Lon’s Legendary Lost London

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Released 3 December 1927 and directed by Tod Browning, London After Midnight is among the Holy Grail of lost films. It was last known to have been screened sometime in the 1950s. Like hundreds of other silents (and some early sound films), its last known surviving print was destroyed in the horrific fire in MGM’s Vault #7 on 13 May 1967.

LAM was filmed in a record 24 days, with a budget of $151,666.14, making it the cheapest and quickest of Lon’s MGM films. While the U.S. gross was $721,000, its international earnings were below par. Overall, it turned a profit of $540,000, and ranked as MGM’s #4 film of the 1927–28 season. It was also the tenth-highest earner  of 1927 overall. This was one of Lon’s highest-earning films ever.

But was it really that good?

Contemporary audiences, critics and laypeople alike, weren’t particularly impressed. Even those who were among the very last to see it in the 1950s were underwhelmed. Lon’s incredible acting talents were highly praised, as usual, but the actual story was widely panned.

A frequent point of criticism was that the story was nonsensical and incoherent. Other reviewers called it boring, trying too hard, lacking characters the audience could connect with, lacking the weird atmosphere of The Cat and the Canary, and a wasted effort.

A rare, consistently positive review came from The Film Daily, which found the film marvellously creepy and unsettling.

Roger Balfour (Claude King) is found dead from a suspected shooting suicide. Though his friend and neighbor Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall) insists Roger couldn’t possibly have killed himself, Inspector Edward C. Burke of London Yard (Lon) officially rules the death a suicide.

Five years later, a creepy man with pointed teeth and black clothes (Lon in a dual role) arrives at the Balfour home, accompanied by a woman who looks like a corpse and also dresses all in black (Edna Tichenor). These two strangers’ arrival inspires Hamlin to call Scotland Yard.

Inspector Burke discovers three of the people in the house were the only three present when Roger died. These are Roger’s daughter Lucille (Marceline Day), his butler Williams (Percy Williams), and Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). Hibbs is the nephew of the man who made the call to Scotland Yard.

At first, Burke doesn’t believe any of them were involved, but then Roger’s body disappears from his tomb. Even weirder, his dead ringer appears in the house. Other creepy happenings include gunshots heard in Roger’s old bedroom when Burke is there, bats flying around, and the creepy visitor terrifying everyone.

Burke finds the killer by recreating the crime scene and hypnotizing the guilty party into re-enacting the murder.

In 1928, Marie Coolidge-Rask published a novelization of the film. In 1935, Tod Browning remade LAM as The Mark of the Vampire, with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi.

A man who murdered a woman in London’s Hyde Park in 1928 claimed LAM made him do it, by driving him temporarily insane. He supposedly didn’t remember taking out the razor or using it on his victim. His plea was rejected, and he was convicted.

LAM has been referenced in popular culture a number of times over the years. These references include the name of a card game with the theme of classic horror movies, the name of an industrial-goth-rock band, and the lyrics of the song “Bodom After Midnight.”

In 2002, film preservationist and scholar Rick Schmidlin produced a 45-minute stills recreation. I’ve counted this on my list of silents seen, making note of the fact that it’s a recreation and not the actual film. I always note if something is a home movie, stills recreation, trailer, advertisement, newsreel, or surviving reel of a lost film.

In spite of LAM’s lackluster reviews, I’d still love to see it as an actual moving picture. Given Lon’s incredible acting talents, I can’t imagine it’s worse than some of the awful doozies on my list. I keep hoping all these famous lost films are found someday.

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A circus of horrors in Madrid

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Released 4 June 1927, The Unknown is one of ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s so deliciously macabre, and features Lon’s specialty, a character who’s outside the norm in some way. Lon usually played social outsiders, people with great emotional pain and/or traumatic pasts, people who were physically disfigured, anything that made them different from the others.

In The Unknown, he plays armless knife-thrower Alonzo. Or is he really armless?

Alonzo keeps his arms tightly-bound to his torso, something only his friend Cojo knows. Because Alonzo has a double thumb on his left hand, displaying his arms would mean giving away his true identity as a criminal.

