory trader (Huston) rules his territory with impunity, lording it over his mistress Tula (Lupe Velez) and his terrified cronies. Using magic tricks to convince the natives that he controls evil spirits, he sets himself up as a minor god. (Cue the offensive 1930s stereotypes and broken English!)

But Flint’s not in this for money. Oh, no. He carefully selected this private inferno as the staging ground for an elaborate revenge scheme. After 18 long years of waiting, he’s about to spring the trap.

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Left partially paralyzed after a fight with the man who stole his wife, Flint targets the rival’s daughter, Ann (Virginia Bruce), born to Flint’s wife. Plucking Ann from a convent as soon as she’s “old enough to realize what’s happening to her,” Flint sends her to work in a Zanzibar brothel.

Once Ann “graduates” from the whorehouse, he summons the girl to his plantation and subjects her to starvation, beatings, numerous assaults, and daily humiliations. Unbroken in spirit, Ann falls in love with a drug-addicted derelict doctor (Conrad Nagel, never edgier), and they help nurse each other back to health.

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Meanwhile, Flint counts down the days until he can lure Ann’s father to his compound and show him what his daughter has become. Then the fun can really begin.

However, when Flint finally confronts his foe, needless to say, things don’t go quite as planned. One mistake will bring the full weight of the tyrant’s actions down on his own head… and somehow make the film even sicker. This plot doesn’t thicken so much as it curdles.

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Beast in the Jungle

Walter Huston had an advantage in tackling Kongo: he’d created the role of ‘Dead-Legs’ on Broadway in 1926, starring in a sordid play that would spawn two film adaptations.

With all that practice under his belt, it should come as no surprise that he captured the disabled character’s physicality with uncanny ease. He makes us accept Flint’s paralysis with the apparent rote familiarity of his movements, positioning his limbs by sharply yanking his pant legs or smoothly dragging himself across the floor, for instance. He sets a rock-solid basis for our credibility in the face of all the Grand Guignol to follow.

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Better yet, Huston wisely doesn’t back down from the perversity of the part. He refuses to underplay Flint or use his plight for sympathy. Instead, he gives a full-throttle representation of evil, radiating malevolence, power, and fearlessness.

I’m sorry, but we’d never buy Flint’s barbarism if he weren’t larger than life. Some characters can only be sustained on a diet of scenery-chewing. This man is a roaring, hyperbolic tyrant, an arrogant, cigar-chomping monster. It’s as though every major dictator of the 20th century borrowed a few tricks from Huston’s repertoire. Even when he’s resting in his wheelchair, his presence signifies imminent violence.

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For example, in what I consider the movie’s most chilling moment, Flint punishes Ann for trying to escape the plantation by ordering his myrmidon Hogan to beat and (the scene strongly implies) rape her. Hogan drags the poor girl into another room, the door closes, and we hear Ann shriek again and again.

Wheeling right up to the door, Flint takes a mighty puff of his cigar and howls with laughter. His rabid, guttural cackle mingles with her high-pitched screams as the screen lingeringly fades out. In addition to the downright disturbing use of offscreen space, the juxtaposition of sounds—laughter and cries of pain—emphasizes just how far Flint has strayed from that little thing we call humanity.

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Twisted in Mind and Body

Ironically, Flint obsesses most over his rival’s sneer, over the expression of glee and contempt on the man’s face as he left Flint helpless. In seeking to retaliate against that sneer, Flint has assimilated it, absorbed it, transmuted it into the essence of his being until he himself is little more than a sneer.

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Although his interpretation of Flint originated on the stage, Huston wrings the intimacy of the film medium for all it’s worth. The actor gets more close-ups and medium close-ups than either of the movie’s leading ladies and, despite being handicapped by grotesque makeup that partially obscures his features, he makes the most of those shots.

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Whenever he describes the torture and degradation of his enemy’s daughter, an unholy gleam flashes in his eye. Huston makes the pleasure that Flint takes in Ann’s suffering just as frightening and sick as it ought to be. Plus, cinematographer Harold Rosson enhances the horror of Huston’s performance with stark lighting, often from below, so that darkness laps at the corners of the frame.

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Another interesting aspect of Flint’s performance is the unnerving mixture of raw and refined cruelty. The film recurrently places him in the animal realm: he slithers on the floor like a snake and, when we first see him, his head pops out of a bunk… after the head of his pet monkey. He’s also not afraid to get hands-on in his villainy, grinning eagerly as he pries Tula’s mouth open with the intention of twisting her tongue out with wire.

