Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Fog of Lost London, Part 1 (Republished)

NOTE: The Spooky Season is upon us once again, so it's time for my annual re-post of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Whether you remember it from years past or are coming to it new, I hope it brings you a creepy moment or two. Be sure to read the four parts in order -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!

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London After Midnight (MGM; 1927) is the Holy Grail of Lost Films. Oh sure, there's the complete Greed. But we do have the incomplete Greed, and it's a masterpiece as it stands. Besides, tell the truth: Isn't there just the tiniest little fear, deep down in your heart, that if Stroheim's 42-reel, ten-hour cut should miraculously turn up, it just might turn out to be a letdown, maybe even (Heresy! Heresy!) a bit of a bore? But be that as it may, we do have Greed; all we have of London After Midnight is an assortment of stills like this one of Lon Chaney in makeup and costume as the Man in the Beaver Hat.

There are enough of these remnants that Philip J. Riley was able to publish a reconstruction of Tod Browning's movie in book form. If you didn't have the opportunity or good sense to pay $29.95 for it in 1987, you may have to shell out as much as 115 bucks for it now, though there are used copies available for close to the original price. A few years ago Turner Classic Movies did a similar reconstruction, this time on film, and that one's available on The Lon Chaney Collection.

In 1970 the Museum of Modern Art staged a "Lost Films" exhibit and published an accompanying book by the same title. At least three of the pictures in MoMA's exhibit -- Street Angel (1928) with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, Rex Ingram's The Garden of Allah (1927), and Tod Browning's own The Show with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree -- have surfaced since then, so there's always hope. But London After Midnight remains lost, and the pages devoted to it in the MoMA book are sparse. Author Gary Carey wrote: "It is almost impossible to synopsize a mystery film which one has not seen because critics, bound by professional ethics, divulge little of the plot let alone its solution."

Mr. Carey should have read the review that appeared in Variety on December 14, 1927. Variety's reviewer, "Mori," didn't much care for the movie ("Will add nothing to Chaney's prestige as a trouper, nor increase the star's box office value."), nor did he shrink from discouraging potential viewers by recounting the entire plot, solution and all. Then, amazingly, in his last paragraph, he said: "The usual suspicions, planted while the situations are worked out, succeed in leaving an impression of mystery regarding the outcome." (Not anymore, Mori!)

As a side note, let me add that Mori wasn't the only Variety reviewer to do this sort of thing. It's our good luck now that the Spoiler Police weren't so powerful back then; the detailed descriptions in Variety's reviews from 1907 to 1930 are virtually all we have to go on for movies now lost beyond recall. I've found them invaluable in researching the careers of the stars in the M.J. Moriarty deck of movie playing cards.

But back to London After Midnight. There's always hope it may someday surface, like Street Angel, The Garden of Allah and The Show, but it hasn't happened yet; the last known print was destroyed in a studio fire in the 1960s. Director Browning did a loose remake in 1935 -- Mark of the Vampire, with Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore taking over the equivalent roles that were both originally played by Lon Chaney -- but that time Browning made major changes; for one thing, the new picture didn't even take place in London. If we want any sense of the original, we still have to depend on the Riley and TCM reconstructions.

Or...there is this. I came across this book while perusing the shelves at the estate sale of a popular Sacramento TV personality. The novelization is the work of Marie Coolidge-Rask, who evidently made a decent living out of this kind of piecework. She's known to have also novelized Mary Pickford's Sparrows (1926) and the King Vidor-Lillian Gish La Boheme that same year (now there's a literary platypus for you: a novelization of a silent movie of an opera). 

Otherwise, Ms. Coolidge-Rask's literary output seems not to have left much impression on the shifting sands of time. These movie tie-ins weren't a terribly lucrative field for the writer-for-hire; usually there was just a flat fee -- probably, in the 1920s, no more than a thousand dollars or so, if that -- and that was that, no royalties. A shame, because London After Midnight may have sold pretty well; Mori's opinion notwithstanding, the movie was the most successful Browning-Chaney collaboration. Whatever MGM and/or Grosset & Dunlap paid her for her efforts, I hope for her sake she invested it wisely.

In any case, she doesn't seem to have slavishly followed Browning and Waldemar Young's script: Her novel features at least one character, a certain Colonel Yates, who doesn't appear in the movie's cast list on IMDB. And she isn't bound by the limits of silent movies -- her characters are certainly a talkative bunch. For that matter, so is Ms. Coolidge-Rask herself -- she crams words in like a canner stuffing sardines in a tin. Here she is describing Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall):

"Sir James, despite the studied calmness of his demeanor when with Lucy Balfour or in the presence of those he deemed his inferiors, was of a nervous temperament, at times easily influenced, again firm to the point of stubbornness, according to his mental reaction to whatever force against which he found himself in opposition."

Got all that? Here she is again, later on the same page: 

"In his presence, the baronet felt himself unusually helpless. Like a fly, pinned against the wall for scientific inspection with a microscope." 

I don't know what kind of scientist would pin a fly to the wall to see it through a microscope, but I suppose Ms. Coolidge-Rask might have known some.

Anyhow, now, just in time for Halloween, I propose to spend
the next few posts hacking through the purple undergrowth of
Marie Coolidge-Rask's prose (I do these things so you don't
have to), distilling it into a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of her
novelization. In this way I hope to get some sense of what
audiences at Browning's vampire/murder mystery might have
seen in 1927 -- sort of like Tod Browning, Polly Moran and Lon
Chaney here pretending to commune with the spirit world for
the MGM publicity department. This will be (if you'll pardon the
expression) by the book, without reference to either Philip J.
Riley's or TCM's reconstructions; if there are differences,
maybe we can talk about those later.

So be warned: if you're worried about spoiling the ending of
London After Midnight (which you can't see anyhow) or
Mark of the Vampire (which you can), proceed at your
own risk.

To be continued...


Anonymous said...

Hey there, Jim!

I am attempting to source out the origin of the publicity still posted here with Tod, Polly, and Lon using the ouija tipping table. I am a collector that owns the only known surviving example of this device, and would love to acquire a hi-res copy of this still. Please let me know if you can help!


Jim Lane said...

Welcome, Brandon, and thanks for stopping by. That picture was from Lost Films, a program booklet published by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with an exhibit, Stills from Lost Films, at the museum in 1970. It was no doubt an MGM publicity still. I'll e-mail you with details that may help you track it down. Thanks again for visiting, and for leaving a comment.

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