Released 24 November 1928, West of Zanzibar was the penultimate of the ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s based on a 1926 Broadway play, Kongo, which starred Walter Huston. (Huston later starred in a 1932 remake under the original name.)
Unfortunately, due to censorship, the known surviving print runs only 65 minutes. Among the scenes Browning was forced to edit out include Phroso as a duckman in a sideshow, and Phroso and his troupe arriving in Zanzibar.
Circus performer Phroso (Lon) suffers the ultimate heartache when his wife Anna leaves him for his partner Crane (Lionel Barrymore). Crane says they’re going to Africa, and pushes Phroso over a railing. This fall paralyses Phroso.
A year later, word reaches Phroso that Anna has returned with a baby. He crawls into the church where she was reported, and finds her dead. Phroso tells her he never followed her because Crane told him she loved him (Crane). He was man enough to let the woman he loved go to his rival.
He then vows, “For all the suffering he brought her…he’s going to pay! I’ll find him! I’ll make him pay! He and his brat will pay!”
Eighteen years later, Phroso has established himself west of Zanzibar, and is using the native Africans (who, typically for the era, are portrayed as cannibals and superstitious) to steal Crane’s ivory. It’s part of a plot to lure Crane and his daughter into Phroso’s clutches.
Crane’s daughter Maizie (Mary Nolan), who works at a very sleazy bar, is reluctant to leave her job and surrogate mother, but is persuaded when told she’s going to meet her father. All these years, Phroso has been paying for her upkeep there.
Maizie is horrified to encounter Phroso and his troupe, but relieved when Phroso reassures her he’s not her father. She wants to know what the game is, since the gentleman who brought her there claimed he was taking her to meet her father. Phroso says he’ll tell her when he’s good and ready.
Phroso puts on a mask for a big funeral, in which the deceased’s wife or daughter is burnt on his funeral pyre. One of Phroso’s troupe tells her it’s the law of the Congo, and nothing can ever change it.
Phroso’s alcoholic buddy Doc (Warner Baxter) offers Maizie a drink, but Phroso won’t hear of anyone treating her nicely. He makes her break the glass and eat on the floor. Doc announces he’ll eat with her. Maizie then discovers Phroso gave her clothes to the natives.
When Phroso’s ivory theft is discovered, he tells a native to report to the trader that his daughter is there. Crane comes immediately, and Phroso tells him he intends to pay for everything. When Phroso opens a coffin with a skeleton inside, Crane instantly recognises his old partner, and has a good laugh.
Phroso opens the revolving door coffin again, and reveals Maizie. Crane doesn’t make the connection, and thinks she’s Phroso’s lover or assistant.
Maizie has turned into an alcoholic, which greatly upsets Doc. To absolutely no one’s surprise, he’s fallen in instalove with her. After Doc carries her out of the bar, Phroso tells Crane Maizie is his daughter.
Crane reacts with laughter, and Phroso orders his assistant Bumbu to take care of his orders. He tells Crane he had Maizie raised in the lowest dive in Zanzibar so he could be proud of her. Now both father and daughter will pay for Crane’s betrayal.
I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say there are some very emotional, intense, horrific twists and turns. As always, Lon stirs so much emotion for someone most people would never feel sympathy for. He truly excelled at playing outcasts.
Since his parents were Deaf-mutes, his first language was Sign. Lon knew how to talk with his hands and face before he could speak.