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Yet, far from an unthinking brute, he can’t resist making a few barbed comments to assert his intelligence. He wounds Ann with words as well as with blows, forcing her to smash a glass she’s sipped from, snarling, “Who’d want it after you?”

Earlier, ordering Tula to deck him out in his Voodoo headdress, he decides to take the opportunity to remind her of the fact that’s in she’s servitude to such an unattractive master. “Crown me Queen of the May,” he leers. “Of all the men you’ve known, have you ever seen such an Adonis? Smile, you little bush rat, smile.”

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When he comes face-to-face with the object of his hatred, another ivory trader called Gregg, the man asks if Flint wants revenge. The reply? “No, not revenge. Call it the aftereffect of dark, somber brooding,” he comically minimizes.

The glimmers of wit and civilization in Flint disturb us all the more, because they remind us that he is a self-created monster. As his victim of choice yells at him, “Your mind’s more twisted and warped than your body!”

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West of Zanzibar, South of Decency

Remakes rarely surpass the originals, but to my mind, Kongo trumps Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928), starring Lon Chaney, on pretty much every level—certainly in terms of horror.

West of Zanzibar begins by showing how Dead-Legs’ wife leaves him, how he ends up paralyzed, and how he vows revenge. Seeing these tribulations builds empathy for the antihero too early in the film, thus, in my opinion, weakening the character.

Moreover, Flint’s torment of his enemy’s daughter in the silent strikes me as positively childish in comparison to the persecution we witness in the talkie version. He steals her clothes and gives her brandy? Heaven forfend!

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The undercurrents of perversity still run strong in Zanzibar—you’ve got people being burned alive, for instance—but dialogue and sound in general cranks up Flint’s formidable power as an adversary, especially given his physical limitations. With a voice, he gets to threaten, bark, grunt, chortle, crow, taunt, cajole, and quip, all in the service of his single-minded goal.

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On a more poignant level, the talkie develops Ann into a three-dimensional character. She not only describes the trauma of her experiences, but also rises above them, telling Flint, “You just called me a degraded woman. In name I am, but in my heart never!”

In terms of background noise, thunderclaps, tribal chants, and the sweeping sounds that Flint makes scuttling across the floor all fill the vivid soundtrack of this early talkie. Most eerily of all, the entire third act throbs with drums, hammering away, announcing doom for a certain character selected for human sacrifice.

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Senses of Wickedness

No other product of the studio era, talkie or silent, ever brought the word “hellhole” to life so completely as Kongo did. Director William J. Cowen, a decorated WWI officer, ex-spy, noted writer, and husband of the great screenwriter Lenore Coffee, only worked on a handful of movies, which may be a blessing for those with delicate constitutions.

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With cinematographer Rosson (of The Wizard of Oz), Cowen transformed an M-G-M set, used around the same time for the steamy romance Red Dust, into another world, one that none of us would want to visit. If Red Dust is an exotic wet dream, Kongo is a tropical nightmare.

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Most impressive to me is how Cowen preys upon nearly all of the audience’s senses, especially how haptic the movie is. Kongo almost seems to touch you, and I don’t mean emotionally. The eye cannot help but translate the squirmy tactile sensations conjured by such unpleasant images. Itchiness. Dirtiness. Griminess. Bodies glisten constantly with sweat, burnished and glowing, as though the beast in each character had literally bubbled to the surface.

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The chancrous, sin-sodden ambiance of Kongo prompts a visceral response. About 10 minutes in, you’ll want to wash the heat-haze off yourself. Even the light looks dirty.

Plus, if a movie can have a stench, this one does—sweet like jungle rot and revenge and sour like dried perspiration and regret.

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Trick of Fate

When discussing the nature of tragedy in Poetics, Aristotle identified anagnorisis—a tragic revelation or recognition—as a potent plot device.

Like we see in Oedipus, this sudden realization or discovery often leads to peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, an upheaval from which the drama draws emotional energy: “This recognition, combined with reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, tragedy represents.”

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I suspect that Aristotle would have as high an opinion of Kongo as I have, because it pulls off an anagnorisis that might’ve prompted Oedipus to put out his eyes and his ears to boot.

Flint summons Gregg to his plantation, parades the debased Ann before him, then announces that she is his daughter. Gregg wobbles and collapses in a huddle. The camera tracks in on Gregg’s heaving back as he presumably sobs, but when he looks up, we see a hysterical smile on his face. “She’s your daughter!” Gregg laughs.

