Reconstructing a lost silent film

Film fanatics finally get a look at `London'

October 31, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach

Probably the best thing to ever happen to London After Midnight, the great silent film star Lon Chaney's biggest moneymaker, was its disappearance.

Ever since the only known print of the 1927 movie was destroyed by fire in the 1960s, film fans and collectors have been bemoaning its fate and desperately praying for another print to show up; it's long been the holy grail among film archivists. Still photographs from the movie, showing Chaney in some truly horrific makeup - a visage just as impressive as his infamous nightmare-inducing makeup for 1925's Phantom of the Opera - only compounded the sense of loss. Truly, this must have been one terrifying film.

Unfortunately, unless the rumors that a print does exist in a private collection somewhere turn out to be true, we'll never know for sure. But based on a reconstruction of the movie, premiering at 8 tonight on Turner Classic Movies, London After Midnight could prove more fascinating than frightening.

Using the movie's continuity script to tell the story, and more than 200 stills to present a reasonable suggestion of what the project must have looked like, filmmaker Rick Schmidlin (who supervised a similar restoration of the four-hour version of Erich Von Stroheim's Greed) has pieced together a 70-minute version of London After Midnight that does two things remarkably well: It reinforces how truly terrifying Chaney's vampire makeup is, and it shows how radically horror movies changed once sound became a movie staple.

Written and directed by Tod Browning, whose association with Chaney produced the highest points in both men's careers (although Browning is best know today for directing Bela Lugosi in 1931's Dracula), the movie opens with the sudden, mysterious death of Roger Balfour in his stately London home. Taking charge of the investigation is Burke (Chaney), a private investigator who arrives on the scene unnaturally quickly.

Burke proves a fast worker and almost immediately points the finger of suspicion at Balfour's nephew, Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). When Hibbs vehemently protests his innocence, Burke abruptly announces that, of course Hibbs didn't do it; he even produces a suicide note to prove that Balfour died at his own hand.

The story then moves ahead five years, and the Balfour house has fallen on some supernaturally hard times. It's said to be haunted, and sure enough, a demonic-looking figure (Chaney again), complete with razor-sharp teeth and a set of bat wings, is seen lurking about the house. Everybody becomes appropriately spooked, especially Hibbs and Balfour's niece, the lovely Lucille (Marceline Day).

Into all this creepy atmosphere slides Burke, who's back on the case, determined to get to the bottom of everything - even if that means concluding that his good friend Roger Balfour is not dead, but rather ... undead.

Cue the eerie music.

It's hard to say much about the film, since so many of the stills obviously have been staged and probably only slightly resemble the finished film. But yes, Chaney is a makeup man's wonder: Then at the height of his career as Hollywood's "Man of a Thousand Faces," he outdoes himself, looking like a cross between Fred Astaire and Jack Nicholson as The Joker. And while casting him in two roles might seem a dead giveaway of the film's ending, that probably wasn't so important back in 1927; few fans knew what the real Chaney looked like, so often was he covered in makeup.

In the end, there's really nothing supernatural about London After Midnight, which hews to the early cinematic tradition of providing a rational explanation for everything that happens. Thus, it's quite possible that, should an actual copy of the film show up, horror fans may be disappointed in what actually is up there on-screen.

Still, Schmidlin has done cinephiles a service, putting together the bones of London After Midnight in a way that should satisfy at least some people's curiosity. The effect is similar to staring at one of those dinosaur skeletons in the Smithsonian; it's endlessly fascinating and suggestive, but it's no substitute for the real thing.

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