Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About “London After Midnight” (Practically)

The time has come! On this October the 31st, as the leaves are fluttering off the trees and a chill fills the air, it’s time to examine a film that would be a Halloween classic if it wasn’t so thoroughly and completely lost. Ah yes, the one and only…the famously misplaced…drumroll please…

…London After Midnight (1927).

Hey, that looks like my Halloween banner!

By the way, have you ever thought about what a great title that is? London After Midnight–the spooky scenes practically write themselves! No wonder it’s lodged itself in our imaginations.

THE VITAL FACTS

The Release Date!-December 3, 1927 (Why do so many spooky films get released around Christmastime? I ask you.)

The Length! According to Moving Picture World it was 5,687 feet, although Exhibitor’s Herald-World said 5683. So, give or take a few feet. It would’ve been projected at 24 frames per second.

The Director!–Tod Browning, cinema’s own Edgar Allan Poe who was famed for his macabre stories about crime, physical deformity, and other types of “freakishness.”

The Cast! As follows:

  • Lon Chaney as Professor Edwin C. Burke/The Man in the Beaver Hat–The legendary “Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, who had already made a number of films with Browning, including the lurid The Unknown (1925).
  • Marceline Day as Lucille Balfour–A winsome brunette who had a background in silent comedies and a sister, Alice, who was also in films. Would soon star in The Cameraman (1928) opposite Buster Keaton.
  • Henry B. Walthall as Sir James Hamlin–Stage veteran and leading man of the 1910s who brought a quiet dignity to his roles. Famously played “The Little Colonel” in The Birth of a Nation (1915).
  • Conrad Nagel as Arthur Hibbs–Clean cut matinee idol of the ‘20s and ‘30s who was much in demand as a leading man.
  • Claude King as Roger Balfour/The Stranger–A British-born actor who was in dozens of films, frequently character roles.
  • Polly Moran as Miss Smithson the maid–An outgoing comedienne who worked in Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedies for years.
  • Edna Tichenor as Bat Girl–The young actress with the striking eye makeup got started in films in 1923 and was in several Browning productions.
  • Other actors in small/uncredited roles: Andy MacLennan, Allan Cavan, Jules Cowles, Fred Gamble, Percy Williams

Filming Locations! MGM Studios and Culver City, California.

Approximate Total Cost! $151,700.00

Approximate Gross! $1,004,000. Not bad.

Foreign Release Titles (Not Exhaustive)! The Hypnotist (UK), Der Vampyr (Austria), Um Mitternacht (Germany), Il fantasma del castello (Italy), La casa del horror (Spain), Meta ta mesanykta (Greece), Vampiros da Meia Noite (Brazil). The Hypnotist was also Browning’s original working title, but it was announced in early November that the film’s official title was London After Midnight (for any of you who think a U.S. print might conceivably turn up as The Hypnotist–well, a U.K. print might, but not one from the U.S. of A.).

THE BACKSTORY (Ever So Briefly)

Browning, who spent his youth performing in various carnivals and circuses, started performing in films in 1913 and started directing by 1915. He leaned towards melodramas, crime dramas, and mystery stories, and had a deep interest in the macabre and “freakish” characters. He started working with Lon Chaney in 1919, and they would make many of their finest films together in the 1920s. In 1927, after finishing his classic The Unknown Browning wanted to tell a vampire tale. He worked with scenario writer Waldemar Young to create London After Midnight, an original story that was a combination of vampire horror flick and murder mystery–a bit heavier on the murder mystery side. Reviews were mixed, mainly because of the convoluted plot, the film did great at the box office. Browning’s next film would be The Big City (1928), about crime gang rivalries.

THE PLOT

The Short Version

Roger Balfour is found dead in his mansion of a gunshot wound, the apparent cause being suicide. The mansion sits vacant for five years and then gets two spooky tenants. They’re suspected to have played a role in Balfour’s death, and Inspector Burke is summoned to solve the five-year-old case. He believes hypnosis can be used to make murder suspects relive past events, and soon he’s able to solve the mystery of Balfour’s death–and we learn just who the spooky tenants are, too.

The Long Version

Roger Balfour is found dead in his London home of a gunshot wound. Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard investigates the death and says it was a suicide, but Sir James Hamlin, executor of Balfour’s estate, says the man wasn’t suicidal. Hamlin, who lives next door, takes in Balfour’s teenaged daughter Lucille; other members of his household include his nephew Arthur and the butler Williams. 

