Like a true auteur, Tod Browning essentially kept remaking the same film. He was a peculiarity in Hollywood. He refused an agent, generally refused assignment scripts and, instead, consistently sought out material that interested him.
Where East is East (1929) was the last of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, it was the last of Browning’s silent films, and it contained many themes from their previous efforts together.
The heavily scarred, large-feline-monikered Tiger Haynes (Chaney) is an animal trapper who has an uncomfortably playful relationship with his daughter Toya (the bubbly Lupe Velez). Their relationship alters between games of feline patty cake and overt protection. Daddy and Toya’s relationship gets thrown its first monkey wrench when Toya acquires a new boyfriend, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes).
Acting like a jealous lover, Tiger refuses to warm up to Bobby, until Bobby assists Tiger in saving Toya from a real tiger. Now Bobby is a real swell and welcome to the pride. While delivering tigers on a cruise to the East, Tiger and Bobby run into Tiger’s ex-wife and Toya’s mother, Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, the real-life one time wife of Jack Dempsey). For Bobby, Sylva is the embodiment of oriental fantasy. She is a true tigress with a jealous, soothsayer-like female servant (hints of a lesbian relationship). Sylva spews her man-baiting poison on the intoxicated Bobby, in order to exact sexual revenge on Tiger and parental revenge on their daughter,Toya. This is a reversal of West of Zanzibar (1928), in which Chaney was the parent exacting parental revenge on a whelp. The incestuous relationship hinted between Tiger and Toya (on Tiger’s part, twice unrequited) is paralleled in Bobby and Sylva.
Sylva enters Toya’s world and repressed, invisible secrets threaten the illusory fabric of Tiger’s world. Of course, some animals devour their young, and Sylva, one step removed, attempts to incestuously devour Toya. Unfortunately for Sylva, behind a fragile cage she has a nemesis in a gorilla holding a grudge for secret, past abuses. It is the savage animal kingdom that will exact revenge. Chaney, impotently declawed, scowls and threatens Sylva from the sidelines until he unleashes the beast, which will end in paternal sacrifice for the daughter he cannot possess (shades of West again).
Where East is East hands the film to Taylor, who, reportedly, managed her off-screen relations with men in a fashion similar to Sylva. Luckily, Taylor is up to the part, as is Velez, who conveys innocence, diverse emotions, and energetic sexual charm. Chaney is excellent as usual, in the secondary, castrated role.
One off-screen note of interest: “Mexican Spitfire” Velez and Taylor became quite close after working together in this film. Velez, pregnant and abandoned, spent her last hours on earth with Taylor, before departing her mortal coil with the aid of Seconal. Somehow, in the Browning universe, that is an apt, dark underside to the narrative.
Needless to say, Where East is East does not subscribe to any sort of orthodox realism. It is representative of the blue collar surrealism that both Browning and Chaney espoused and can be best enjoyed with a heaping plate of elephant ears and cotton candy, along with a well-worn copy of “The Interpretation of Dreams.”