Is Kongo a horror movie? IMDb lists it as such, and I guess for 1932 the story of African voodoo and female sacrifices would be perceived as horrific in their foreignness. But actually Kongo horrifies more in its realities surrounding drug addiction and female slavery more than anything else, even if it’s taking elements that I Walked With a Zombie (1943) would perfect a decade later. Judging Kongo today tests one’s abilities to be objective about time period as it’s incredibly racist and misogynistic with a pro-white Christian American agenda so blatantly I waited for someone to speechify with a bald eagle on their arm and an American flag waving behind them. On its own merits, Kongo is a quick and dirty pre-Code with an utterly amazing performance by Virginia Bruce, but its time has definitely come and gone.
The handicapped Flint (Walter Huston) is a charlatan professing himself to be a religious man controlling a fiefdom of African natives. He’s determined to exact revenge on the man who stole his wife and paralyzed him, Gregg (C. Henry Gordon), by abducting Gregg’s daughter Ann (Bruce), turning her into a drunken prostitute. When a drug addicted doctor named Kingsland (Conrad Nagel) arrives, Flint sees him as a means of curing his paralysis, but Kingsland’s growing affections for Ann threaten everything.
A remake of Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928), Kongo, from what I’ve read, tries its damndest to outdo its predecessor with more grim and gruesome plotlines. In that regard the film succeeds as it’s raunchier than an episode of Jerry Springer (in 1932 terms, at least). Flint has created his own dictatorship in the Congo where he bosses around his two goons and flaunts his sexual relationship with the exotic Tula (Lupe Velez, sweat sheened and half naked). I have no knowledge of the original film or stage play so I can’t comment about its similarities or differences. I can say that, considering Tod Browning directed the original (and would release the sympathetic tale of disability known as Freaks the same year as this), it is a bit disconcerting seeing the disabled character seen as villainous. I will say Walter Huston commits to the character, showing how the man’s adapted to the unforgiving jungle landscape – not exactly known for being handicapped friendly.
There’s little redeeming quality to Flint as a character. Did Browning provide any redemptive qualities with Chaney in the original? Not only is Flint a religious manipulator, he’s a racist and utter misogynist, to both Tula and Ann. It’s evident he has as little respect for sexually exploiting both women as he does treating the various natives who come to him for help. The addition of a monkey on a chain, named Kong a year before Merian C. Cooper’s famous ape, only enhances the continued mistreatment of blacks, both in the film and in 1932 America. Huston’s grizzled demeanor and general surliness turn the character into someone just looking for a big dose of comeuppance. Actually, all the white characters who have lived in the jungle are horrible.
Flint’s grand plan is to abduct Gregg’s daughter Ann who’s been living in a convent for years, apparently paid for by Flint? The background on everything gets a taste murky and gives the sly twist little sense upon second thought. Without spoiling things, Flint realizes something that would make his motivations for putting Ann in a convent logical, but considering he wasn’t aware prior to then it’s completely nonsensical. And since this is pre-Code the “90 minutes or less” paradigm is in full effect with Ann meeting Flint’s henchman, Hogan (Mitchell Lewis), posing a missionary in one scene and then cutting to her being a slovenly, disheveled drunk living in a brothel in Africa the next. How much time are we meant to believe has passed?
This is my first serious look at Virginia Bruce – in fact, I taped this during her Summer Under the Stars tribute – and she’s superb in a role that could have been VERY melodramatic. Her performance as Ann feels reminiscent of Mae Clarke in Waterloo Bridge (1931), and I’m not talking about both posing with their hands clasped on top of their heads. Bruce evokes Ann’s hopelessness and degeneration into alcoholism. Her constant assaults (let’s call them what they are, rapes) as part of living in the brothel have obviously traumatized her. Kingsland, despite his own demons as a drug addict, becomes a white knight for a girl only looking to get her self-respect back. Contrasted with Lupez “Latin Spitfire” Velez, we’re meant to see Ann as the poor damsel taken to Africa to be denigrated, the babe in the woods. Actually, I’d argue both women are exploited and controlled due to their gender. Velez’s Tula may be materialistic, but it’s the only control she’s given. It’s evident her relationship with Flint is more for some sense of stability, and you’re never completely against her although the film wants you to see her as a symbol of sex and foreign pleasures.
Despite this being a pre-Code made at the era’s peak, Kongo pulls back before becoming completely nihilistic. Kingsland easily overcomes his drug addiction – you’d be surprised what a night with leeches can do! – while Flint turns to God, absolving himself of his wicked ways and allowing for Ann and Kingsland to return back to normality, ie America, and marriage. The whole thing is far too pat and the script’s intentions are worn right on their sleeve. Anything non-Christian, white, and American is bad and leads to certain death, everyone!
I may be judging Kongo unfairly. Yes, its politics and treatment of minorities and women may be par for the course, but in 2015 it’s hard really sympathizing or caring about these characters because their motives and politics are so wrong. The script certainly doesn’t want you to like most of these characters, and you don’t, but it’s more because they’re villains so why bemoan the point? The characters just seem to move beyond being villains and start adding horrible facets to their personality for the sake of it. And because they’re so horrible, there’s hardly any room to believe they’d suddenly turn tale and seek redemption, no matter why knowledge they learn in the 11th hour. Virginia Bruce is amazing though, and if you’ve ever wanted to watch Velez show off her Hollywood persona this is the best example.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.