Photo is from the Estate of Forrest Ackerman in the collection of Gene Stevens
The Search for London After Midnight; BY GENE STEVENS
Edited by Vicki Stevens
In rural England-
a forsaken garden-
Like so many mysteries in life, stories can take shape by chance meetings and unusual incidents. It seem that life is filled with coincidence that sometimes feels like a planned event. One of the great mysteries of the cinema is the story of Lon Chaney’s lost film, London After Midnight. For me, the elements of this story contain many strange coincidence that defy explanation.
My personal journey began in 2012 when I created a classic Monster Fanzine called “Monsters After Midnight” which was named in honor of London After Midnight. I created five issues of Monsters After Midnight and a small graphic novel connected to the fanzine called “Ghost Defenders.”
Both creations had very limited success. But with that said, sometimes success is not always measured in dollar signs. The success of Monsters After Midnight was measured in the friendships and connections. And the reward of being published as well as becoming a self made professional monster kid. An honor which also led me to other horror connoisseurs. A most interesting type of people in the constant pursuit of the gory details of the weird and sometimes dark side of cinematic history.
In 2015, I decided to take Monsters After Midnight online as an Ezine /Blog (https://classicmonsters.wordpress.com/ ). And My love of Lon Chaney gave me the inspiration to write about London After Midnight,(again) which was the subject of the very first article that I had posted online.
LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT
In 1927 Lon Chaney starred in the production of London After Midnight. The production was directed by Tod Browning, who is best known for directing the 1931 production of Dracula.
Today, Just the utterance of the title London After Midnight turns many heads in the monster kid community!
Lon Chaney’s famed lost film helped to lay the groundwork as being one of the first vampire movies. Compared to the early silent “Nosfertu”,London After Midnight was very sedate. Additionally Chaney’s mastery of the art of make-up made it possible for him to be cast in multiple role types.
Chaney’s characters were a product of a new and experimental place called Hollywood. A place in which new innovation was taking root in film technology. Chaney’s creations included a wide variety of faces, including grotesque monsters such as the Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame to tortured men such as his character Blizzard in the film “The Penalty”. But London After Midnight paved the way for later Universal Monsters which are still seen on TV today.
A SO CALLED “LOST” FACE BECAUSE ONLY ONCE AGAIN IN 1970 HAS A PRINT OF THE FILM COME TO LIGHT.
London After Midnight was never seen by modern audiences because it disappeared. Like any good mystery. It is surrounded by rumors and conjecture. Stories about London After Midnight have persisted. My own research indicated that the famous lost film was located in a film vault in California. And it may have been re-titled “The Hypnotist” which is the title that appears on the original script dated July 21, 1927. Many rumors and some clues have persisted throughout the years about what happened to the film and people have even told tales about seeing the film itself. In a 1970 issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, (a magazine founded and published by James Warren, and who’s Chief Editor was Forrest “Forry” Ackerman) dedicated issue #69 to London After Midnight. On the very first page of the article is a short and very enigmatic paragraph that reads;
“TO a generation of silent movie fans HE was the BORIS KARLOFF of the haunted screen.
LON CHANEY SR.
He terrified the moviegoers by the millions in such fright films as THE MONSTER, A BLIND BARGAIN, THE UNKNOWN.
He left his immortal mark on horror film history as Erik of The Catacombs and Quasimodo of the bells.
One of his legendary “lost faces” was first revealed in 1927 when MGM cast him in LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT.
A so-called “lost” face because only once again in 1970 has a print of the film come to light.”
LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT THE RECONSTRUCTION
In 1985 Phillip J.Riley who was a a protege of Forrest J. Ackerman, published his book “London After Midnight, a reconstruction” Forrest Ackerman wrote a brief foreward for Riley’s book. In his own words, Forry (as he was called by his fans) related that he had seen London After Midnight only one time as a child. And he had never seen it again. Then one day he was attending the Ann Radcliffe awards banquet of the Count Dracula Society in Hollywood California when a coincidental meeting occurred (there are many coincidences where London After Midnight is involved). Forry told the the following story about this chance meeting;
Is London After Midnight a lost film? I don’t know. I haven’t seen it again in my life time. It was said to have surfaced several years ago, been seen in San Francisco. In fact, I know the young chap who said he saw it. I have no reason to doubt his word-but on the other hand. I could never find anyone to corroborate his story. The word reached my table like wildfire “A young fellow over at that table said he saw London After Midnight last week. Fleet as the wind,in my Dracula cape, I whisked over to the indicated youngster. Put my arm around him. Said, “Whats this I hear about you seeing London After Midnight?”
