Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) manages a fairly elaborate production number to end the 1932 pre-code musical, KONGO. A scantily clad Lupe Velez leads a conga line through jungle terrain. Velez shakes and shimmies as she leads the procession, a celebration of the new love affair forged in the remote location between Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce. Off to the side Walter Huston plays the maracas in front of the drums that steadily maintain the heartbeat of the song. We slowly pan out to a view of the sky over the Belgian Congo. The drums and maracas still heard in the distance – another MGM production comes to an end.
OK. So none of that ever happens.
When the folks at Warner Archive asked me which movie I wanted to review from their ever-growing collection I chose William J. Cowen’s KONGO (1932). Knowing absolutely nothing about the film, what I described above is sort of what I expected. While I know MGM made horror films what always comes to mind with regards to the glamorous studio is just that, glamor by way of its popular musicals. I didn’t know, for instance, that KONGO is a remake of Tod Browning’s WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) starring Lon Chaney. I haven’t seen that film either, but the Browning/Chaney pairing would’ve given me a pretty good clue that Yes! There are no maracas in KONGO!
Anyway all that’s unimportant. The point is I hadn’t a clue so imagine my surprise as I watched this movie – not a semi-raunchy musical, but a shocker I won’t soon forget.
Walter Huston plays Flint, a man crippled by hatred and vengeance. Confined to a wheelchair Flint has become lord and master to the local tribesmen by fooling them into thinking he has powers, which he shows by way of average magic tricks and by wearing a makeshift albeit elaborate ceremonial
headdress. Lupe Velez plays Tula, a Portuguese woman who Flint has taken in to do his bidding, in all manner of ways.
Flint is obsessed with revenge against a man named Gregg (C. Henry Gordon) who is not only responsible for Flint losing the use of his legs, but also for stealing his wife. After eighteen years of simmering hatred that has now come to a boil, Flint is ready to go forward with his plan to inflict pain on Gregg.
As it turns out Flint has been supporting a girl named Ann (Virginia Bruce) in a convent for all those years until she is old enough to play her part in bringing his sinister plan to fruition. Now is the time. Thinking Ann is Gregg’s daughter, the result of the man’s relationship with Flint’s wife, the latter sends for Ann who thinks she is finally going to spend time with her father. Flint then subjects the girl to
a miserable existence of sexual abuse and mistreatment. And that’s before he brings her to his compound in the Belgian Congo. Things for Ann then go from bad to worse as Flint all but ensures she is overcome with disease and alcoholism.
When Flint is sure Ann is debauched enough, when her spirit is almost completely broken he sends for Gregg. The hope is Gregg is destroyed with pain at witnessing what has become of his daughter, a daughter the man doesn’t know he has. But all backfires on Flint. Without spoiling all the details, suffice it to say that In the end it is Flint himself who falls victim to his own hatred.
KONGO is plain sickening with racism and misogyny that run so deep and rampant that I disbelieved what I was watching and hearing as I watched and heard it. In fact, as far as its treatment of human beings, this movie is even more disturbing than Erle Kenton’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), which previously topped the list as the film whose nightmarish concept keeps me up at night.
There are no lost souls in ISLAND that can match the likes of Huston’s Flint, a role the actor originated in the stage production of KONGO in 1926.
Also appearing in KONGO is Conrad Nagel who plays Dr. Kingsland, a physician with a drug addiction and a checkered past who falls for Ann. The rest of the cast includes Mitchell Lewis, Forrester Harvey and Curtis Nero. I should note all performances here are effective and theatrical, not surprising for an early talkie. The acting, however, seems to take a backseat to the shock value of the circumstances and dialogue as the story unfolds. Just as the adventure takes a back seat to the drama.
After watching KONGO I am curious about two things – the first is in regards to Louis B. Mayer and the MGM brass and whether they were as freaked out about KONGO as they were about Browning’s FREAKS released the same year. And I am also curious to know what it says about me that I couldn’t keep my eyes off the morbidly fascinating KONGO.
Thanks to Warner Archive for sending me a review copy of KONGO. Click on this logo to access the Warner Archive Collection:
I’ve seen this movie a couple of times and also as a double feature with the Lon Chaney version. Both are good although I liked the Chaney version a tad more because I felt more sorry for him. I too was shocked when I first saw Kongo. It’s shocking even by today’s standards, at least to me.
Enjoyed the review very much! I agree with you, this movie makes you want to take a shower in bleach or at least Listerine. And yet… so strangely compelling.
I came at this movie as a fan of WEST OF ZANZIBAR. While it is definitely sick (as you wrote, Chaney/Browning, ’nuff said) the racism is less overt and there is no Velez character. Plus, Chaney pretty much gives the performance of his career. I also think it is easier to take because we see Chaney BEFORE he is injured instead of the film dropping us right into the jungle.
If you are interested in the final film of this sick trilogy, may I be so bold as to suggest the semi-remake, THE SHANGHAI GESTURE, in which Walter Huston is the object of vengeance.
Thanks, Fritzi! PLEASE be as bold as you want as often as you want! I appreciate all your recommendations. Once I recoup from this one I’ll watch the Chaney version and the later one.