Tuesday, August 22, 2017


This was the end of the line for Lon Chaney Sr. and director Tod Browning after a legendary run of films during the 1920s. Browning went on to make his sound-film debut later in 1929 with The Thirteenth Chair, which featured Bela Lugosi in a teaser of things to come. For Chaney, you could say Where East is East is the beginning of the end. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer kept its "Man of a Thousand Faces" silent for another year, making him one of the very last major stars to make his speaking debut, perhaps because they were unsure of how to present Chaney as a talking star, and perhaps because the health problems that killed him in 1930 were already apparent. In any event, East is a typical Chaney-Browning production, though creepier in its insinuations than in explicit content. It seemed creepy to me, at least, because I inferred a quasi-incestuous subtext in the close relationship between the white hunter Tiger Haynes (Chaney) and his daughter Toyo (Lupe Velez). Toyo is a grown woman, which makes the father-daughter horseplay at points seem just a bit excessive -- but maybe I'm just reading stuff into a Browning film (Waldemar Young adapted an original story by the director and pulp writer Harry Sinclar Drago) because you're supposed to. Even if you suppress such speculation, there's something creepy about the way Toyo's mother and Tiger's ex, the half-caste Madame de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), becomes Toyo's romantic rival for the affections of Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes), who's come to Laos to buy tigers for his father's circus from Haynes. And because this is a Tod Browning film, Tiger keeps what I take to be an orangutan, though it might be a runt of a gorilla, in his house -- an orangutan with a grudge against de Sylva. That sounds familiar. The Chaney character is going to unleash the ape to kill his wife but something will happen, he'll change his mind and get himself killed, right? Not quite. It looks like Tiger Haynes is done for after locking himself in the room with the ape to keep it from getting loose and attacking the young lovers, but not before the avenging orangutan did what he had to do to the half-caste vamp.

Considering some of the unfilmed ideas Browning had -- he told a doozy to Herman Mankiewicz about Chaney as a violinist/mad scientist grafting women's heads onto gorillas' bodies -- this is fairly mild stuff, though it makes you confident that the Browning-Chaney team could have taken their act into the Pre-Code era with little trouble. There's really no reason for East, a May 1929 release, not to be a talkie except that the studio and/or director and/or star weren't ready just yet. Chaney's scarface makeup wouldn't have gotten in the way of dialogue and he wouldn't have had to attempt a foreign accent for his role. Yet I suppose the Chaney-Browning world worked according to a kind of dream logic, at the slightly unnatural speed of silent action, that would not translate, despite wishful thinking about Chaney as Dracula, to the gravity of sound. They belong to another universe the way the silent clowns did, and as a male star at M-G-M circa 1929, Chaney probably was doomed anyway.

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