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And we watch Flint slowly, agonizingly reap the punishment he’d devised for another. Our fear of what he might do next dissolves into pity. Humanity pours back into him as he reprocesses all the terrible things he’s done to Ann with the double sorrow of a father’s love and a persecutor’s guilt.

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Seized with the desire to make amends, he reaches out for Ann, only to realize that his previous actions have conditioned his daughter to shudder at his touch. Later, she faints and Flint takes the chance to cradle her in his arms.

To call the scene uncomfortable would be an understatement. Flint has to resort to a form of exploitation even to express tenderness, holding her as she lies there unconscious. Think of it as, say, David Lynch’s Pietà.

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Any affection he can ever feel for his child is tainted by the abuse he inflicted on her. He knows it, too. We discern that in a series of harrowing close-ups: Flint looking down, Ann’s face, her eyes closed, on the floor. The opposing “axes” of their faces, his roughly vertical, hers roughly horizontal, when edited together, spur the viewer’s eyes to readjust. The contrast visually expresses the Aristotelian reversal, the staggering switch that annihilated one of cinema’s fiercest villains and transformed him into a bereft parent.

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That my heart can break for such a villain, a man I never cease to despise, testifies to Huston’s virtuosic talent—and to the perverse force of the movie as a whole.

Gratuitous though Kongo’s litany of sins may seem, the heavy impact of all that ugliness culminates in a gut-punch of recognition and reversal. The movie does not exist merely to shock, but to tell us something about outer limits of evil: you cannot debase another without debasing yourself more.

That reversal elevates Kongo from the mire and accords it a place among the forgotten gems of its era.

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Tough Times and Dark Places

Investigating this potboiler for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking you stumbled upon an alternate universe. In this parallel realm, the most repellent exploitation films of the 1930s—instead of being churned out by Dwain Esper and his sleazy ilk—were made at M-G-M with top-flight actors, screenwriters, and production values.

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So, how did Kongo get made? Let’s all take a few moments to appreciate Irving Thalberg’s dark side.

1932 was perhaps Thalberg’s banner year as M-G-M’s boy wonder. He basically invented the “all-star” cast with Grand Hotel. He launched Jean Harlow to the next level in the wake of the Bern scandal with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust. He gave us Tarzan and Letty Lynton and Smilin’ Through.

Nevertheless, it was also the year he greenlit Freaks, the most notorious flop of his career, and Kongo, which supposedly turned a profit but didn’t make him any friends. In his zeal to capitalize on the box office mojo of talkie horror, established by Universal’s hits the previous year, Thalberg got out of the boat just a tad.

As Norma Shearer remembered, Thalberg “was fascinated by the unusual, the colorful—even the decadent and the evil. He loved the impact of horror, but not merely for the sake of horror. These elements had to possess a reality, a logic, a meaning.”

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Alas, as psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan would say (not), Kongo got way too real for Depression-era audiences.

In the opinions section of a 1933 issue of Motion Picture Herald, Ned Pedigo, a theater owner from Garber, Oklahoma, wrote in to complain about Kongo’s undesirable effect on his audience: “When [a moviegoer] pays two bits to see this one, he doesn’t forget when he comes out. Hand him 30 cents back. Beg his pardon and I doubt if that will square it.”

Sorry, Mr. Average Spectator, you can’t forget Kongo, no matter how much you’d like to.

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This movie devours a little bit of your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you and, unlike Mr. Pedigo of Oklahoma, I refuse to beg your pardon. I’ve seen it 5 times and have been freshly appalled by each viewing.

That is quite a legacy, Mr. Thalberg. Bravo. After all, what greater measure of a movie’s power is there than its ability to make us feel something like revulsion decades later?

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Look, I want you all to watch the many uncontroversially great films of classic Hollywood. Enjoy them. Quote them. Embrace them as a lifestyle choice. But you know what I want more? For everyone who reads this to take a journey into the darkest corners of the studio era and to check out the messy, category-defying flicks that make you question everything you thought you knew about a prestige outfit like M-G-M.

Bottom line? You can keep The Wizard of Oz. I’ll take Kongo.

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Epilogue: Notes on the Making of Kongo

I promised anecdotes and I am a woman of my word.

Photoplay, the most prestigious and arguably the most trustworthy fan magazine of Hollywood’s golden age, reported on an unlikely friendship that blossomed between Walter Huston and Lupe Velez of onthesetall people on the set of Kongo. Velez had been intimidated by Huston since her former beau Gary Cooper expressed his awe in the presence of the consummate actor’s actor. Noticing Velez furtively peering at him from the sidelines, Huston affably introduced himself and things went swimmingly.

