It all started with a photo – the photo you see here on the right.
I found it by chance on the web – it’s a portrait of actress Mary Nolan, a picture taken in the ’20s.
I find her achingly beautiful.
So I decided to learn more about her.
As Imogene “Bubbles” Wilson, Kentucky-born Nolan was a Ziegfeld girl that was kicked out of the show because of her scandalous affair with a married comedian.
To escape the scandal, Nolan moved to Germany, where she worked as an actress, using the name of Imogen Robertson, making seventeen movies in two years.
She returned in the USA in 1928, and in that same year she acted in Tod Browning‘s West of Zanzibar, that is a thoroughly wicked, evil little adventure movie.
If we can call little a movie produced and directed by Browning, and featuring Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore.
The plot of West of Zanzibar is so twisted, I’ll have to relate it in some detail.
It’s all about Phroso (Chaney), a stage magician that gets dumped by his lovely wife Anna, that’s apparently in love with a man named Crane (Barrymore), and is leaving for Africa with him. When Phroso confronts his rival, he gets pushed off a balcony, and falls, breaking his back and losing the use of his legs1.
One year later, Phroso learns his runaway wife is back in town, and gets to the church where she’s been sighted, just in time to find her dead, and her child abandoned on the church’s floor. Phroso swears he’ll take revenge on Crane, and on the child.
Fast forward eighteen years (and yes, we’re about fifteen minutes in the movie).
Phroso, now known as No Legs, is somewhere west of Zanzibar, in the basin of the river Congo.
Here, withthe help of two scallywags and an alcoholic doctor (called… well, Doc), he’s lording over the local tribe, and all the while stealing the ivory of a local trader – you guessed it right, Crane.
This is all part of a complicated… very complicated plan.
Eighteen years ago Phroso dumped Crane’s child daughter, Maizie (Nolan), in a cheap gin joint in Zanzibar, for her to be thoroughly debauched and humiliated.
Now he has her brought to his jungle outpost, where he is also luring Crane, that’s curious about whoever’s stealing his ivory.
Waiting for Crane, Phroso further brutalizes and humiliates Maizie, making sure that she becomes an alcoholic. Doc’s attentions (he’s fallen in love with Maizie) are not enough to keep her off the bottle.
When finally Crane apears on the scene, Phroso can finally set the final act in motion – theidea is to show his old rival the man’s devastated daughter, and then – after a modicum of gloating – kill him off.
At that point, the natives will do the rest, based on their tradition of burning a living daughter with the body of her dead father.
But there’s a catch – Crane (that is actually a dastardly scumbag, and we’ve known it all along) laughs at Phroso, revealing Anna’s child was not his, but the crippled magician’s.
The situation precipitates – Phroso is shattered, Crane gets killed, and now the crippled magician will have to use his old tricks to save his own daughter and the man she loves, before he finds a way to pay for his sins at the hands of his former slaves.
All this, in 65 minutes.
In black and white.
Shot in five days, often to the beat of tribal drums (because Browning wanted the actors to get in the mood).
With its ghastly mix of betrayal, debauchery, alcohol abuse, cruelty and cynicism – not to mention the portrayal of the African tribesmen – there’s at least fifteen reasons why today nobody would even think about shooting this story. One of these, of course, is that nobody would probably be able to portray evil in such a convincing, arresting, and yet nuanced way as Lon Chaney.
The man was a giant, even when he played his role crawling on the floor on his hands.
As for Mary Nolan, despite the success of West of Zanzibar her life would soon sink in a bog of sexual scandals and drug abuse – and she would die in 1948, aged 46, due to a lethal dose of barbiturates.
But she’s still heartbreakingly beautiful in that photograph.
- there’s actually some cut footage in which we see the once dapper magician turned into a sideshow freak, playing the part of a duck-man in a Napoleonic jacket. I kid you not. ↩