Raiders of the Lost Films

Raiders of the Lost Films: London After Midnight (1927)

Lon Chaney London After Midnight

In 1927, Lon Chaney was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, having made several on-screen triumphs in movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Oliver Twist, and The Phantom of the Opera, which remain some of the most celebrated performances and films of the silent era. After having starred alongside Norma Shearer and John Gilbert in 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped, the first film ever fully produced by the then newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Chaney began working under contract to MGM the following year and would remain at the studio for the final five years of his career. During his time at MGM, he starred in several of the most memorable movies of his career, including two versions of The Unholy ThreeTell It to the MarinesThe Unknown, and Laugh, Clown, Laugh. But while many of the movies he made at MGM are still available and are shown on Turner Classic Movies, perhaps the most notorious of them all is one we can’t see: London After Midnight.

No series about lost films would be complete without discussion of London After Midnight. 90 years after its release, it is now widely regarded as the holy grail of lost films. The last known print of the film was destroyed in an MGM vault fire during the 1960s. (There seems to be some debate over whether the fire happened in 1965 or 1967.) The vault when up in flames when an electrical fire broke out, destroying London After Midnight along with original prints of several other early MGM titles, including movies made prior to MGM’s 1924 formation, some Our Gang shorts, original versions of Tom and Jerry cartoons, the color sequence from The Broadway Melody, the uncut version of Laurel and Hardy’s Blotto, and The Divine Woman, the only lost Greta Garbo film.

London After Midnight Lobby Card

In London After Midnight, Lon Chaney plays Scotland Yard inspector Edward C. Burke, who is called to investigate the death of Roger Balfour. Balfour’s friend, James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall), is convinced Balfour would never kill himself and Burke initially has his doubts about Hamlin’s nephew Arthur (Conrad Nagel), but since a suicide note is found, in which Balfour asks his daughter Lucille (Marceline Day) to forgive him, the case isn’t investigated any further.

Five years later, Balfour’s former home is being inhabited by a bizarre looking man with sharp teeth and a beaver hat (also played by Lon Chaney), along with two corpse-like female companions. When the new maid (Polly Moran) arrives, she’s convinced they’re vampires and directly responsible for the death of Balfour. Burke and Hamlin then realize the lease for the new, odd tenants is signed by none other than Balfour. After Lucille reports hearing the voice of her father calling to her, Burke and Hamlin discover that Balfour’s corpse is missing from its tomb and when they look inside the house, they see what appears to be Balfour having a conversation with the man in the beaver hat. At this point, Burke decides to use hypnosis to solve the case once and for all.

Upon its release in 1927, London After Midnight became one of the highest grossing films of the year. Out of all the films Chaney and Browning made together, London After Midnight was the most financially successful. Despite all of the hype that’s built around the movie over the years, it was hardly hailed as a masterpiece. Initial reviews were pretty mixed. Variety said of it:

“Will add nothing to Chaney’s prestige as a trouper, nor increase the star’s box office value. With Chaney’s name in lights, however, this picture, any picture with Chaney, means a strong box office draw. Young, Browning and Chaney have made a good combination in the past but the story on which this production is based is not of the quality that results in broken house records.”

The New York Times wasn’t terribly impressed with it, either:

“It is a somewhat incoherent narrative, which, however, gives Lon Chaney an opportunity to turn up in an uncanny disguise and also to manifest his powers as Scotland Yard’s expert hypnotist. You are therefore treated to close-ups of Mr. Chaney’s rolling orbs, which, fortunately, do not exert their influence on the audience.”

The New Yorker also had issues with the film’s plot:

“Mr. Browning can create pictorial terrors and Lon Chaney can get himself up in a completely repulsive manner, but both their efforts are wasted when the story makes no sense.”

In the 2000 documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, interviewees who had seen London After Midnight also commented they felt it wasn’t that great of a movie. Historian H.A.V. Bulleid stated that he thought people would be very disappointed if they actually saw London After Midnight, while Mary Hunt, a moviegoer in the 1920s, said it was so fantastic and unreal it couldn’t be taken seriously, but the makeup was remarkable. Forest Ackerman seemed to be the most enthusiastic about it, saying that he believed Groucho Marx modeled his slouching walk after the walk of the man in the beaver hat.

Lon Chaney  Man in Beaver Hat London After MidnightHad prints of London After Midnight remained in circulation over the years, is it possible that the film might have eventually undergone a critical re-evaluation at some point? Maybe, but at this point, it hardly seems relevant to even ponder it. The fact that it’s been missing for about 50 years now has helped cement its legacy as one of Hollywood’s most notorious movies in a way that no amount of praise from film critics ever could.

It’s not hard to understand why London After Midnight is such a sought-after movie. This is a movie that involved two of the biggest icons of the horror genre: Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. Don’t get me wrong — finding any lost Lon Chaney movie at all would be huge news in the film world. But a lost film that involves these two legends together makes it that much of a bigger deal. Even if it’s not such a great movie, it’s awfully hard not to at least be intrigued by the idea of getting to see Lon Chaney in a double role. And Chaney wasn’t the only one to have a double role, so to speak. Beyond his role as director, Tod Browning also wrote The Hypnotist, the short story the movie was based on.