In the article, “The Strangest Friendship in Hollywood,” Ruth Biery reported, “They talk continuously while they are working together and as soon as the week is done, Lupe, Walter, and his wife Nan dash away for little trips to the mountains.”

Lupe also befriended the chimp star, Queenie, who took it upon herself to protect the actress. When Flint starts to twist Tula’s tongue with the wire, Queenie sensed the distress of the scene and started attacking the actors who were pretending to abuse Velez.

During shooting, Virginia Bruce married John Gilbert, a match somewhat jinxed from the start as this item, also from Photoplay, suggests:

Poor Virginia Bruce had a tough honeymoon.

She was working in “Kongo.” And if you ever saw a dirty picture, it was that. Taken in mud. Even the interior shots were largely in huts with dirt floors.

Virginia’s hair was stringy. Her nails were uncut.

She went to director Bill Cowan [sic] with tears in her eyes.

“Can’t I have a shampoo and a facial and manicure just for the week-end?”

“Absolutely not. You might not get the dirt back in the same proportions.”

“But I want to go out with Jack—”

As new-hubby Jack Gilbert is noted for wanting his women fastidiously groomed, no wonder the bride decided to… spend all her time being a little home body.

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This post is a (tardy) entry into The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings! Click the banner to check out all the other posts!

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Red Dust (1932): Rubber Souls

poster“Clark Gable and Jean Harlow have come to typify… free love and plenty of it. Anybody having the slightest knowledge of youth psychology knows what a disastrous effect such films have on the immature minds of adolescents who see them.” So preached Max Knepper in his humorless 1935 tirade Sodom and Gomorrah: The Story of Hollywood.

Okay, full disclosure time. I started watching Harlow movies in my teens and have since embarked on a life of wantonness, criminal activity, and blogging, so you might want to take this review with a grain of smelling salts.

Ironically enough, Red Dust is a story about morality, bordering on allegory at times. Much to the dismay of America’s bluenoses, however, the most moral individual in the movie turns out to be a wisecracking, unapologetic prostitute. I suspect that what really scared censors about this movie wasn’t the steamy chemistry between Gable and Harlow. No, what must’ve shocked them is that an apparently moral wife willingly succumbs to Gable’s adulterous advances.

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The story tastes like someone put The Letter and Rain into a cocktail shaker with some pineapple juice and thrashed vigorously. Rough-hewn Denny Carson (a moustacheless Gable) runs a rubber plantation in Indochina, occasionally longing to escape the grimy work for a more civilized life. One day he comes back to his bamboo hovel to find Vantine (Harlow), a feisty prostitute hiding out from the law.

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After a few weeks of playtime, Carson stuffs a roll of cash down her blouse and tries to ship her back to Saigon. Falling for the big lug, Vantine decides to stick around instead. The plot thickens when Carson’s new employee Gary arrives with his elegant, tennis-racket-carrying wife, Babs (Mary Astor). Before you can say “The natives are restless,” Carson seduces Babs—in a doozy of a rain-drenched, clingy-white-clothing-swaddled love scene—and cuckolds his deferential underling. Will he break up the marriage or do the right thing by returning to Vantine’s loving arms?

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Despite its underlying racism and occasional creakiness, Red Dust challenges audiences to see through outward signs of virtue and shatters the assumption that a good reputation equals a good heart. This movie makes you think a little—something that self-appointed champions of morality seldom want the public to do for themselves.

A kimono-wearing, platinum-haired hooker might loathe deceitfulness and strive to maintain a standard of decency, whereas a demure country club brunette might cheat on her husband and remorselessly lie to cover it up. Indeed, the lack of an easily recognizable moral horizon makes pre-Code cinema so tantalizing in general. No one has a monopoly on sin. Like the rubber that Carson harvests in the jungle, pre-Code morals are elastic, stretching to fit the situation.

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Red Dust also uncorks a vinegary commentary on the American way of life. At the very end, we learn that Babs and her startlingly bland husband Gary (Gene ‘the yawn’ Raymond) have arrived in San Francisco and no doubt intend to resume their society lifestyle—with hubby never the wiser of what she was getting up to on that rubber plantation.

This schmoe had earlier confided in Carson that he dreamed of traveling to South America, before his marriage put a stop to such a fantasy. In the same scene, Gary launches into a starry-eyed speech about his new, wife-approved vision of children and a house in the country, within commutable distance to New York, of course. It’s the sort of propaganda that would sound maudlin and gooey in any other movie, but, as Carson sits there in the driving rain trying not to betray his guilty secret, the context flavors the monologue with an unmistakable bitterness. The film thus implies, and none too subtly, that your standard, respectable American couple consists of a repressed wife and an emasculated husband.

