London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era. Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.
MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate. For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed and increasingly dumb down audiences. At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world. Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim). However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality. Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit. He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.
Sometimes the devil wins, and when Thalberg died at the age of 37, Old Nick (Mayer) had no one to rein him in. MGM, under Mayer, had a notorious habit of buying out rivals—the original versions of the studio’s watered-down remakes—and then would make every attempt to destroy and/or suppress the superior original. For instance, they bought out the 1940 British version of Gaslight and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy all the copies just in time for the debut of their inferior 1944 version, starring Charles Boyer. MGM did destroy many, but not all, copies, and understandably earned the genuine resentment of the British film industry.
MGM did the same to Paramount’s superb, 1931 Academy Award winning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to make way for their laughably bad 1941 version. They were successful, or so they thought. For a number of years, it was believed all copies of the 1931 Hyde had been destroyed and it was therefore a lost film, until, may years later, copies resurfaced—much to MGM’s chagrin.
When Tod Browning wanted to remake his London After Midnight as Mark of the Vampire in 1935, MGM did not have to go on a search-and-destroy mission, since they owned the original. The studio saw no commercial value whatsoever in preserving a silent film, so the original was essentially buried to make way for the new version. Predictably, it fell into neglect until some thirty years later the only remaining known copy was destroyed in a fire. It is entirely possible that MGM intentionally destroyed multiple copies of its own film, simply to make competitive room for the remake. Whether that remake is superior or inferior is pure speculation.
In 2003, Rick Schmidlin of Turner Classic Movies arduously produced a photo still reconstruction of London After Midnight. It is probably the only version of the film we, and future generations, will ever see. Even from a stills-only reproduction, it is clear that Midnight is the original American Goth Film. Chaney’s vampire, partly inspired by Werner Kruass’ Caligari, is a make-up artist’s delight, and an actor’s hell. Fishing wire looped around his blackened eye sockets, a set of painfully inserted, shark-like teeth producing a hideous grin, a ludicrous wig under a top hat, and white pancake makeup achieved Chaney’s kinky look. To add to the effect Chaney developed a misshapen, incongruous walk for the character. To his credit, Chaney’s crepuscular rogue looks as loathsome today as it did over eighty years ago (enough so for Henry Selick to pay the character a homage in The Nightmare Before Christmas).
The film, taken from Browning’s story “The Hypnotist,” is essentially a drawing room murder mystery, with a detective hiring actors to play vampires in order to smoke out the guilty party through sheer fright. As with most of Browning films, the plot is painstakingly preposterous, which will alienate contemporary audiences who religiously subscribe to ideas of hyper-realism. It is the spectral ambiance and erratic characterizations which stamp the film with Browning’s aberrant panache.
Chaney as the vampire and Edna Tichenor as Luna, the Bat Girl are the original creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky duo. Chaney also plays the second role of the professor Edward C. Burke and in some of the stills he could pass for Ebenezer Scrooge.
Robert Bloch (writer, Psycho-1960) saw London After Midnight in his youth and wrote of a Browning oddity in the film; the sight of armadillos scurrying across the dilapidated castle floor. It is an image we do not see in the still restoration, but Browning would repeat this surreal bit in both Dracula (1931) and Mark of the Vampire.
The late William K. Everson, a reliable historian, saw both films and claimed that the 1935 remake was considerably superior. Critics of the period disagree with Everson, holding the 1927 film as the better of the two. London After Midnight received mixed reviews upon its release in 1927, but the majority of the reviews were positive. Of all the Browning/Chaney films, Midnight reaped the biggest box office.
In its current state, which is a remarkable, commendable effort on producer Schmidlin’s part, it still is virtually impossible to compare this with the remake. What is evident is that the earlier film’s production design, set in London as opposed to Prague in the remake, is superior; which is saying a quite bit since Vampire’s design is, in itself, handsomely mounted.
Midnight also has fewer characters, a more minimal murder plot, is silent (an art form both Browning and Chaney were far more comfortable in) and has Lon Chaney starring, which would seem to add up to a better, overall film.
