Thursday, June 19, 2014


What sort of man turns a wild gorilla loose on his ex-wife? Well, if the man is being played by Lon Chaney, and the story is being presented by Tod Browning, it makes sense. Where East is East (1929) currently available on the Warner Archive streaming service, was the final pairing of Chaney with director Browning. While it's not as bizarre or perverse as their nine previous collaborations, it boasts large dollops of exotic imagery, jungle action, and weird romance.

Chaney plays Tiger Haynes, an animal trapper in French Indochina who supplies circuses with wild beasts. The first time we see him he's in a tree, lowering a net onto a tiger. The animal thrashes, trying to escape, and the realness of the tiger gives the film a visceral feeling that stands in contrast to the stylized acting of the time. Chaney is a tough lout as Haynes, his face badly scarred from his past battles with animals, but there's a regal quality to him; he returns from the hunt on the back of an elephant like a king returning from battle. 

The one love in Haynes' life is his feisty daughter Toyo (Lupe Velez). They play games that are strangely sexual in nature - he'll get on all fours like a tiger and growl while she smacks him around. Then she'll sit on his chest and punch him, while he laughs. Not exactly sure if this happens in most single parent households, but Haynes does the best he can. Besides, being smacked around by Lupe Velez isn't the worst way to spend an afternoon.

On his most recent return home, Haynes learns that Toyo has fallen in love. Toyo's love interest is Bobby, the son of an American circus owner (Lloyd Hughes). Haynes hates the idea - we get the idea that love hasn't been good to Haynes - but when a tiger wanders into the Haynes' home and stalks Toyo, Haynes is impressed by the way Bobby races to save her. Maybe the lad is OK, after all.

Haynes invites Bobby to join him on a boat trip to sell some animals, but once aboard, Bobby is smitten by the mysterious Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), an earthy, vampish woman of indeterminate age. The woman, who seems from the Theda Barra school of vamping, turns out to be Haynes' ex-wife and Toyo's wayward mother. Talk about coincidences! Haynes gives Bobby a smash on the chin to snap him out of it, and warns his ex to stay out of the way. Mme. de Sylva is used to getting what she wants, though. We're not sure if she genuinely desires Bobby, or just wants to stir up trouble, but we're not totally surprised when she turns up at Haynes' home. Toyo, of course, is delighted to see her mother, which complicates things even more.

The film was released in May 1929, a time when talking movies were already wedging their way into theaters.  Browning and Chaney were among the slowest to jump on the sound bandwagon. Where East is East has some animal sounds, especially where tigers are involved, but otherwise is a "silent" film. Reviews were mixed.  The New York Times noted that the movie featured "several shrewdly photographed and exciting episodes with snarling tigers," but found the love triangle "more than slightly incredible."  Other critics objected to the high number of kissing scenes, and some found Velez' raw energy to be distracting. The Film Spectator wrote that Velez, "makes the hand itchy for a fly swatter." 

Swedish poster for Where East is East
Chaney was generally praised for playing a role that didn't require him to be deformed in some way, but looking at the movie recently, it was Velez and Taylor who stood out. True, Chaney was a force, and his mere presence could enliven a scene, but this isn't one of his better turns. Most of the time he just stands around scowling. Velez, though,  was a treat, a lively little firecracker, while Taylor was a believable vamp. Taylor was a popular actress of the 1920s, known as much for her stormy marriage to boxing champion Jack Dempsey as for her movie roles, and she was a willing risk taker in that she played a rather evil temptress here. While she's definitely the sort of mother in law that I want, not everyone was impressed.  "Estelle Taylor," reported The Times, "with her eyes frightfully made-up to give them an Oriental slant, is unfortunate in her role."  

Where East is East wasn't a major hit, and as Browning biographer David J. Skal wrote, it was largely an "anemic retread of characters and plot devices from earlier films." But taken on its own, removed from the Browning/Chaney canon and just enjoyed as a relic from 1929, the film still hits with a strange power. It's comforting to know that big studios like MGM actually made weird movies like this at one time. 

There's also the gorilla to consider.  It had been penned up in Haynes' home for years, and according to Haynes, it still remembered being mistreated by de Sylva. I don't know who played the gorilla, but the beast is a burly menace, at least as fearsome as the ape in Murders in the Rue Morgue a few years later.  When Haynes can take no more of his ex-wife's antics, he lets the gorilla loose, symbolically unleashing his own pent up anger.  The creature bounds up the stairs to Mme. de Sylva's room, ready to settle an old score. Hearing the mayhem, Haynes has a change of heart and dashes in to save his ex-wife. Old reviews of the movie mention an actual fight scene between Chaney and the gorilla, but it doesn't exist here. In this particular print, the scene cuts to Chaney on a sort of gurney, badly hurt and bandaged. He bids Toyo and Bobby goodbye as they board a ship bound for who knows where. 

The impression is not so much that Haynes gave his life for Toyo, but that his life was destined to end this way. The scene, simply shot, is Chaney's best in the movie. He looks exhausted, sad to see his daughter leave, but relieved that his tortured existence may be ending. In reality, Chaney was already suffering from the cancer that would kill him in a year, which adds to the scene's bittersweet edge. Could Browning have known this would be his final time filming Chaney? Could Chaney have known?  Watch the scene carefully. Look at Chaney as he gazes into the camera.  It's the look of a man saying farewell.

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