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Meanwhile, far from the apparently idyllic dens of people like Babs and Gary, Carson and his crew of outcasts toil and labor to support the consumerism of the culture that marginalizes them. As he growls in an early scene, “You think I’m going to sink my whole life in this dry rot just so the rest of the world can ride around on balloon tires?”

Intensifying the satire on American values, Vantine mocks Babs by appropriating the vocabulary of a well-to-do housewife. “I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning what to wear to the country club dance this Saturday night,” She drawls for Carson’s benefit. Listening to Harlow’s tinny, faux-refined voice spouting out lines that could come from the Ladies’ Home Journal exposes the cherished virtue of domesticity as a pretense. Her burlesque of society chatter also highlights the film’s central inversion of roles: the prostitute stays faithful to her man, while the prudish wife cheats on her husband. Who’s the real “lady,” after all?

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In the end, however, I don’t watch Red Dust for the drama, the slick satire, or even for sweaty Clark Gable. I watch it for Harlow’s brazen, yet vulnerable comic performance. Consider her introduction in the movie, dozing in a random bed, when Carson and his crony unknowingly drop one of their drunk comrades on top of her in the dark. That unflappable voice cries from offscreen, “Hey! What’s the idea?” And then we get this piquant close-up of the silvery blonde illuminated by a flashlight, her eyes squinting as she reflexively berates the drunk whom she assumes is trying to sleep with her.

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Rather than present her as an object of fetishistic admiration first, as Lewis Milestone did with Crawford’s famous entrance in Rain, Fleming lets Vantine impress the audience as a brassy straight-shooter. Caught by surprise, she leads with a torrent of her personality and sass. Her profession and her looks are secondary. A few seconds later, as she forcefully swings her bare legs and kicks the drunk out of her bed, she does so with a remarkable lack of daintiness or self-conscious grace. You’d think she’d been doing it all her life.

The notorious rain barrel sequence, in which a nude Harlow lathers herself up and bathes in the plantation’s water supply, doesn’t disappoint. The men in the audience might not have noticed, but this very pre-Code scene serves an important narrative purpose, too, as Vantine tries to annoy Carson by scandalizing Babs. “Afraid I’ll shock the duchess?” She teases, beckoning to Carson with a soapy sponge. When Carson hurries up to reign in Vantine’s antics, Babs appears on a balcony. Fleming repeatedly cuts to her holier-than-thou reactions as Vantine playfully splashes around in the barrel. Again, appearances are deceptive, since Babs’s hypocritical “shock,” we understand, really betrays her own jealousy and her desire for Carson.

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Harlow proves her talent for both verbal and physical comedy. The dry twang with which she rattles off sarcastic dialogue vindicates MGM’s decision to cast her as Vantine, a role previously intended for Garbo or Crawford. Without Harlow dropping sassy lines like, “This rain seems to have uncovered a pile of garbage around here,” (when she bawls Gable out for his two-timing behavior) save the film from dull melodrama purgatory. In another instance, provoked Carson’s budding liaison with Babs as the monsoon pours down, Vantine disdains to comment. Instead, she scornfully kicks her shapely legs up on a table and starts to file her nails—not an extraordinary gesture, but one that Harlow fills with an amusingly contained anger, a hissy fit manicure.

1Her accomplishments in Red Dust are all the more inspiring given the tragedy that struck during production. Her husband Paul Bern, an MGM executive more than 20 years her senior, committed suicide. In addition to Harlow’s emotional loss, the scandal seriously threatened her career. A true professional, she returned to work after a 10-day break and soldiered on with a performance that runs the gamut from funny to heartrending.

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Victor Fleming directs the cast on the set of Red Dust

1932 was a good year for onscreen hookers with hearts of gold. Marlene Dietrich, as an impossibly glamorous courtesan, tempted a warlord to save her true love in Shanghai Express. Ruth Chatterton, playing a businesslike madame, sacrificed all for her son in Frisco Jenny. And Carole Lombard, in the role of a wry streetwalker, discovered the joys of home and hearth in Virtue.

But none of them struck the same gold as Harlow. Her chatty, stubborn, sublimely unladylike Vantine doesn’t want to be redeemed and doesn’t need to, either. Perhaps because of that, she remains one of the most iconic and lovable dames of the pre-Code era.