In 1935, Browning requested to remake Midnight as Mark of the Vampire, starring Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill and Carol Borland. Browning’s status at MGM was sensitive at best, even though he was still under Thalberg’s protection. Neither Mayer nor the studio had forgiven Browning for Freaks (1932) and his salary for Mark was cut to half of its former amount, which he humbly accepted. Thalberg’s protective umbrella vanished when the producer died prematurely, shortly after the release of Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936).
After that film, Browning sat dormant for two years until he was able to direct Miracles for Sale (1939), an uneven film that featured yet another Browning depiction of below-the-waist mutilation. It was to be his last. He was unceremoniously fired by MGM producer Carey Wilson, whose early career Browning had greatly assisted. So much for loyalty.
For Mark of the Vampire, Browning worked with cinematographer James Wong Howe (who later photographed Citizen Kane-1941). Howe’s work in the film was praised, but Howe did not care for working with Browning, who he said “did not know one end of the camera from the other” (but, then, neither did Luis Buñuel). Browning, however, was a hard-driving perfectionist and took great care in the craft and design of the film; the expressionistic, winged descent of Borland is strikingly impressive.
Browning always grumbled about the finished state of his Dracula (1931). In his original edit, Dracula was ten minutes longer and was even more deliberately paced, with Lugosi’s count almost entirely invisible during the second half, which, according to Browning’s sensibilities, made perfect sense. The Count, as Browning’s “Living, Hypnotic Corpse” (an act the director played in his carnival circuit days ) pulls a disappearing act. But, Universal spoiled that by cutting several scenes and adding close-up shots of the vampire grimacing, much to Browning’s permanent dismay (he refused to ever watch the film again).
Browning got his way regarding the presence of the Count in Vampire. As in Terence Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) the vampire is mute and predominantly an unseen spirit. Lugosi is even more effective here with his reduced, minimal presence. He is made up to look like Dracula, but projects increased savagery in his silence, making for a highly effective, grinning demon that differs from Chaney’s look but emulates the former’s pantomime. Lugosi’s Count Mora also sports an unexplained bullet wound to the temple.
Unfortunately, Browning once again fell prey to unimaginative producers, who butchered Vampire by excising some twenty minutes, which is evident throughout this highly incoherent film. The result is something akin to a fascinatingly flawed, unintentional surrealist egg. In the original script, the Count and his daughter were incestuous lovers who committed suicide with bullets to the head, thereby incurring the curse of the vampire. Not surprisingly, that part of the story was cut, but Lugosi’s bleeding temple remained untouched, sans explanation. Borland is equally impressive. Her Luna tops the look of Tichenor’s, and her portrayal inspired Charles Addams’ Morticia.
Guy Endore (Werewolf of Paris) wrote the script from Browning’s story. Mark of the Vampire is saturated with sensational Gothic texture (which includes possums inhabiting the castle). The visceral editing somehow add to the film’s appeal, even if it is a bit too talkative, bogged down with moments of forced comedy relief and Lionel Barrymore’s on-the-sleeve acting (although sometimes he seems more villainous than the vampires, which is beneficial to the overall milieu). Vampire adds up to an outrageous, hallucinatory film with genuinely perverse personality and a surreal, ominous style, far more so than the average Universal genre potboilers.
When released, critics generally praised the film, but many complained about the “trick” ending, which is stupefying since it is hinted at fairly early on. Plus, it has the same ending and story as Midnight, which was a huge box office hit only eight years before. Perhaps critics from the period all suffered from long term memory loss. The ending actually makes the film, giving a facetious, Addams family-like sheen to the proceeding austerity.
Browning ended his collaboration with Lugosi with this film. Their work together started with The Thirteenth Chair (1929) when the director was scouting around for Dracula (despite rumors, Chaney was not set to be cast as the Count and there is no evidence that he would have been, even if he had lived, although Chaney would have been an obvious choice to consider).
Browning’s long term association with Barrymore would come to an end in the following year’s The Devil Doll. It was also the beginning of the end for Browning’s unparalleled brand of artistry.