Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stubs – London After Midnight

London After Midnight (1927) Starring: Lon Chaney, Marceline Day, Henry B. Walthall, Percy Williams, Conrad Nagel. Directed by Tod Browning. Screenplay by Waldemar Young. Based on the story The Hypnotist by Tod Browning. Produced by Tod Browning. Run Time: 65 minutes (as seen 45 minutes). U.S. Black and White, Silent, Horror.

It’s not often that a lost film is resurrected. There have been some notable exceptions when films thought to be lost have been found and made whole again. Wings (1927) is an example of a film made whole when all seemed lost and they kept finding bits and pieces of Metropolis (1927) as they restored that masterpiece. Sadly, though, there are thousands of films that have been lost, 70% of all silents, and will never be made whole again.

Such is the fate of London After Midnight, Tod Browning’s first foray into vampire films; he would later direct Dracula (1931) for Universal Pictures. The last known print of the film burned in a vault fire at MGM in 1967. The electrical fire in Vault #7 on May 13 destroyed hundreds of silent films, including pre-1924 films from Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation, as well as the silent Our Gang shorts from 1927-1929 and all the film prints of pre-1960 MGM Cartoons, including Tom and Jerry and cartoons by Tex Avery.

Some films survive only in memory and others have been found in private collections. But some films refuse to go gently into that good night and hang on in one form or another. In the case of London After Midnight, a version of the film was reconstructed in 2002 by Rick Schmidlin, a film preservationist who was behind the re-edited version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Using a collection of stills, as well as the continuity script held by the Library of Congress, Schmidlin and crew put together a version of the film. Robert Israel, noted composer, wrote a new soundtrack and TCM has been airing this since 2002.

What we have now is a record of the movie, but not the movie itself. The experience of watching “the film” is more like looking very closely at someone’s scrapbook while they tell you in great detail everything that is going on in a particular photo. There is no real acting or reactions between actors, just frozen expressions that on their own lose some of their bite, so to speak.

The film was shot in 24 days on a budget of $152,000; the shortest schedule and lowest budget of any of Lon Chaney’s MGM films.

Roger Balfour (Claude King) is found shot dead in his London home late one night. Within fifteen minutes, at 1:08 AM, Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard (Lon Chaney) is already at the scene asking questions. There is Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall), Balfour’s neighbor, friend and the executor of his estate; Williams (Percy Williams), the Butler who discovered the body; Sir James’ nephew, Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel), who was next door in his reading room; and Balfour’s daughter Lucille (Marceline Day). There is a brief suicide note, “I am taking my own life. Forgive me, Lucille” and Burke declares it a suicide, even though Hamlin insists his friend would never take his own life.

Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard (Lon Chaney) is called in to investigate Balfour's death.

Five years pass and a creepy man with long hair and sharp teeth, known as The Man in the Beaver Hat (Lon Chaney) and Luna (Edna Tichenor) a pale woman in a long gown, also known as Bat Girl, rent the Balfour estate. The Man in the Beaver Hat tells the leasing agent (Allan Cavan) that they are moving in that night and are already expecting guests.

The Man in the Beaver Hat (Lon Chaney) leases the Balfour estate.

Smithson (Polly Moran), Hamlin’s new maid, is the first to see the couple and reports to her boss that the Balfour’s house is haunted and that the new residences are “dead people from the grave! Vampires is what they are!”

The maid, Smithson (Polly Moran), is the first to see the new neighbors.

Alarmed by his new sinister-looking neighbors, Hamlin calls in Burke to investigate, who comes to stay at the house. Also living in the Hamlin household are the other people who were present in Balfour's house the night he died: Arthur Hibbs, Lucille, and the butler.

Lucy (Marceline Day) five years after Balfour's death.

Hamlin insists to that these new neighbors might have been involved in Balfour’s murder, but Burke expresses skepticism about the idea, since the death was declared a suicide. But Hamlin has a copy of their lease and it is signed by Roger Balfour, whose signature he’s very familiar with.