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Heart of Darkness: The Vampire’s Ghost and Colonial Horror

Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally. 

                   — Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The Vampire’s Ghost reeks of jungle rot, regrets, and that creeping evil that lives far beyond the gratification of its desires. Instead of the dark peacock virility of Lugosi’s Dracula, that lusty Deco reincarnation of European romanticism, this 1945 B-film offers up a bulbous-eyed, gaunt expat, Webb Fallon, as its parasitic antihero. Fallon is a vampire who is both moribund and mighty, weary yet insatiable. Ugly as gull, courtly as a prince, and efficient as a bureaucrat, he embodies the musty charm and banal wickedness of a decaying colonial empire.

In fact, running his shabby little casino and dive bar to keep afloat as he feeds on blood, Fallon (John Abbott) reminds me of what Conrad’s Mister Kurtz would have become if he had been doomed to eternal life. I suspect that Kurtz’ bravura would have mellowed into Fallon’s disillusionment if he had been forced to watch the downfall of his works and to observe for centuries “the horror, the horror” that he had only begun to conceive of on the brink of death.

Let’s take a look at how the movie, directed by Lesley Selander, begins. Rather like Casablanca, it begins with a map, the sound of drums, and an authoritative, cultured, newsreel-ish voice-over intoning, “Africa, the dark land where Voodoo drums beat in the night…”

In the context of 1940s cinema, we read this narrator not only as a nondiegetic element, but also as an element divorced from the story. In a way, the audience members think in the back of their minds, the movie hasn’t even started. This voice-over is here to situate the film with a few choice clichés, we assume. The camera focuses in on a specific town on the map as the voice continues to spout some vague scene-setting lines about “the mystic moon” and such. Now, dissolve to the village, the real thing, not a drawing, at night. The cluster of grass huts and a Christian mission squat bathed in moonlight as the camera pans ever so slowly around.

The drums beating constantly in the background may now be interpreted as diegetic, since they’re coming from the village. That subtle change forces us to readjust our assumptions as the narrator’s baritone keeps talking: “Africa… where men have not forgotten the evil they learnt in the dawn of time.” Okay, the narrator in Casablanca would never say that. Who the hell is this?

At this moment, the voice betrays itself. “I always come back to Africa… but even here there is no rest for me. The path of time is curved here like a sickle.” This mercurial shift from a relatively detached, conventional narrator to the narrator as an “I” hits home like a stealth attack. I felt as though the subjectivity of this character had been lying in wait, biding its time. Now the camera begins to really move in earnest, tracking towards a doorway and we understand that we’re in a point-of-view shot. Once again, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of a security and, in a way, what we see has suddenly been possessed by the intent of another. It’s quite a clever opening play and it only gets better.

This voice and this perspective stalk up to the door as the voice grows more emphatic, culminating in “I cannot die!” at the moment when a hand appears on a door handle, before trailing away with the hypnotic repetitions of “I cannot rest. I cannot rest. I cannot rest…”

Continuing from this perspective, there’s a cut to a little barking dog on the other side of the door. Cut to the hand opening the door. The dog cowers as the camera creeps towards a sleeping woman. She wakes. She looks terrified. The shadow falls over her. She screams. Fade to black.

We’re all used to the monster attack as an opener, a classic “curtain-raiser” in films, but here the unusual complicity with the vampire—a complicity that’s imposed upon us through a careful use of cinematic language and audience expectations—attracts me to this sequence. Not only do we experience the attack through the eyes of the predator, we also hear his plea for “rest” as he prepares to drain a human being of life. The viewer finds himself simultaneously drawn in and repelled.

The grave, sonorous voice of John Abbott certainly catalyzes this blend of fear and sympathy: he was a noted English actor of Shakespeare in the 1930s. My fondness for this film may be running away with me, but I’d say this opening speech recalls Richard III, who’s always trying evoke the pity and admiration of his audience—so that they become willing accomplices and victims. (This might be a good place to point out that the script was written in part by Ms. Leigh Brackett, based on her original story. You might know her from movies she went on to write for, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.)

Fallon is not your ordinary vampire. Graf Orlock from Nosteratu definitely doesn’t tug at our heartstrings and Lugosi’s Dracula might make a single off-hand remark about “far worse things than death” but he never seeks to form a true of bond with the audience, to rest his head on the shoulder of our conscience and beg for a modicum of understanding. Not the Count.

In The Vampire’s Ghost, by contrast, we start with the vampire’s side of the story. And he doesn’t seem like such a soulless creature. Which is why he’s so very dangerous.

