Tod Browning

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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The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown 1927 Joan Crawford Lon Chaney

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless circus performer who entertains crowds by expertly throwing knives with his feet. He’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus’s owner, who after years of being groped and pawed at, has grown to loathe being touched by men. Alonzo is one of the few men she can trust because he isn’t able to touch her the way other men can. However, she doesn’t love him the same way he loves her; she’s in love with Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus’s strongman, and Malabar adores her back.

What Nanon and the other circus performers don’t realize is that Alonzo isn’t actually armless. He is a criminal on the run from the law who has a very distinctive thumb, so he decided to avoid the police by binding his arms to his sides with a corset and pretending to be armless. When the owner of the circus discovers the truth about Alonzo, Alonzo strangles him to death. Nanon witnesses the incident, but the only thing she can distinctly see is her father’s assailant’s unusual thumb. Since all the other circus performers believe Alonzo is armless, he avoids suspicion yet again.

Alonzo is still deeply in love with Nanon, but the only person who knows Alonzo’s secret warns him that they can never be together because she will eventually discover his secret and learn the truth about who killed her father. Desperate to be with her, Alonzo has his arms amputated for the sake of keeping his secret. Meanwhile, Malabar has managed to help Nanon move past her fear of being touched by men and they decide to get married and Malabar starts working on an idea for a new act.

When Alonzo hears Nanon’s news, he is shocked and absolutely devastated. But when Alonzo finds out about Malabar’s new act, he thinks of a way to sabotage the act so he’ll be able to have Nanon for himself.

Although it’s easy to look at The Unknown now and think how great it is to see two of Hollywood’s greatest stars together on screen, it’s important to remember that Joan Crawford wasn’t quite a big star yet at the time she made it. She was still pretty early in her career and The Unknown is definitely one of her first really great movies. In fact, she often talked about how making that movie was a hugely important stepping stone in her career because she was able to learn so much about acting by working with Lon Chaney.

The Unknown was absolutely perfect material for Lon Chaney; I truly can’t think of another mainstream actor who could have played that role as well as he did. Joan’s great in it, too. Since Joan’s silent film career is pretty defined by Our Dancing Daughters and playing a lot of very exuberant, youthful flapper characters, The Unknown offers a chance to see her doing something considerably darker and more complex, which I really enjoyed getting to see. The movie is very fast paced and full of incredible tension and drama; I absolutely love this movie.

What’s on TCM: October 2013

Vincent PriceHappy October, everyone!  I hope you’re ready for plenty of classic horror movies because TCM is going all out for Halloween this year. Not only will Friday Night Spotlight be all about classic horror movies, we also get Vincent Price as October’s Star of the Month.  Even though not every Vincent Price night focuses on horror movies, there are a couple that do, including the most important night — Halloween.

TCM’s Story of Film series will continue this month on Monday and Tuesday nights.  I love having the chance to see so many of the movies discussed in the documentary so I’m really looking forward to see more from this series.

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The Devil-Doll (1936)

After spending seventeen years in prison for being wrongfully accused of robbing a bank in Paris, Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes along with Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a scienist.  The two of them make their way to Marcel’s home where his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has been carrying on his work.  Marcel’s big mission has been to find a way to shrink human beings down to the size of dolls.  Marcel has good intentions for this idea, but Paul sees it as a way to potentially get revenge on the three people who framed him for that bank robbery.

When they successfully shrink one of Malita’s maids, it turns out the shrunken humans can be manipulated through mind control.  Marcel doesn’t live to enjoy his success, so Paul and Malita go to Paris to carry on his work and so that Paul can carry out his revenge scheme.  By then, news of Paul’s prison break has made the news and there’s a big reward for anyone who can capture him.  Victor (Arthur Hohl), Emil (Robert Greig), and Charles (Pedro de Cordoba), the men who framed Paul, are worried that Paul is out to get them.  To avoid the police, Paul disguises himself as a kind old lady named Madame Mandilip who owns a toy store.

However, the one person in Paris Paul really wants to see is his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan).  He hasn’t seen her in years, but finds out that she hasn’t had an easy life and is very bitter and angry toward her father.  More determined than ever, he sets out to get back at the men really responsible for the robbery.  Disguised as Madame Mandilip, he brings one of the shrunken humans to Victor at the bank, convinces him it’s a doll, and gets him to invest in the dolls.  When Victor stops by the toy store, he gets turned into a doll.  Later, Paul sells a doll to Emil’s wife and manipulates it to steal her jewelery and inject Emil with a drug that leaves him paralyzed.  By then, Charles is so terrified about what might happen to him that he breaks down and confesses to everything.  With the truth finally being made known, the only thing left for Paul to do is make sure Lorraine is all right.

The Devil-Doll is certainly an unusual movie. After all, just how often do you get to watch Lionel Barrymore play an elderly woman?  This movie could have easily been a complete mess, but leave it to Tod Browning to make it work.  The performances are good, it’s got plenty of creepy horror moments, but there’s some real heart to it, too.  It’s one of those movies that you really just have to see.  If you’re a fan of The Unholy Three, The Devil-Doll will probably be right up your alley.