London After Midnight: Yesterday Will Be Here Tomorrow (I Promise . . .)
Call it the Valentines Day Massacre of 2017.
On that particular heart-wrenching Tuesday, rumors began circulating on horror and movie fan websites like Bloody Disgusting, Ain't It Cool, and uncounted others that the 1927 silent classic, London After Midnight, might just be alive and well on seven reels somewhere in Spain. For one brief shining moment, the promise of a lost masterwork spun up out of the muck of the political echo chambers, pornography and celebrity selfies like a budding lotus . . . only to promptly die and sink back into the fecund cyber swamp we call the internet.
Sadly, so it goes.
The rose-scent of hope drifted momentarily above the smoky reality of vaporized nitrate because Robert Parigi, current Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D producer (and past producer of several horror/sci-fi themed shows including Tales from the Crypt, Dark Skies and the disappointingly misguided Night Stalker reboot) causally mentioned on Facebook that a rumor was circulating of freshly discovered complete print.
Through no fault of Parigi's, eager repeaters began virilizing the hopeful speculation as a real possibility and the race was on. After a great start, Parigi's Rumor exploded into the first turn but soon Sullen Truth passed the would-be break maiden and never looked back . . . and we all went back to the world with hunched shoulders and worthless cards.
But as Parigi noted, there was some reason to be happy about yet another rumor that the "most sought after lost film in history," as it is often called, had been found. People still care about silent film enough to want to believe.
So, this begs the big question: why? Why does a mere rumor create a stir 90 years after the film was originally released?
Well, first of all, lost films are occasionally discovered and restored in the 21st Century. One well known example comes from the same year. 1927's Metropolis had been preserved, but the original German version of the film was edited down for American and British distributors who felt it was too long for the market. For many years, it was believed the only the edited versions survived but in 2008, a full length version was found in Buenos Aires in the Museo del Cine archives including 25 additional minutes and a complete character known as "The Thin Man" who had been excised.
(A still from 1927's Metropolis, a famously recovered and restored film. Pilfered from buzzdixon.com).
Moreover, in recent years, a number of "troves" of lost films have been found in Amsterdam, England, New Zealand and now and then in the USA, and several restorations have commenced. So it is not unreasonable to think that the original seven reels of London After Midnight languish somewhere in a Spanish vault near a cask of Amontillado.
Part of the ferver has to do with the legend of the film itself which film scholars, historians and fans would love to see in complete context. Hailed as a masterpiece of suspense in its time (and perhaps exponentially after its smoldering exit in the 1967 MGM fire), the best anyone has had to go on are the remaining stills, the existing script and the reconstruction based on both produced by TCM in 2002.
It is unlikely that London After Midnight could possibly live up to its reputation, of course, but the mere tease that it keeps many hopeful.
The film was exceedingly popular and critically well received giving it a very long run. Theaters across the country had it playing as late as July of 1928. And where ever it went, newspapers offered assurances of both thrills and chills. The advance publicity from the Reading Times in January of 1928 is typical of the hype around the film:
And, part of the allure almost certainly comes from its lurid underlying themes in the era of the evolving Production Code. In the year of its release, 1927, a frustrated Will B. Hayes issued his famously ineffectual list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," the first orchestrated attempt at industry self-censorship. Among these rules were several that the film may have tested in spirit if not execution including suicide, brutality, "gruesomeness" and the absolute prohibition of "any inference of sex perversion." The publicity still below, for example, suggests MGM was willing to market to the expectation even if the film never approached such boundaries. In turn, without the film itself, speculation breeds enticement and thus contributes to the film's legendary status.
(A provocative publicity still from the picture swiped from silenthollywood.com)
Furthermore, the lore of the lost London After Midnight weaves intricately with the early 30s golden age of horror in many other ways as well, deepening the mysterious appeal since fans and scholars long to see it in full to evaluate its richly mythologized place in film history. In short, it is that last missing piece of a puzzle.
As you may know, London After Midnight was the silent progenitor of another well-loved (and rarely seen) early classic, Mark of the Vampire, starring Bela Lugosi and the mysterious Carroll Borland as his creepy daughter, Luna. Borland did only a few films but her character influenced the fashion sense of both Morticia Addams and Lily Munster and as you can see below, she makes a sweeping entrance.
Additionally, Mark of the Vampire was itself a kind of de facto lost film for many monster kids of the 60s, 70s and 80s. It was a successful 1935 B-movie, and while it was released during the height of the early talkie horror classics like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, it was not regularly seen on television because it came from M-G-M, and thus, not part of the Shock! package of Universal films.
Also, there is a strange, somewhat tragic interlacing of Chaney, Lugosi and Browning over the course of three films which intrigues the devoted. London After Midnight's director, Tod Browning, helmed Dracula in 1931 and the aforementioned Mark of the Vampire four years later--both starring Bela Lugosi. But it was Lon Chaney, "The Man of 1000 Faces" and star of London After Midnight was actually slated to play Dracula, but he died before production began and the part fell to the Hungarian.
Chaney's passing marks for many the initial tragedy in what is frequently called the Dracula Curse. Of course Dracula was wildly successful and considered one of the films that saved Universal during the Great Depression, leading immediately to a rush on another horror classic, Frankenstein. But it also represented a peak for both its stars and its director.
As is now well known, Lugosi passed on playing the Monster because it was not a speaking part, opening the door for Boris Karloff, sending each actor's careers in opposite trajectories. Browning went on to direct the controversial and genuinely tasteless Freaks the following year, which was panned and banned, and by 1939 his film career was over. The similarly promising female lead, Helen Chandler, saw her career plummet after a series of bad marriages and alcoholism and she ultimately died in obscurity in 1965, 15 years after a fire disfigured her badly when she passed out with a lit cigarette igniting her mattress.
And any guesses what day Dracula was released in the US? Valentines Day, 1931.