The Outsider

In case you’ve not seen this rare gem (so rare you can watch it on Netflix Instant, if you have 55 free minutes), here’s a quick synopsis: the wicked, undead nightclub-owner Fallon goes for Roy (Charles Gordon) the Good Guy’s innocent girl Julie (Peggy Stewart) and gets killed with help of silver spear-wielding natives and a Catholic priest.

That plot, minus a few specifics, could summarize almost all of the 1930s and early 1940s horror films, but this entry into the vampire cannon intrigues me because it takes Fallon quite a long time to do anything evil after that opening night sequence. In fact, he saves Roy’s life from a native jungle trap! Honestly, not many vampires come across as such consummate gentlemen. Even Julie tells him that he’s the nicest man she’s ever met.

In other words, chivalry is not dead. It’s undead.

We don’t learn very much about Fallon, but we do know that he’s actually over 400 years old and received the box in which he keeps his sacred earth from Queen Elizabeth, which hints that he was probably one of the early European explorers to colonize and enslave Africa.

So, in the midst of the thick, machete-impenetrable jungle, Fallon remains a throwback to the heart and heyday of Western civilization in all of its sin and glory. He’s part of the hegemony, a son of the British Empire. And yet, the white community doesn’t fully accept him. When Roy and Julie invite Fallon over for dinner with the other whites, the priest immediately gets judgmental, asking why “a man of your intelligence” spends his time running a saloon.

I just adore this shot, with the priest looking all… well, priestly, while Fallon lights his cigarette with a little lick of flame that reminds us of where he truly belongs in the Church’s eyes: Hell. However, the usual good-bad, white-black color iconography is reversed: the vampire wears white and the priest, the holy father, wears black. Morality seems clear-cut in The Vampire’s Ghost, but if you look harder, another layer of complexity arises.

To get back to Fallon’s saloon, it comes across as a subversive, transitional space, with the lithe, brown-skinned Leeza (Adele Mara) swirling around as a native temptress for drooling white workers and sailors.

I suppose that my point is, Fallon represents an unholy thing because he can be at once the familiar and the Other. Although he is rational and civilized, his existence defies rationality and his appetites are indeed savage.

The Return of the Repressed

By rising from his grave, Fallon disinterred that part of colonial history which many people would rather forget. His hunger and his need for conquest parallel a larger pattern of callous global vampirism: colonization. Which brings us back to Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness.

Mister Kurtz, the unconscionably evil ivory trader from Conrad’s novella, has also projected himself into the field of the Other. He embodies the pinnacle of European talents and European cruelty—and uses these traits to set himself up as a tyrant god to the natives. The narrator of the novella, Marlowe, recoils from Kurtz’ atrocities and yet he cannot deny the personal magnetism of this human monster who brought the logical extension of “civilization” to fruition in pure savagery.

In a famous scene from the book, Kurtz, dying of a jungle sickness, tries to crawl away from camp rather than leave the heart of the Congo where he rules supreme:

“He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest…

‘I was on the threshold of great things,’ he pleaded, in a voice of longing, with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold.

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.”

This passage has much of the visuality of horror about it and makes me think particularly of the scene in The Vampire’s Ghost where Fallon reveals his vampirism.

So, in Fallon’s tent, Roy realizes what his “friend” is and first stuns him with the image of the cross, then tries to kill him with a silver-tipped spear. However, Fallon fixes his staring eyes on Roy and the weak-willed juvenile leading man caves under their force.

The low-key chiaroscuro, the Christian iconography, and the dramatic poses, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings or of the tapestry in Fallon’s bedroom, enhance the feeling of a regression to an older time, as though Fallon has suddenly reached the point where his primal hunger and his refined European wickedness intersect.

For most of The Vampire’s Ghost, Fallon appears as a declining power, which makes his force seem all the more diabolical when he finally pushes aside all of his compunction and world-weariness. He unleashes the single-minded imperialist he once was, the conqueror who lives only by the law of might. He tells Roy point-blank that he’ll do as he pleases because he is beyond humanity. “You’re seeing a creature that doesn’t exist. You’re looking at a legend… You can’t fight me. I have walked the earth for 400 years. I’ve learned things that no human being can ever know.”

This speech rings frighteningly close to Kurtz’ delusions  of grandeur. Both of them, no doubt, recognize the pain they cause—as the priest points out, in his own sanctimonious way, they’re intelligent enough to be self-aware. Even so, both Kurtz and Fallon would rather kill to feed their appetites than die: a choice that makes them perfect imperialists and perfect animals, predators who belong in the jungle.

