Where East Is East Was an Inauspicious End to the Browning-Chaney Legacy
Tod Browning, the director best known in the future for DRACULA (1931), amassed an incredible number of dark, demented, and morbid credits long before the Universal monster movie. His greatest muse was that Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney. Although Chaney’s most famous roles were not in Browning’s pictures (this is mostly in reference to THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME  and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA ), Browning’s work had a significant part in developing the Chaney persona. Browning did not invent Chaney’s own personal knack for incredible make up, body contortions, and gruesome mugging, but he did put it to extraordinarily good use.
Browning, whether he worked at Universal or MGM, worked within a template, created by him or not. That template, however, eschewed a lot of the typical narratives coming out of the Hollywood dream machine at the time. Chaney was always the leading man, whether he was the tragic hero, the tragic antihero, and sometimes, just the straight up villain. Browning’s films worked in a relatively grey area amid the stark black and white world of Hollywood stories.
Both men began in the film industry in the middle of the 1910s. Browning made his way there from a fascination with circus and carnival life (a recurring setting and theme throughout his career) and a vaudevillian acting career. In 1913, Browning began working in D.W. Griffith films, and he’d continue his film acting until 1919. In between, he began directing his own movies, which began with 1915’s THE LUCKY TRANSFER. Making his way to Universal by the end of the decade, Browning first worked with Chaney on THE WICKED DARLING . By the time of WHERE EAST IS EAST’s release in 1929, the pair would have made ten films together, an average of one a year, although most of them quickly followed on the heels of each other for the last half of the decade.
Chaney also made his way to film by way of the stage, as was often the case. After 11 years in theater, his wife attempted suicide in 1913, and the ensuing scandal and divorce led him to the decision to leave the stage world behind and step into fledgling film. From then to 1917, Chaney would work in bit parts at Universal. His role in THE MIRACLE MAN (1919) solidified his make up abilities and extreme characterization, contributing to the next decade of parts in which Chaney played disfigured, disabled, and/or macabre characters. Chaney was just what Browning’s increasingly twisted vision needed.
OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920), an early gangster film, proclaimed what Browning could do, especially with Chaney. THE UNHOLY THREE (1925) proclaimed what he could with the circus theme, to reach its pinnacle with FREAKS (1932). And LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), if reports of the now-lost film are to believed, proclaimed what he could do with an eccentric, mystical, almost supernatural killer…a la DRACULA.
There was a third kind of film Browning made with Chaney, which surfaced three times. They were the exotic adventure pictures, including THE ROAD TO MANDALAY (1926), WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928), and the ostensible subject of this piece, WHERE EAST IS EAST. In them, Chaney is at his most “whole”; that is, he’s not wrapped up in make up or crazy costuming. No, in them, he plays capable, violent men who have carved their space in exciting locales. The energy and themes here go back to Tarzan. Well, in that case, I guess it goes back to actual colonization. This trilogy of “exotic” films feel like Browning’s most conventional because of their tropes surrounding the native people and wildlife.
But then, they’re still not exactly the silliest of adventure films of the time. These are still ironic, lustful installments in Browning’s vast, ironic, and lustful filmography. WHERE EAST IS EAST was the conclusion of this kind of movie in the silent era, and as mentioned, Browning and Chaney’s last collaboration. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite a beautiful swan song, perhaps fittingly.
WHERE EAST IS EAST’s status also indicates Browning’s own as a filmmaker. His pictures were B, for the most part, clocking in at 70 minutes or less. They were quickly produced and followed an aforementioned template; Chaney usually played some kind of pitiful figure twisted into a horrific and cruel one by some kind of great tragedy or mistreatment by society, and often, he was redeemed by the end of the movie through some kind of self-sacrifice for the conventional male and female leads. WHERE EAST IS EAST subverts this, somewhat, by making Chaney’s Tiger Haynes a relatively “together” character, although he still sacrifices himself at the end for his sins. His animal trapper character is rough, sure, but he loves his mixed-race (the film takes place in the jungles of an unspecified Asian country) daughter (played by Lupe Vélez, not Asian, obviously) more than anything. This leads to some uncomfortable resistance to Toyo’s new boyfriend and love, the American Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes). But eventually, Tiger relents after seeing his daughter’s love, and he becomes a protector against the seductive wiles of Madame de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), who it turns out is Toyo’s own mother. Taylor is also not Asian, obviously.
But this removes some of the appeal of the Chaney persona. WHERE EAST IS EAST is seedy to a point, but the darkness in Tiger Haynes is nowhere near the darkness of, say, Chaney’s Prof. Echo in THE UNHOLY THREE. The former is legitimately a good guy. Now, as someone somewhat tired of the Browning formula by the end of the 1920s, this point is a bit hypocritical. In any other context, sure, maybe I would have welcomed this slight deviation and experimentation. But in hindsight, knowing it was to be Browning and Chaney’s last work together, I would have appreciated one more deep turn into the extraordinary, which had not been achieved (with the surviving films) since perhaps THE UNKNOWN (1927, three Browning-Chaney films before WHERE EAST IS EAST).
WHERE EAST IS EAST is one of Browning’s most conventional films. I wouldn’t say the same about Chaney, however, who worked with many other directors and projects that couldn’t match the lurid heights (or depths, I suppose) of Browning. It’s worth viewing to see the conclusion of one of the most creatively fulfilling and satisfying partnerships of the silent era, but know WHERE EAST IS EAST was preceded by truly remarkable excursions into the darkness.