Chaney and Browning are hardly the only noteworthy people to be involved with London After Midnight, either. It also starred some other actors whose names are likely to be familiar to fans of silent films and early talkies, like Marceline Day, Conrad Nagel, and Polly Moran. So whether you’re a fan of classic film in general or are just a big fan of horror movies in particular, London After Midnight truly occupies an important place in film history.

Another aspect of the London After Midnight mythology is the fact that the film became entangled in a murder case. In London’s Hyde Park on October 23, 1928, a man named Robert Williams was arrested for the murder of Julia Magnan. Upon his arrest, he told police that he’d done it because she was teasing him and that in an epileptic fit, he’d been taunted by a vision of Lon Chaney as he appeared in London After Midnight. Although Williams was initially sentenced to death, his sentence was later changed to allow him to serve his sentence at an asylum instead. So as if it weren’t enough that London After Midnight is famous for being lost, the fact that it was once blamed for driving a man to madness brings a whole different level of intrigue to the whole thing.

Although London After Midnight is not known to exist in its original form, it is still possible to get an idea of what it was like. In 2002, Turner Classic Movies produced a reconstructed version of the movie following the original script and using existing film stills. This version runs about 45 minutes and still occasionally airs on the channel. It was also included as a bonus feature in the Lon Chaney Collection released on the TCM Archive label in 2003, but that set now appears to be out of print. It was also remade in 1935 as The Mark of the Vampire, starring Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi.

The important thing to remember is that although London After Midnight is now considered a lost film, there is still hope that a copy of it may be discovered someday. Over the years, there have been numerous rumors about prints of it being found, but unfortunately, those have turned out to be unsubstantiated. But there are several other cases of thought-to-be-lost films being found in archives and private collections. Even among the titles believed to be casualties of the 1965/1967 MGM vault fire alone, copies of some of those have turned up over the years. One of the most noteworthy examples would be 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, the second Technicolor feature to be made in Hollywood. Although it was thought to have been lost in the fire, the original camera negative was eventually found, minus the final two reels, and was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in 1985, complete with newly-shot footage to replicate the missing footage. Perhaps, one day we will be able to tell a similar tale for London After Midnight.

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Raiders of the Lost Films: Flaming Youth (1923)

Colleen Moore 1923 Flaming Youth

It’s often said that Hollywood has a fixation on youth, and this hardly a new trend. Throughout the entire history of American cinema, there have consistently been actors and actresses who shoot to superstardom for being the personification of youth.

As time moves progresses, so does the image of youth. During the 1910s, Mary Pickford was one of the most famous women in the world, celebrated for playing little girls in movies like Poor Little Rich Girl and The Little Princess. Although Pickford was well into her twenties at the time, the spirit and charisma she brought to those young characters won over audiences all over the world. Her long, curled hair became a symbol of the wholesome innocence of her characters.

By the early 1920s, things were beginning to change. After the end of World War I, many young women, known as flappers, were turning their backs on more conservative values by wearing dresses with higher hemlines, smoking, drinking, listening to jazz, going out dancing, working, dating, and generally having a whole lot of fun. Flappers also famously wore short bobbed hair styles; the antithesis of Mary Pickford’s long curls.

Colleen Moore in 1923's Flaming YouthIt was only a matter of time before Hollywood started capitalizing on this shift in youth culture. 1920’s The Flapper, starring Olive Thomas, was the first movie to focus on flappers and eventually, actresses like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Joan Crawford would also become icons for playing characters that embody the lifestyle. But before all of them, there was Colleen Moore in 1923’s Flaming Youth.

Flaming Youth was based on the novel of the same name by Samuel Hopkins Adams, also published in 1923. The novel quickly caused an uproar over its uncensored, sexually frank take on the flapper lifestyle and the lives of young women. By the time he wrote Flaming Youth, Adams had already built up a reputation as a journalist and novelist and didn’t want the salacious content of Flaming Youth to overshadow his other works, so he published it under the pseudonym Warner Fabian. (The Harvey Girls, The Gorgeous Hussy, and It Happened One Night were also based on works written by Adams.) The book caused such a stir that F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote a letter to Adams saying that he wished he had been the one to write Flaming Youth.

As is the case with so many book-to-film adaptations, Flaming Youth isn’t completely faithful to its source material, but that didn’t stop it from being a worldwide smash upon its release. Colleen Moore stars as Patricia Fentriss, a young woman whose mother passes away after her hard-partying life catches up with her. Her mother hopes Patricia will go down a different path in life, but Patricia becomes a flapper and enjoys the wild life that comes with it. Like many flappers, Patricia is also not a fan of the idea of getting married. So when she meets Cary Scott (Milton Sills), her mother’s former boyfriend, she falls in love with him, but moves on to having an affair with a violinist when Cary leaves for Europe. However, that fling comes to an end after she and the violinist get into a fight during a party on a yacht, which ends with her jumping overboard to escape. After being rescued, Patricia is nursed back to health by Cary and changes her mind about marriage.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said of Flaming Youth, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch.” Colleen Moore was already an established star in 1923, but Flaming Youth brought her to a new level of stardom. Her sleek, black bobbed haircut and bangs remain a definitive part of the flapper image.