“Oh yes Mr. Ackerman. Last week.” And he named the little theater, which unfortunately, I’ve since forgotten, but I know it exists- I went there subsequently.
“Why is there something unusual about it? Everybody seems to be getting very excited it.”
“As well theY might!” I replied, “That’s supposed to be a lost picture!”
“Well, it played up in San Francisco last week and I saw it.”
“Silent? Lon Chaney in a top hat and sharp teeth, real goulish?”
“yes” (the young man replied)
Forry (according to the account) checked further into the story. He knew many film buffs in the San Francisco area that would (or at least should have) known that the film was being shown somewhere in their area. Then in 1975, word went out that a copy had surfaced somewhere in the eastern area of the U.S. But once again, the existence was denied. But during this time the FBI was busy confiscating films throughout the country.
Another researcher who created a webpage called lonchaney.org by the name of Jon Mirsalis,laments about the lost film and says;
LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is a lost film, perhaps the most famous of all missing films, and it has become the Holy Grail of archivists and film collectors throughout the world. The last known record of the film existing was in the mid-1950’s. Film historians William K. Everson and David Bradley both saw the film in the early 1950’s, and an MGM vault inventory from 1955 shows the print being stored in Vault #7. A fire in Vault 7 in the 1960s appears to have destroyed the last surviving print. With all the publicity the missing film has received, it is doubtful that it resides in a foreign archive. The film was never sold to independent distributors, nor were the rights sold to another studio for a remake, so prints of the film would not have been available to anyone outside of MGM. Unlike many independent distributors, the studio was very diligent about collecting prints after the completion of their print run, making it unlikely that a retired projectionist has a copy hiding in his attic. Still, films have a habit of turning up in peculiar places and one can always be hopeful. The copyright on the film will expire in 2022 (recently changed from 2002 due to the Copyright Extension Act), and if a private collector is sitting on a print, it may surface then.
SOME DETAILS ABOUT THE FILM
The film was distributed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and was based on the short story “The Hypnotist” by Tod Browning who also directed the film. London After Midnight starred Lon Chaney, Marceline Day Conrad Nagel, Henry B Walthall and Polly Morgan.
The film is set in London during the 1920‘s,and is one of the earliest movies in the vampire genre. Character, Sir Roger Balfour is found shot to death in his home. Inspector Burke (Lon Chaney) of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. The suspects are Williams (the butler), Sir James Hamlin and his
nephew, Arthur Hibbs. A suicide note is found and the case is supposedly closed. Five years later, the old residence of Balfour is taken up by a man in a beaver-skin hat, with large fangs and gruesome, sunken eyes. His assistant is a ghostly woman, with flowing robes and raven black hair.
Could it be Balfour, (like the film itself) returned from the dead.. an original zombie or vampire? Time will tell….
THE BACK STORY OF THE LOST FILM LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT FILM GROWS ONLINE;
London After Midnight remains one of the most famous and eagerly sought after of all lost films of all time. The last known copy was allegedly destroyed in a MGM vault fire in 1967. However, rumors also related, that the lost film, may have found safe haven somewhere in Europe, possibly in Spain.
In 2002, Turner Classic movies aired a reconstructed version using the original script and film stills.
The story of the search for the lost film has grown into an internet legend, and it’s star Lon Chaney “The Man of a Thousand Faces” has a cult like following even today. An internet search of the horror classic reveals several websites and youtube movies dedicated to “London After Midnight”.
