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, but if you didn’t have the opportunity or good sense to pay $29.95 for it in 1987, you’ll have to shell out ninety bucks or more now. 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 two of the pictures in MoMA’s exhibit — Street Angel (1928) with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and Rex Ingram’s The Garden of Allah (1927) — 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 and The Garden of Allah, 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.
“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.”
“In his presence, the baronet felt himself unusually helpless. Like a fly, pinned against the wall for scientific inspection with a microscope.”