Further, Lucille tells Sir James and Burke that she’s been hearing her father’s voice calling out to her from the garden. They tell her that they’ll take care of it, but later, Sir James tells Burke that he won’t be satisfied until he sees that Balfour is in his tomb. The two investigate and find that the tomb is indeed empty.

Meanwhile, Arthur reads up about vampires (or as they’re spelled vampyrs) and learns that when they sleep during the day, they will sometimes take the form of bats. “As such, they seek sleep in the seclusions of spots accursed.” He shows this to Burke and tells him that after what happened tonight, “I do believe in vampires!” To which Burke responds that “This is all ancient tommyrot!”

Their discussion is cut short when Smithson screams and it is discovered that she’s locked Lucy up in a closet. She explains that she did this to protect her after she was confronted by the Man in the Beaver Hat in Sir James’ house. She describes him as having wings like a bat and threatening her. Smithson’s scream is what scared him away and adds “And out of the window ‘e flew!”

The Man in the Beaver Hat scares Smithson.

Outside they all see the Bat Girl and the back of the man. Smithson is convinced more than ever that the man is a vampire. Sir James wants to call for the police to arrest everyone in the Balfour house, but Burke doesn’t want the police involved.

Meanwhile, Arthur and Lucy realize they are in love since she turned to him when she was in danger.

Arthur (Conrad Nagel) and Lucy realize they are in love.

The next morning, Burke and Hamlin go into the Balfour mansion. The house shows five years of neglect, with dust everywhere, paintings askew and the furniture still covered. But there is no one there. The only living creature they find is a bat. They flee.

The bat in the Balfour mansion.

Later, Burke tells Lucy that her father’s death was not a suicide and asks her to trust him and to keep the secret from everyone. She agrees.

When Arthur asks her what Burke said, she tells him she can’t tell him. Arthur doesn’t trust Burke, since he wouldn’t bring in the police the night before and worries that Lucy is under his spell. Lucy blurts out that Burke thinks someone killed her father.

That night, lights and strange noises herald the return of the tenants to the Balfour house. Burke and Sir James go to investigate. Looking through the window, they see the Man in the Beaver Hat, his butler (Andy MacLennan) talking to Roger Balfour. In the background, Bat Girl can be seen floating above the floor. Frightened, Burke and Sir James flee from the house.

Wreaths with swords through them are set up by Burke to protect Lucy from the vampires. Burke tells Lucy to obey his instructions. It is made obvious to all that Sir James is holding Lucy’s hands.

Wreaths with swords are used to protect Lucy from the vampires.

Burke and Arthur retire to Burke’s room to talk, where Burke tells the young man that he has long suspected him in Balfour’s death. A hypnotist as well as a detective, Burke puts Arthur into a trance but learns nothing new about Balfour's death.

He leaves Arthur in his room and goes to Arthur’s. In the middle of the night, Burke fires his gun after being attacked in his sleep. He first accuses Williams but lets him go. Sir James wonders what happened to Arthur and Burke adds to that suspicion, again refusing police help and asking Sir James to trust him.

Burke awakens Arthur, who doesn’t know he’s been hypnotized. Next, the three men go to Lucy’s room but find both her and Smithson missing. Lucy is over at her former home. In front of Sir James, Burke accuses Arthur of knowing what happened to Lucy.

Back at the Balfour house, her father is reminding her that she’s doing this for her father. She is given an old dress to wear.

Meanwhile, we see Burke conversing with The Man in the Beaver Hat, telling him they have the nephew and the butler where they want them, all that is left is Sir James.

Burke gives Sir James his gun and instructs him to go next door and ask to speak with Roger Balfour.
Meanwhile, Arthur breaks into the Balfour house in an attempt to rescue Lucille, but he's intercepted by Burke and a couple of detectives and taken away.

Sir James, acting at Burke's instructions, goes to the Balfour house, but is met out front by the beaver-hatted man, who puts him into a hypnotic trance and tells him that it is five years ago and you are at Roger Balfour’s house.