The Balfour house sits abandoned for five years and then two strange renters move in: the “Man in the Beaver Hat,” with wild eyes and pointed teeth, and the ghoul-like “Bat Girl.” Hamlin thinks the frightening duo were somehow involved in Balfour’s death, and  Inspector Burke returns to inspect the strange goings-on. Soon Balfour’s body disappears from its tomb, the maid Smithson is frightened by the Man in the Beaver Hat, Arthur begins to suspect the renters are vampires, and someone who appears to be undead Roger Balfour himself is spotted inside the spooky house. Burke believes that hypnosis can be used to put people into trances and relive events from years ago, and theorizes that this will help him figure out Balfour’s murderer. Everyone being a suspect, Burke tries putting the nephew Arthur into a trance, but only learns that he’s innocent. Later that night, a creepy figure enters Burke’s room and Burke fires a shot at him. The figure flees. but Burke finds a blood stain showing it had been wounded.

Lucille (now an adult, by the way, and in love with Arthur) is then abducted by the butler Williams and the Man in the Beaver Hat and taken to the Balfour house. Arthur attempts to rescue Lucille, but Burke stops him and has him locked up. Having a plan in mind, Burke sends Hamlin to the house with the instructions “Ask for Roger Balfour.” Soon Hamlin meets the Beaver-Hatted Man and is put in a trance. *SPOILERS* for a long-lost silent film that we might never get to see but you never know: When in the trance, Hamlin recreates the night of Roger Balfour’s death and shows that he was the one who shot him. His motive for the murder was wanting to one day marry Lucille, which had been against Balfour’s wishes. It turns out the Man in the Beaver Hat was Inspector Burke all along, occasionally assisted by a body double, and the Bat Girl was an actress hired by the police. The mystery now solved, Hamlin is arrested by Burke, and Lucille and Arthur decide to marry.

My Thoughts, If You’d Like To Know:

This lost film seems very much “on trend” with the type of spooky mystery stories that were popular at the time, like The Bat (1926) and The Cat and the Canary (1927). All of them feature eerie mansions haunted by frightening ghouls, there’s always a big mystery to be solved, and at the end the ghouls are revealed to be people in disguise. Interestingly enough, American silent films always seemed to shy away from supernatural explanations, perhaps because they were deemed too scary or maybe to keep from offending religious groups. What these films did do well was set the prototypes for spooky old mansion movies to come–presumably London After Midnight was influential in that regard. If anything, Chaney’s makeup sure became iconic!

MORE FACTS

How Was London After Midnight Recieved? Some Sample Reviews:

You often hear that the film had a lot of lukewarm reviews, and that does seem to be the case–although there were positive ones, too. The plot tended to get criticized a lot for being confusing. Some sample reviews (compliments to Medium writer Joel Eisenberg, who compiled most of these in a 2020 article): The New York Times: “It gives Lon Chaney an opportunity to manifest his powers…You are therefore treated to close-ups of Mr. Chaney’s rolling orbs, which fortunately do not exert their influence on the audience.” Variety: “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.” Sydney Morning-Herald: “An old manorhouse, hung thick with cobwebs, filled with owls and bats, and tenanted by people more hideous than apparitions in a nightmare, forms the background of the tale. Here the producer has contrived scenes which carry one away by their sheer force of imagination…One cannot help feeling, though, that the final unravelling of the mystery leaves a number of the strands in it still knotted together.” The New Yorker: “…It strives too hard to create effect. 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.” Film Daily: “If [sensitive patrons] don’t get the creeps from flashes of grimy bats swooping around, cobweb-bedecked mystery chambers and the grotesque inhabitants of the haunted house, then they’ve passed the third degree.” Photoplay, in a mini-review: “The suspense is marvelously sustained. Chaney plays a dual role, and when conventionally clad, is a little less convincing than usual. In the other role, perfect.”

Did You Know…?