The film was a big box office success, which comes as no surprise given the controversial nature of the book and the fact that the movie’s promotional materials played up its scandalous content. One lobby card described the movie as, “A spicy society exposé so startling that the author dared not sign his right name,” and promised to give, “…the bald facts, the truth about our modern society with its gay life, its petting parties, its flapper dances, its jazz.” Another lobby card asked, “How far can a girl go?”, and elaborated, “She smoked cigarettes. She drank. She went to petting parties. She led the pace of the gayest life in the gayest society.”

Flaming Youth 1923 Theater Lobby Display

Theater lobby display promoting Flaming Youth

With hype like that, it’s hard not to be intrigued by it. At one point, the film was even banned in Canada and a theater owner was fined $5 for showing the film. In fact, The Exhibitor’s Trade Review advised theater owners in their December 1923 issue to exploit the film’s controversy:

“The best way to arouse the interest of the curious is to condemn the picture. There is here a peculiar psychology which makes people impatient to see what they have been told not to. Here is your cue for exploitation. Get out letters warning the people that the picture is rife with bold situations and un-restained necking parties and advise them not to see it and forbid their children to do likewise. They will come hotfooting it to your theatre.

Inflame the minister with the outrages against society on the part of the younger generation, and get him to preach a sermon on the subject using the picture to illustrate his point.”

Reviews from the era generally paint it as being an enjoyable movie. The Exhibitor’s Trade Review said of it, “What makes this picture different, is not its subject matter, but the manner in which the story is handled by a competent cast. It is the same old tale of the jazz crazy modern age, chock full of picturesque scenes and amusing situations.”

While Colleen Moore certainly got the most attention for her role, Milton Sills and Myrtle Stedman (who played Patricia’s mother) also got good notes from the New York Times. Many of the less favorable reviews point out that it isn’t a completely faithful adaption of the book. One reviewer from the Cincinnati Inquirer didn’t care for any of the characters and wrote, “Throughout the production, scarcely a single admirable character appears, and the audience is regaled with the antics of a lot of childish adults and adulterated children. Consequently, the members of the cast, though many of them are talented, work against unfair handicaps.”

Despite the fact that Colleen Moore was such a big hit in Flaming Youth, she didn’t stick to flapper roles for much longer. The following year, she starred in The Perfect Flapper, but it wasn’t as well received. By that time, other actresses had also made a name for themselves for playing flappers, particularly Clara Bow, so Moore simply moved on with her career. Although she publicly declared that she was done with flapper pictures, Moore would go on to star in 1929’s Why Be Good, in which she plays a young, modern, forward-thinking woman.

The flapper type fell out of popularity in American culture around the time of the stock market crash of 1929 when their lifestyle was suddenly deemed frivolous. In the 1930s, there was a return to a more wholesome image of youth in cinema, with stars like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland becoming some of the top box office draws. It wouldn’t be until the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s that we got to see the more adult side of youth again in movies like Rebel Without a CausePeyton PlaceSplendor in the Grass, and A Summer Place.

Flaming Youth is a prime example of how a movie being a major success upon its release doesn’t necessarily guarantee preservation. While many of the definitive flapper flicks of the 1920s, such as Clara Bow’s It and Joan Crawford’s Our Dancing Daughters, still exist and are very easy to see, Flaming Youth is now a partially lost film. Originally, Flaming Youth had a runtime of 90 minutes, but only about 10 minutes worth of footage is known to still exist.

The few minutes that remain are fascinating for a multitude of reasons. If you’re a fan of 1920s fashion and beauty, you’re going to love the footage of Patricia getting dolled up for a party. An infamous skinny dipping sequence during a wild party, shown in silhouette, is among the existing footage and is a perfect example of how director John Francis Dillon used artistic vision as a way to sidestep censorship, something which was pointed out in many reviews from 1923. But most importantly, it’s still easy to see why Colleen Moore was such a delight to audiences.

Unfortunately, Flaming Youth isn’t the only Colleen Moore to become lost over time. Despite being one of the biggest stars of the 1920s, only about half of her films are still known to exist in a complete state. But it’s certainly not due to a lack of effort on Moore’s part, which makes the fact that so many of her films are lost all the more heartbreaking. She personally gave prints of her films to the Museum of Modern Art, but due to an administrative oversight, they weren’t properly cared for. Years later, she contacted MOMA to check on the condition of her films and learned they had deteriorated too badly for them to be saved. Despite all of her efforts to find other prints of her films, she had little luck. Perhaps one day, a complete print will be found somewhere and the world will be able to see Colleen Moore at her peak once again.