Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.
Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.
I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”
Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.
The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.
Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.
Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.
The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.
Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).
One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.
As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.