It’s fitting, then, that Fallon rejuvenates in the forest, where he makes Roy carry him, just as Kurtz knows that, once separated from the jungle, he’ll die. Fallon bathes in the moonlight, where he can truly dismiss all his pretenses, and thus provides the focus for one of the most lyrical moments of the film.

The Fallen Idol

Fallon’s uncanniness resides in the fact that we identify him with the Other while he also strikes us as human in so many ways. However, like Kurtz, he becomes truly godlike at the conclusion when he resolves to bestow eternal life (or eternal death—ah! I’m having a Mummy flashback from my last blog post here!) upon Julie.

Fallon leads the compliant maiden into the heart of the jungle to an old pagan temple. The scene begins with a shot of the “savage” large-breasted goddess statue, an image that melds the erotic with the exotic, then the camera pans pans to reveal Fallon locked in a reciprocal gaze with this statue.

Again, the lanky, pale Fallon visually comes across as the polar opposite of this sensual indigenous idol (and yes, it is a very ersatz Hindu-African hybrid idol, but let’s take it at face value). Yet, like Kurtz, who joins the pantheon of capricious, wrathful native deities, Fallon has much more in common with a morbid god than with the stiff cast of Europeans that dominate the plot. And, like a decaying culture or a dismembered empire (Were you ever bitten by a dead bee?), Fallon draws us in with his tragic need to expire—which will always be trumped by the consumption necessary to survive.

Ruthlessness, as Nietzsche (surely Kurtz’ favorite author!) tells us, requires a lot of strength and a surprising amount of self-control.  Fallon the tempter is himself tempted by death, but keeps killing to stay alive. Throughout the film we wonder why, and it boils down to an addiction. A behavior pattern of exploitation that perpetuates itself. Every “memory of gratification and monstrous passions” lures Fallon back to that same desire for power. He’s too strong to let himself die.

He’s not without a conscience, like Dracula seemingly is, but, having largely mastered his conscience, Fallon can stomach destroying a few lives to preserve his own intoxicating authority over others. We catch a glimpse of that side of Fallon when he sadistically gloats by Roy’s bedside, giving Julie his shoulder to cry on and then, when alone with the poor boy, gloating over his imminent victory.

The complexity of Fallon’s character as a sort of fallen idol imbues the film with added depth. He doesn’t put everyone in his thrall but once he does, as with Roy, he goes all-out, gleefully making them his slaves. He doesn’t like the fact that he hurts people, but he certainly enjoys doing it. We, as an audience, also enjoy it, I’d point out, since his most sinister scenes stand out as the best in the film.

But back to the grand finale. As he prepares to treat Julie to The Fate Worse Than Death, Fallon repeats his line from the opening monologue, “the path of time is curved like a sickle…” but this time he ends his speech by saying that a man need not walk that time alone and that he wants Julie to be his companion for all eternity. He seduced the audience with this line. Now he tries it on a new victim and it seems to be working. The repetition also reinforces the idea of vampirism as an addiction, as a compulsive behavior pattern which, like imperialism, once set into swing, cannot easily be halted.

That is, until Roy, the priest, and his native friend show up with crucifixes, silver-tipped spears, and torches, as we knew they would.

I can’t help but find it amusing that that the hardcore Catholic priest teams up with the much-maligned “superstitious” native leader, to roast the vampire. But, then again, the indigenous people understandably hate Fallon for exploiting them (literally sucking their blood) and hypocritical whites hate Fallon for giving away their much more subtle vampirism (Who’s tapping the rubber out of those trees?) as well as for “luring” away their pure young girl (You can’t make the whites into your slaves!). It’s only right that they should band together to forever destroy this blasphemous creature who’s neither us nor them.

Nevertheless, just as it’s difficult to forget our twisted admiration for Kurtz, who was, to his credit, honest about his barbaric methods, Fallon similarly invites the viewer to sympathize with him while he never hides what he does. He may be homely, corrupted, and poisonous, but his superhuman insight and his ability to cling onto life—even when part of him tragically craves death—these qualities hold us spellbound.

As Marlowe laments the loss of Kurtz’ originality in Heart of Darkness, “Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.”

Fallon acknowledged his own status as something better off dead, but we respect his fierce implacability in getting what he wants. Isn’t that the same ineffable motive that drives all of us to keep on living, even as other things—perhaps better things—die? Vampirism. Imperialism. Both warped versions of the same survival instinct. And both really human to the core.

Heaven knows what devils we might all aspire to be if plunged into the heart of darkness.