Some spoilers may be ahead, but nothing that will wreck the plot.
When first viewing this film, I was hoping to see a good note to end on for the Tod Browning and Lon Chaney collaborations. Unfortunately, I was left with a bittersweet reaction of good performances and photography unfortunately spoiled by a terrible story and bad continuity.
With Browning at throne, one expects something really juicy and he doesn't fail to deliver. There's all sorts of incestuous overtones between Velez and Chaney, and some almost lesbian moments between Velez and Taylor. He does put in his trademark switcheroos, and has you believe one thing, and then turns the corner to something else. Unfortunately, many scenes seem tagged on or awkward, and it leaves you feeling as if he was pressed for time or wasn't finished when the cut was released.
For Chaney, this role is almost a throwaway. There's little change of pace in the role that he usually plays for MGM (unrequited love for younger woman, doesn't get the woman in the end). Little of the plot revolved around him, and most of the time he is found as a reference for plot points. There's some good character makeup, and a nice opening scene with Chaney and his goons trapping a lion, but this fails to make up in the final reel. His love for Toyo is believable, and by the end, there's really no doubt in what his decision will be between Toyo and Bobbie. This film really feels like a bit of a retread of his past films, particularly ROAD TO MANDALAY, WEST OF ZANZIBAR and even THE UNHOLY THREE. The same, tired Tod Browning vehicles are installed (even his trademark guy-in-a-Chimp-outfit-posing-as-a-gorilla).
Lupe Velez, Lloyd Hughes and Estelle Taylor are billed as if they're supporting cast, but the film ultimately revolves around them most of all. Velez is quite energetic and has a presence that unfortunately few seem to have captured in that era.
Hughes is charming as the protagonist, and he runs a good range of emotions in the film. One scene finds him in a restaurant, thinking of Madam de Sylva, and then the image changes to Toyo. His emotions feels torn, and his reaction is quite good and one must give Browning some props for handling the scene as well as it comes out.
Estelle Taylor is very good and very subtle as the sinister Madam De Sylva. Many scenes of the film portray her as a woman who can have anything she wants through her beauty, and this leads to the conflict in the story.
The photography is another thing that stands out most in the film. There's wonderful shots of French-Indo China, and footage along the various rivers really stand out. Various shots are well photographed, and really have a sort of glow that MGM was famous for. There's also some great wildlife photography, no doubt handled through stock footage, but edited in such a way that it flows seamlessly with the story.
The print I watched was clear and complete, with just a bit of decomposition at the beginning of the film (for a few seconds). It had no score, but I've read elsewhere that there was a sound effects and music track that the film was released with.
For the most part, this one is forgettable. Even if you are a Browning or Chaney fan, you may want to save this for a rainy day. However, it's worth a viewing once around, and does have redeeming qualities. In 1929, it may have been a bit risqué, but it's a pretty tame movie in comparison today. Not exactly for children, but most of it will go over their heads anyway to be sure. Good points are good performances, direction and photography; Bad points are a terrible script and fails to pull full circle.
I give it 6/10.
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