To 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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 all 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.