Friday, February 21, 2014

KONGO (1932)

Remember how 2013 on this blog was mostly about going year by year through the history of horror movies and trying to pick the prettiest one of all?  It feels like that might be a good thing to revive, since I'm in the mood for older stuff, for whatever reason.  So we're up to 1932 and the first pick, KONGO, ended up being no kind of horror movie whatsoever and is therefore disqualified from competition.  But it's too sublime and sleazy to not be celebrated on yon blog, so away we go.

Walter Huston is Flint, sitting bitterly in his wheelchair in the jungle, plotting revenge and ingratiating himself with the natives.  He does so in these ways: by wearing buffalo hats with skulls on them; by shouting things like "BOOGIE B-B-BOGEY BA"; and by performing entry-level magic tricks with the assistance of his Portuguese hussy Tula (Lupe Velez).  All this business is aimed at taking revenge on the man who wounded him and sneered at his misfortune.  Like a Bond villain, he constructs an elaborate plot involving the man's daughter.  Later, a drug-addled doctor wanders out of the jungle as well.

Any description of this movie that you find reads like personnel files at a school for very delinquent girls.  Sex, drugs, tongues torn out with wire, monkeys trying to undress sick women, submersion in leech ponds.  All things that make America great and they are all here!  Unbelievably, this began its life as a stage play (lol~!), then was transformed into a 1928 Lon Chaney film called WEST OF ZANZIBAR.  I strongly suspect that the dialogue was mostly untouched in porting the play into a screenplay.  In KONGO, we get prolonged soliloquies and very hokey verbiage.  I confess, my eyes were rolling in the early goings, but this gets salvaged by its commitment to transgression and by its surprisingly effective troupe of actors. 

This was my first time seeing Lupe Velez after reading (tall) tales about her death in Hollywood Babylon.  The Mexican Spitfire is indeed pretty great here, adding all sorts of little touches to her performance.  I loved her instinctive little bow after they perform magic tricks for the African tribesmen.  Lupe brings the glam here, but she gets outactressed by Virginia Bruce as the debased daughter who's pulled out of a convent and into a hive of scum.

Bruce is tremendous and really establishes her character, Ann, as a real character, not a vehicle for makeup and close-ups.  Ann is bedraggled, often drunk, and constantly trading shrieked accusations with Flint and yet Bruce nails every second of her screen time.  I should like more Virginia Bruce in my life.  Huston is impressive as Flint as well, and probably has the most weight to carry in terms of clunky lines.  There's a shift in his character that you won't believe from his scumbag early scenes, but, if you watch KONGO all the way through, you will believe, because Huston is that good.

One other thing: if racism is a big trigger for you, you should maybe not watch this movie.  The Africans in KONGO are very much of the ooga-booga variety, complete with bone hoops through their noses.  We get dialogue like, "I haven't seen a white woman in years!" and "I hate to see good gin wasted on a dried-up monkey like that."  Let's be fair and admit that most of the questionable stuff comes from characters we're not really supposed to like, though.  It's kinda grindhousey in that way.

This reminded me a bit of the Dwain Esper stuff that I'd seen, but transplanted to an African setting by way of MGM soundstages.  And with far, far better actors!  KONGO's a ton of fun and really revels in impropriety like few other films.  


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