Friday, June 5, 2009

Where East Is East (1929)

Don't let the so-so reviews on fool you: when viewed on the big screen, with excellent piano accompaniment (as at Cinevent 2009), Where East is East is a typically twisted, timeless, and highly enjoyable Tod Browning/Lon Chaney production - probably not on a par with The Unknown or West of Zanzibar, but not that far off, either.

Just listing the elements involved tells all you need to know: Chaney as a lion-tamer, Tiger Haynes, Lupe Velez as the daughter he loves, Lloyd Hughes as her fiance, seduced by the exotic, mysterious Estelle Taylor as Madame De Sylva - and a caged gorilla who hates De Sylva's guts, all in the fetid Chinese jungle.

It's clear, a half hour into the story, what the ironic, EC-like conclusion will be, but it's the details and style that make this movie stand out. Chaney's a force of nature here - I think it's one of his most subtle roles. Velez is perfectly cast as the naive and energetic Toyo; Hughes as Bobbie does a creditable job; and Estelle Taylor makes the movie hers with a languid performance that practically makes you smell the exotic perfumes she must be soaked in. Browning, by good instinct, doesn't speed these scenes up but lets the story tell itself slowly and carefully.

The 16mm print we saw was quite good. Where East Is East has also been released on Warner Archives DVD. I don't know which musical score is used for the DVD, but hope it isn't the reportedly dreadful '30s reissue soundtrack used for a TCM UK broadcast.

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