  • The spooky atmosphere at the Balfour mansion included the use of bats, owls, and armadillos–much like Browning would use in Dracula (1931). (Browning really liked using armadillos for whatever reason.) Chaney’s eye-popping makeup was achieved by fitting wires around his eye sockets to hold back his eyelids.
  • Browning remade the film in 1935 with Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore and called it Mark of the Vampire. It also has a lot of creepy, cobwebby scenes and a similar plot revolving around detective Barrymore trying to solve a murder mystery. This time around it was obviously influenced by Browning’s Dracula, with Lugosi as “Count Mora’ and Carroll Borland as his ghoulish daughter Luna. Browning even includes a scene of Lugosi and Borland walking through a giant cobweb–never mind that it doesn’t make sense in context.
  • Some of the last known people to have seen London After Midnight were historians David Bradley and William K. Everson, who saw it in the early 1950s and said it wasn’t that great, in their admittedly informed opinions. Supposedly much of the film’s footage revolved around Burke’s detective scenes with a good dose of Polly Moran’s comic relief.
  • The entire script for this film exists and can be downloaded. So honestly, the plot and title cards are no mystery at all, we’re just missing the actual footage. Head here to grab a copy for yourself!
  • There was also a novelization by Marie Coolidge-Rask that was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1928. (Novelizations of films weren’t uncommon in the silent era.) It gives more explanations to the goings-on in the movie, although Coolidge-Rask did add a lot of dialogue and even a new character.
  • Turner Classic Movies released a reconstructed version of London After Midnight in 2002. It was created by Richard Schmidlin (the same person who reconstructed Greed’s missing footage) using existed stills, the original script, and a great new soundtrack by Robert Israel. I think it was very well done, especially considering there’s no existing footage.
  • There’s also a newer book called London After Midnight: The Reconstruction by Philip J. Riley, with a forward by Forrest J. Ackerman (more on him later). It was published in 1985 and uses stills and reconstructed title cards arranged in the order of the script, a kind of picture book version of the lost film. Copies are hard to come by and expensive, naturally.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT AND THE AFTERMATH

The Sad Tale

London After Midnight was an MGM production, and at the time MGM had a lot of control over the distribution of its films. The film wouldn’t have been sold to independent distributors–so there would be fewer prints to be scattered willy-nilly–and MGM was scrupulous about collecting film prints once they’d had their run in theaters. It also took care to try and preserve its early films, contrary to what some might think.

We know a print of London After Midnight was stored in vault 7, one of several storage vaults on Lot 3, part of the MGM’s backlot in Culver City. The vaults, which were spaced apart to prevent any fires from spreading, were made of concrete, ventilated by fans in their roofs, and had no sprinkler systems. The print had last been inspected during a vault inventory done by MGM in 1955. The evening of August 10, 1965, an electrical short ignited the sensitive nitrate film and the resulting explosion was heard by people on the adjoining lots. Some sources say a person died in the explosion, although I don’t think this has ever been confirmed. What has been confirmed is that the fire completely destroyed the contents of the vault, including London After Midnight. 

Why Is It So Sought-After Today?

London After Midnight seems to have come, done respectably well at the box-office, and went, although Browning did make that ‘30s remake. There’s been some interest in finding it since the ‘60s at least. In 1967 the American Film Institute (brand-new at the time) compiled a “rescue list” of 250 old films, 150 of which were considered lost, and London After Midnight was on the list. But as far as its Holy Grail status among movie fans today, we can probably lay most of the blame at the feet of this man:

This is Forrest J. Ackerman, monster movie/sci-fi fan extraordinaire, editor and writer behind the long-running magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, collector, agent, occasional actor, Esperanto advocate, and basically an all-around guru to countless lovers of classic horror. And he created Vampirella. Ackerman remembered seeing London After Midnight as a kid and adamantly covered it in Famous Monsters, sharing eye-catching stills and featuring this familiar paint of the Man and the Beaver Hat on the cover: 

Interest in classic monsters being at a peak at the time–especially among kids–this helped bring attention to London After Midnight. Subsequent books about classic horror films also played a role in keeping its memory alive. And Chaney’s striking makeup was certainly a giant factor–you’ve definitely seen countless Halloween decorations with some variation of “creepy old-timey guy + shoulder length grey hair + top hat” before.

Why Hasn’t It Turned Up?

If you’re curious about how silent films become lost in general, check out my article on the subject. It’s a detailed one!

As I mentioned, MGM was careful to collect film prints once the theatrical runs were over, and prints of London After Midnight weren’t sold to independent distributors. Thus, the odds of a stray print being kept by a rogue projectionist or theater owner is much smaller than normal.  

Could It Turn Up?

It’s very true that given enough time, improperly stored nitrate film prints naturally decompose into a bubbly, smelly, powdery mess–“Nitrate Won’t Wait.” Even if several FILM cans marked London After Midnight stored in an eccentric film collector’s closet were found, that doesn’t mean the contents of the cans would be in ideal condition. 

There’s been a rumor for awhile that an eccentric film collector has been sitting on his astounding collector’s item for decades, biding his time (nitrate rot concerns be darned), and patiently waiting for the film to enter the public domain in…2022. So that means he would have *checks calendar” a couple months left to make the big announcement, get the film preserved for a hefty price, and pick out a Blu-ray release date. Err, hurry up, please?