While Smithson and Burke observe, Sir James, under hypnosis, re-creates his actions the night Roger Balfour died, with Lucille and the butler, Williams, playing themselves, and Burke's double playing the part of Balfour.

Balfour has just signed his will naming Sir James the executor of his estate and Lucy’s legal guardian. The obviously smitten Sir James tells Roger that he hopes Lucy will be his wife someday. But Balfour rejects James’ idea of marrying his daughter, thinking the age difference was too great. Sir James leaves. Lucy thinks that eliminates him as a suspect, but Burke wants them to wait.

Balfour's (Claude King) double interacts with The Man in the Beaver Hat.

At 1:10 AM, Sir James returns and forces Balfour to write a suicide note and then shoots him with Burke’s gun. Burke, with police back up, swoops in and arrests Sir James for Balfour’s murder and accuses him of being the one who attacked him in Arthur’s room the night before in an effort to get rid of his rival for Lucy.

Later it is revealed that the man in the beaver hat and pointed teeth was really a disguised Inspector Burke, who was aided at times by a double. Smithson, the new maid, is actually an assistant detective; and the mysterious young woman is a stage performer working for the police.

The mystery of Balfour's death solved, Lucille and Arthur, who have come to realize how much they love each other, are free to marry.

The movie was a big success at the U.S. box office, but foreign books were below average. The film had domestic sales of $721,000 and a gross profit of about $540,000, making it the biggest success of Browning’s ten film collaborations with Chaney and putting it fourth for the studio’s 1927-28 hit list. London After Midnight finished behind White Shadows in the South Seas, The Cossacks and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. Critically, however, it was not considered to be their best film together.

Browning must not have been completely satisfied with the film either because 8 years later, he remade the story as Mark of the Vampire (1935). Names and circumstances were changed and the dual parts played by Lon Chaney were split between Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi. That film came late in Browning’s career, which had been derailed by Freaks (1932) and would never recover. I have not seen the remake yet, but all the reviews from the time seem to indicate it is a better film than the original.

While I cannot comment on how well the film is made or acted, since there is really no film anymore, I can see the shortcomings of the story. London After Midnight is really a murder mystery with a horror film laid on top of it. I’m all for mixing genres, but in this case it doesn’t really seem to work all that well. The supernatural bent the story takes is a little out of left field as far as a technique to solve murders. This is so obviously a ploy to showcase Chaney’s makeup abilities, he is the Man of a Thousand Faces after all, but otherwise there is no reason for it. And frankly, the Man in the Beaver Hat looks more like a buzz saw with those sharp teeth, rather than a vampire with fangs.

Adding to the horror quotient, we’re told the Man in the Beaver Hat and Bat Girl are vampires, but short of a bat in the mansion, there really isn’t anything else that suggests it, except for Smithson’s accusation and that she’s in on the plot. And while I think the vampire story doesn’t really go anywhere, it’s the murder mystery that is even more of a head scratcher.

The only person who doesn’t think Balfour’s death was a suicide is the killer. How dumb does he have to be to insist the police investigate a crime he would otherwise get away with? And if Sir James was intent on marrying Lucy that he would kill for the right, why hasn’t he in the five years since her father’s death? As far as can be determined from the film, with the exception of some obvious hand holding, they are not even engaged. What’s Sir James waiting for? Or, perhaps scarier, how young must Lucy be at the beginning of the film?

I’ve heard you can tell how good a song is if it still holds up with only one person playing it on one instrument. In the case of London After Midnight, we’re left with only an illustrated screenplay, without acting and directing to obfuscate the plot holes. In its sort of naked form, the story doesn’t really hold up.

I’m all for preserving our film heritage and I’m happy someone spent the time and money required to bring it this far. I only wish that London After Midnight was as good as the effort they must have put in to its restoration.

In the mood for horror, check out our reviews of other Horror films here.

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