Other research suggest that the film was also released under many different titles in other countries such as:
DER VAMPYR -AUSTRIA 1928
IL FANTASMA DEL CASTELLO -ITALY
LA CASA DEL HORROR -SPAIN
LAUKAUS YOSSA – FINLAND 1929 (NOTE* I DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE THE DOTS OVER THE O AND A)
LONDON E’JFE’L UTA’N -HUNGARY
LONDRES DEPOIS DA MEIA-NOITE -PORTUGAL 1930
META TA MESANYKTA -GREECE
TO LONDINON META TA MESANYKTA – re-release in GREECE
THE HYPNOTIST -UK
UM MITTERNACHT -GERMANY 1928
But probably one of the most intriguing stories I ran into was found posted on an internet message board called the Horror Drunx, in 2008. The author went by the name of Sid Terror, who claimed that he had seen a copy of the film, and that the film was being stored in a film storage facility in Los Angeles California.
“Not a ghost, no! Worse than that-”
The following is an excerpt from his story in which Sid Terror states;
“Yes. It is true. For those who scoff and doubt (I’m sure you will be legion) that the most notorious lost film of all times was located, I will say it again with authority and conviction… I, Sid Terror, saw Lon Chaney’s lost classic LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT with my own eyes. Without a doubt. No I am not talking about a recreation made completely from still photos, I’m talking about the entire long-lost motion-picture!” “From what I saw, the film was in remarkably good condition also, showing little or no signs of dreaded “nitrate cancer”. My inspection complete, as I carefully and reverently closed the film cans, it occurred to me… I could be the first person in the last 40+ years to have actually opened those film cans. And I was one of a handful of people still alive on the planet who can say he “saw” the film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. Not projected. But I saw it.
A few things puzzled me. If the film cans were labeled THE HYPNOTIST, why did the title card on the film say LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT? Also, Rosalind (and employee of Bonded film storage) had told me that the film was “incomplete,” possibly missing as much as a reel… Yet, the number of reels and running time (72 to 78 minutes, depending on which research book you check) seemed to match. All I could add up from those facts could be that the film WAS complete, but whomever had checked the print was… A) Used to seeing films with a running time of 90 minutes to two hours long, the modern day norm for a feature length film– but not the norm for 1927. B) Whomever checked in the film had failed to figure in that silent films have a slightly shorter footage length, because instead of running at 24 frames per second as is required for sound film, they run at approximately 18 frames per second, making the duration one-third longer. My years of hands-on experience as a projectionist and filmmaker had taught me just a few things
that maybe the average film vault worker may not know as second nature. Before I left the shelf where the treasure of a Monster Kid’s lifetime sat, I pulled a black Sharpie pen from my pocket. Below THE HYPNOTIST on the labels of the film cans,
I added “A.K.A. LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. I had found it, the most infamous lost film on the planet, it was the least I could do to make sure it did not get lost so easily again. In fact, at that point, it was almost all I could do.”
The story claimed that the storage facility where London After Midnight was stored eventually closed doors and the films were moved to different locations. The story intrigued me (to say the least), so I began my own investigation.
I felt that the KISS (keep it simple stupid) method would be the best route to take. So I attempted to contact Sid terror via email. The attempt initially failed. Then several years later I ran into Sid Terror on facebook and talked to him directly. He stood by his story. But said that he had taken a lot of heat because of it. I asked him if he wanted to go on the record and tell me more. My interest was only literary. But Sid Terror declined and he did not want any further information in the public eye.
In addition to my online research. I checked on the location of the film vault, which was alleged to have been located at 5890 West Jefferson Blvd, Los Angeles, CA. The building was a film storage facility that was referred to by multiple names, including the Turner/Jefferson facility, the Jefferson Film Storage Facility and “Bonded Film Storage” which seems to be actual business name, though nothing is certain here. A simple internet check revealed that the location is still home to film related businesses, though this fact neither adds or detracts from the mystery. This is where the trail went cold for me.
MOVE THE CLOCK AHEAD FOUR YEARS
My return to writing about classic horror in 2015 kept me writing and researching. I hadn’t thought much about London After Midnight for some time when another chance encounter connected me with a collector and researcher by the name of Daniel Titley who seemed to hold an answer to the long running mystery concerning the location of the famed lost film.