There’s also another reason he keeps his arms hidden—he’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), who’s terrified of being touched by men. She only loves and trusts Alonzo because he doesn’t have any arms and hands to hold and paw her. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines and guess the reason for this fear.

Also in the circus is Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), a rival for Nanon’s affections. He’s extremely determined to win her affections, but Nanon’s fear of men and Alonzo’s equal determination to win Nanon are working against him.

Alonzo turns Nanon against Malabar by telling him he has the strength and arms Nanon loves. Alonzo urges him to take Nanon in his arms and confess his love, which produces anything but the desired reaction.

Alonzo gets into a fight with Nanon’s father Zanzi, the head of the circus, and kills him. Nanon sees this from her window, but only sees the murderer from behind.

The authorities realize Zanzi’s strangler was the same man who committed other crimes, but since Alonzo has no demonstrable hands to take fingerprints from, he escapes suspicion.

The rest of the circus leaves town after Zanzi’s demise, but Alonzo stays in town with Nanon, Malabar, and Cojo. Alonzo says he wants to take her away from everything she hates.

Alonzo has new hope after Nanon hugs and kisses him, but Cojo warns him to not let that happen again. The next time, Nanon might feel the arms under his shirt.

Alonzo insists Nanon would forgive him, even if she saw his arms on their wedding night, but Cojo reminds him she’d still see that double thumb.

Cojo laughs at Alonzo for smoking with his feet when he has arms, and a macabre revelation hits him. His body language gives his thoughts away, and Cojo warns him not to do it, but Alonzo is determined to have Nanon.

The horror only increases from there.

Lon often put himself through grueling physical pain to convincingly play his characters, in an era before CGI. This film was no exception. However, while his arms really were bound to his torso, real-life armless sideshow performer Paul Desmuke was the one really doing things with his feet.

In some shots, Desmuke doubled for Lon; in others, he perfectly synchronized his legs with Lon’s body.

While The Unknown is widely praised today, and considered one of Lon and Tod’s best collaborations, contemporary reviewers were much less impressed. We often can’t predict which films will stand the test of time, quickly become dated, or be rediscovered and re-evaluated decades later.

For many years, the film was lost, until its miraculous 1968 rediscovery in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris. Its rediscovery may be an important clue in finding other lost films. Then as now, most films’ titles were translated for foreign markets, and this film’s French title is L’Inconnu. Hundreds of other films in the archive were labelled as such too, because their contents were unknown.

Might there be other films hiding in plain sight with unexpected titles?

A mad doctor’s bargain

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Released 3 December 1922, A Blind Bargain is one of approximately 100 of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s lost films, out of the 157 he made. While the vast majority of his lost films are from his pre-stardom years (1912–19), many of his stardom-era films are lost as well.

Many of Lon’s films, and other silents and early sound films, were destroyed in a horrific fire on 13 May 1967. Nitrate is highly flammable, and stands no chance when it comes in contact with flames. An electrical fire in MGM’s Vault #7 destroyed hundreds of films that day.

This is why film preservation is so most vitally important, as is always backing up our work. There should always be at least two copies of something, and storage conditions should never be careless. It’s easier to put a nitrate film onto safety stock, or back up a file, than it is to restore a damaged product or rewrite entire sections.

A Blind Bargain was based on British writer Barry Pain’s 1897 novel The Octave of Claudius. From the synopses I’ve read of both, it seems like the film stayed fairly close to the book’s basic storyline. One change from the novel was that Dr. Lamb’s nurse and butler became two of his macabre human experiments. The film also seems to have done away with the soap opera-esque storylines of many secondary characters.

Unsuccessful writer Robert Sandell (Raymond McKee), hurting over his mother’s poor health and his lack of publishing success, attacks and tries to rob theatregoer Dr. Arthur Lamb (Lon). Instead of having him arrested, Dr. Lamb takes Robert to his New York home and asks him to tell his story.

