In the mid-1960s, a vault fire at the old MGM studio in Culver City destroyed the only known print of the 1927 Lon Chaney thriller “London After Midnight.” The whodunit vampire flick was the most successful of the 10 collaborations between the Man of a Thousand Faces and director Tod Browning. And that, it seemed, was that.
But now, nearly 50 years since “London After Midnight” has been seen in any format, Turner Classic Movies will be broadcasting the film on Halloween, reconstructed entirely from stills from the MGM production. Robert Israel created a new score for the presentation.
Filmmaker Rick Schmidlin, who restored Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and Erich Von Stroheim’s “Greed,” painstakingly reconstructed “London After Midnight” from more than 200 still photographs from the collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study in Beverly Hills and the complete continuity script housed at the USC library.
“After I did ‘Greed,’ I was trying to figure out what I could do next,” Schmidlin says. “The most doable project I found was ‘London After Midnight’ because I felt I had proved with ‘Greed’ I could use still photographs.” Schmidlin’s 1999 reconstruction of the four-hour “Greed” used 60% live action footage and 40% stills.
“London After Midnight,” which received mixed critical reaction, was the first American film to feature a vampire.
“The thing to remember is ‘London After Midnight’ was done for several different reasons,” Schmidlin says. “Browning wanted to direct ‘Dracula’ and he wanted Chaney to play ‘Dracula.’ They wanted to do it in ’27, but they had problems with the Bram Stoker estate to get the rights to do it. So they made his film partially, I think, as a vehicle to give the Dracula image to the studio without making it a blatant retread. Browning kept to his dream. He eventually did direct ‘Dracula,’ but Chaney had died before that movie, so this was a glimpse of possibly Chaney’s idea of what a vampire image would be.”
It can be compared to the performance of the actor who did star in Browning’s “Dracula": Bela Lugosi.
Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake had doubts that Schmidlin could pull off this experiment until he met with him. “He had access to all the photographs,” says Blake, a former makeup artist. “We sat down and literally the whole movie is in all of these photos. We got the original cutting continuity [the shot-by-shot record] and he also had the original inter-titles continuity for the final print, and by using them, we could pretty much say this is the way the movie was when it went out. I think at 45 minutes it moves perfectly.”
Though it takes a few minutes to get used to the format, says Blake, “it certainly gives everybody a complete, clear picture of what this film was like. A lot of people used to say it was a horror film. It was never a horror film. The ads I have billed it as a detective thriller, and that is what it is.”
In fact, Chaney’s other role in the picture as a Scotland Yard detective is far more integral to the plot.
But with his bulging eyes, wild white hair and tiny sharp teeth, Chaney’s vampire is truly horrifying. Blake says that in a few of the close-ups of the vampire character, one can actually see the little wire Chaney used in the corner of his eyes.
“The wire would pull down the lower part of the eyelid, and then he wore a pair of false teeth -- upper and lower -- and he had pale makeup with shading around the eyes.” From a makeup artist’s point of view, Blake says, the design was “so unique that nobody had seen it before.”
Though rumors still abound that some collector is harboring a copy of “Midnight,” Schmidlin and Blake say that’s highly unlikely. “You never know,” Blake says, “but the reality is we are looking at a movie that is 75 years old and the clock is ticking against us. Watch, the minute this thing airs, three months later somebody is going to come across a print!”
“London After Midnight” can be seen at 5 p.m. Thursday on Turner Classic Movies. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).
Cover photo from the collection of Michael F. Blake.