I found Daniel on the Classic Horror film board on a thread about London After Midnight. He was talking about London After Midnight. In his main post on a thread pertaining to silent films he said that he was in process of writing a book about London After Midnight and that he had some very revealing things in store about the lost film.
I was very intrigued with his statement, so once again.. I used the KISS Method (Keep it simple stupid) and I reached out to Daniel to ask him what he knew about London After Midnight. Unlike my earlier encounter with Sid Terror. Dan immediately contacted me using the chat application on the CHFB board. We immediately established a rapport as monster kids in pursuit of the truth about London After Midnight.
The first result of our conversation was that we identified the internet story put fourth by Sid Terror as debunked and put it to rest. Dan, whom I now know as Daniel Titley, who is in the process of writing a book “London After Midnight Lost… and Found.” And who conducted his own investigation into the story, had spoken directly to a source who confirmed that the story of the film being found in a California film storage vault was false.
After we texted back and fourth. It became very apparent that Daniel was hot on the trail of something very special. And it seemed that he may have intimate knowledge of the location nineteen or twenty unseen frames of the film London After Midnight. I was immediately shocked and very excited. But I knew that I needed to vet Daniel’s claim very carefully.
I began an some internet research into the background of Daniels claim and found this posted online at https://archive.org/post/381659/possible-existance-of-london-after-midnight-on-tv-kinescope
“Poster: Danaftermidnight Date: May 16, 2019 9:33pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: possible existance of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT on tv kinescope
I’m a researcher of the film ever since I was a kid and have actually found 20 frames of the film along with other Chaney lost films, which proves my long standing theory/belief that the film is not totally lost. I’m currently working on a book to showcase them for the first time”
Dan then agreed to let me write an article about his findings. He and I then connected via Skype and we spoke at length about what he discovered. The following is a synopsis of our conversation.
Daniel is the son a life long avid film buff from who he drew his inspiration. He lives in Dudley U.K. He is also a collector of early horror and silent film memorabilia. Our conversation surely confirmed that we shared a deep passion for older film and in particularly, London After Midnight. I was impressed by Daniel who is twenty seven years old. He brought a fresh perspective and renewed energy to search London After Midnight.
Daniels home location, placed him in a unique position research London After Midnight. And he may have also confirmed that either part of the film or more may have been located in Europe. A fact which refutes earlier assumptions about the film not being located in a European film archive. Though no proof exists about such details. And the existence of a full reel of film have yet to be confirmed. It gives weight to the chances of the film being in a private collection. Chances that are very strong for multiple reasons. Including being out of the legal reach of the studios and the FBI.
During our conversation One piece of evidence was presented to me. What I saw was a picture that Daniel had taken of a single film cell. On that cell was an image of Lon Chaney in a top hat and long hair. For me it was a historic moment. But I knew that more evidence is needed to prove the case.
I asked Daniel about the search so far and he said;
“Well it wasn’t easy; I’d been searching for years for leads etc. and one day I became lucky when I learnt of a small film archive (the location I’m not permitted to give yet as I agreed with them I would announce it in my writing). So I traveled there and rummaged through their preserved collections as they told me they held pieces of Lon Chaney films to which they told
me they were donated over time. And that’s how I found the frames.”
Daniel also revealed that he received a special package of Lon Chaney related artifacts some of which pertained to the films “Thunder, When the City Sleeps and The Big City” All of the items were sent by the same anonymous donor.
“My God, man, this is the twentieth century – and here we are almost believing It!”
CASE NOT CLOSED
It would be a miracle to many film buffs all over the world if the case of London After Midnight was finally solved. Though, truth be told, We can only speculate about what’s actually on the horizon for London After Midnight. What we do know is that physical evidence has surfaced that moves beyond theory of conjecture. And that evidence suggests that it is in the realm of probability that additional film footage could have survived through the years. Though the longer the search takes,the less likely it will be that any of the film will survive. Silent movies of the day were filmed on nitrated film. A medium which is highly flammable and subject to a type of rot that fades and eats the film. In that case, the only hope would be that a copy was transferred to a more stable film type. It seems that we will have to wait for the book to be published before we learn about the findings of the investigation. Until then, we will keep searching!
Scary as Ever Yours