It's been quite a while since this blog has looked at the twists and turns of casting from Broadway to Hollywood. A recent screening on TCM of Tod Browning's 1928 thriller West of Zanzibar prompted this look at a two extraordinary actors.
April 1, 1883 - August 26, 1930
Lon Chaney, "The Man of a Thousand Faces", made only one sound picture before his untimely death from lung cancer at the age of 47 and that was a remake of 1925s The Unholy Three. Yet such is the power of his performances that long before I saw the 1930 version I was convinced I had heard Chaney speak. In role after role, from The Phantom of the Opera to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from He Who Gets Slapped to Laugh, Clown, Laugh Lon Chaney possessed the talent and the skill to transcend the screen and make the audience feel and know his inner being. Chaney early learned to communicate with his deaf parents and was born an instinctive entertainer. A vaudevillian who could sing, dance and make people laugh, today Chaney is recalled mainly for characterizations in the horror genre. Yet, he said "I hope I shall never be accused of striving merely for horrible effects." Lon Chaney's talents as an actor and as a make-up artist created characters that showed us many horrors and much nobility.
One of the 10 films Lon Chaney made with director Tod Browning is West of Zanzibar. It is a tale of revenge and redemption. As Phroso aka Dead Legs, he rules a territory in Africa by confounding superstitious natives with magic and fear. Phroso lives for one thing, to take revenge on the man who made him a cripple and stole his wife and daughter. The girl is the victim of abuse which is the core of the vengeance and the victim of a cruel twist of fate which tears the soul out of her tormentor. The audience is in the hands of the master watching Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar.
April 5, 1883 - April 7, 1950
Canadian born Walter Huston was enjoying success on the Broadway stage while Lon Chaney was wowing them in movies in the 1920s. One of those plays was Kongo written and directed by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon. The play ran for 135 performances in 1926 and became the 1928 movie West of Zanzibar. How often has the stage star looked west to see someone else take over "their" role? In 1929 Huston himself headed west and began his distinguished film career. Early on he appeared in such diverse roles as the villain Trampas in The Virginian, as Abraham Lincoln in that titled picture for D.W. Griffith and as a sympathetic prison warden in The Criminal Code for Howard Hawks.
In 1932 Huston was outstanding in Frank Capra's American Madness, as the hypocritical Davidson in Rain and as Flint, the hate-filled cripple in Kongo in the sound remake of West of Zanzibar, going back to the original title. If it is possible, the lurid story seems even more so in sound. Huston is never less than riveting and, great though he may be and originator of the role he may be, but he can't top Chaney. However, in a fortunate case of not messing with success when Walter Huston's 1934 stage success Dodsworth was filmed beautifully in 1936 with Huston played the lead receiving a most well deserved Oscar nomination. He would have to wait until 1948s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the statue in the supporting category.
Two admirable actors and one despicable role in the winding road from Broadway to Hollywood.