But while London After Midnight’s frankly not super likely to turn up, especially after being the #1 most hunted lost film in the world for many decades, it’s also not impossible. Heck, if the 1910 Frankenstein and clips from Salome (1917) turned up recently then practically anything’s possible. I wouldn’t bet on it…but I wouldn’t prevent anyone else from giving that bet a try.

Beware Of Hoaxes

If the news suddenly spreads that London After Midnight has suddenly been found, do one thing first: Check what day it is. If the answer is “April 1st,” well…wouldn’t be the first time.

Every few years, as regular as clockwork, excited rumors about “London After Midnight…Found At Last??” swirl around the Internet. There was an especially large kerfuffle back in 2008, when someone claimed to have personally located the film back in the ‘80s in a giant storage vault in L.A., reverently opened a can, unspooled it enough to see the London After Midnight title cards and some frames of Chaney, shed a tear of awe and wonder, then put it back and didn’t mention the find to anyone again for twenty freaking years until spilling the news on an Internet message board. It was an engrossing tale while it lasted.

Such rumors are certain to keep swirling every now and then, so be careful not to get too excited. I think we’re more skeptical now than we were in 2008, but even so.

FINAL THOUGHTS

When you read about this lost film, there’s a specific opinion that keeps coming up: Even if London After Midnight is found, it’s argued, it likely will be…a disappointment. A gigantic one, even. Aside from the creepy imagery–which apparently doesn’t even dominate the film–it is, at its heart, a fairly prosaic murder mystery with too many loose ends, certainly a product of its time and less interesting than all those gothic stills let on. So even if it’s found, we’re cautioned, don’t get your hopes up that it’s going to be the monster movie masterpiece to end all monster movie masterpieces. You’re more likely to find it slightly dull.

Perhaps. But…

…If I may offer my own humble opinion, and from my personal silent film-loving perspective, it really doesn’t matter to me whether London After Midnight is good or not. Just seeing those tantalizing stills of the Man in the Beaver Hat and the Bat Girl come to life would be fascinating, no matter how much or little footage they actually get. Seeing Browning’s version of a “creepy mansion murder mystery” story would be interesting as well, especially since we can study just what kinds of shots and tropes were carried over to Dracula (armadillos, anyone?). 

Honestly, your enjoyment of a film often depends on what you bring to it. Set yourself up for being disappointed, and you probably will be. Decide to enjoy an experience and use it as an opportunity for film history study, and you’ll probably get a lot out of it.

Only time will tell, of course, if we’ll ever get the opportunity to be disappointed or enthralled by London After Midnight. But let’s continue to dream, my friends. Yes, in spite of the odds, let’s continue to dream.

12 thoughts on “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About “London After Midnight” (Practically)

  1. While there are other lost films that are higher on my “wish list,” I would still be stoked to watch London After Midnight. I like just about all of Browning’s silents, even the lesser ones, because they have such bizarre atmosphere.

    On a barely related note: your point about film novelizations in the silent era reminded me that Buster Keaton’s The General also got a novelization when it was released and that book might be my most coveted piece of memorabilia. I would LOVE to see how you could even novelize something as staunchly visual as The General.

  2. By the way, I love how positive your blog is about these things. Sooo many film blogs (including mine, I confess, though I’m trying to be better) can accentuate the negative or be cynical (“This movie will no doubt disappoint!!”). But you’re always so enthusiastic and wonderful, reminding us all why we love movies enough to blog about and obsess over them in the first place.

  3. Several things I didn’t know here. I had no idea Walthall, Polly Moran, and Conrad Nagel were in this. I also didn’t realize it was extant into the ‘60s. Most interesting article! And Happy Hallowe’en! 😀

    • Thank you! Yes it had a bunch of familiar faces, Walthall really surprised me. You’d think more people would mention he was in the most famous lost film of all time…!

  4. Thanks so much! Posted it on my FB page with a link to your post. Wonderful post and the last one on Tod Browning as terrific too. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

    Regards, JIM

  5. In Lon Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces, Forest Ackerman stated that Lon’s vampire character walked like Groucho Marx and other interviews mentioned the comic effect it gave. They were also amused by its cult status. Some fans have sighted A Blind Bargain as a better Chaney Holy Grail movie, but after doing some reading (might’ve been yours(?)), the Lon movie I’d like to most see found is The Miracle Man, it sounded like an interesting plot directed well by George Loane Tucker. I can always hope!

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