Dr. Lamb, a mad scientist, agrees to give Robert’s mother an operation on one condition—Robert must submit himself for experiments at the end of eight days (hence the word “octave” in the source novel’s title). Robert agrees, since he’ll do anything to save his mother.

Robert and his mother move into Dr. Lamb’s home, where they’re closely watched by Dr. and Mrs. Lamb. Also watching Robert is a hunchback (Lon in a dual role) who’s the result of one of Dr. Lamb’s experiments. So anxious is Dr. Lamb to experiment on Robert, he butters him up by giving him large amounts of cash enabling him to live high off the hog and impress all the people who wrote him off.

Dr. Lamb also arranges for Robert’s book to be published through Wytcherly, who runs a publishing company. Predictably, Robert falls in instalove with Wytcherly’s daughter Angela.

Mrs. Lamb, who’s been driven crazy by her husband’s experiments, and the hunchback warn Robert about Dr. Lamb’s true intentions. They also show him a strange underground vault containing an operating room and a tunnel of cages. Held prisoner in the cages are victims of Dr. Lamb’s experiments.

In addition to creating the hunchback and the people in the cages, Dr. Lamb’s experiments also killed his infant child.

With one day left to go, Robert tries to buy his way out of the bargain with his newfound publishing royalties. Dr. Lamb, terrified Robert will escape, drags him into the underground vault and ties him to the operating table.

His evil plans are foiled when Mrs. Lamb rescues Robert and the hunchback releases a cage door which brings Dr. Lamb to a most horrible end at the hands of an ape-man (Wallace Beery). This ape-man is yet another of Dr. Lamb’s monstrous experiments.

Robert returns home as a successful author, with Angela waiting for him by their wedding ceremony.

The film met with a standing ovation after its première by NYC’s Capitol Theater. Critics praised the film highly, particularly Lon’s dual role.

The film was beautifully tinted and toned in colors including straw amber, night amber, blue tint, blue tone, flesh tint, light lavender, and green tint. There was also a sequence colored with the Handschiegl process, featuring multicolored bubbles at a party.

In 1925, Raymond McKee (Robert) played a hunchback in Free to Love (which co-stars Clara Bow). This character was directly influenced by A Blind Bargain.

The Phantom of the Opera, Part II (Behind the Scenes)

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The second film version of The Phantom of the Opera is rightly one of the most famous silent films, even among folks who haven’t seen nearly as many silents as I have to date (951). It’s also one of the classics of horror cinema, and one of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s most famous roles. Indeed, the image of Lon as the Phantom most closely matches the description given in Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel. The film made over two million dollars during its original 1925 theatrical run.

Lon was working for Universal Pictures at the time, and the studio’s president, Carl Laemmle, met Gaston Leroux during a Parisian holiday in 1922. When Laemmle mentioned how much he admired the Paris Opera House, Leroux gave him a copy of the novel. Laemmle read it in a single night, and bought the film rights for Lon. Production commenced in late 1924, with Rupert Julian directing.

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The cast and crew didn’t get along very well with Mr. Julian, and the previews of January 1925 didn’t go over very well. As a result, Mr. Julian quit, and Edward Sedgwick was called in to redirect and rework the majority of the film. New scenes were also written. In the film’s second incarnation, it became more of a romantic comedy with action sequences, no longer a dramatic thriller. Several subplots were also added.

The second preview, in April 1925, also didn’t go over very well. The audience reportedly booed it off the screen, and reviewers felt it were too long and boring.

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The third and final attempt at making the film came from Lois Weber and Maurice Pivar, who had their work cut out for them with editing. (FYI: I now realize the above hyperlinked post about Lois Weber has certain spots which are rather strongly, obnoxiously POV, and sound kind of unprofessional. I’m glad my writing style has since evolved past that, though to be fair, that post was edited down from an even more POV post on my old Angelfire page.)

Anyway, most of Sedgwick’s material was redacted, though the ending was retained. Much of Mr. Julian’s original material was then edited back in. However, some important characters and scenes were still missing. This final version débuted by Broadway’s Astor Theatre on 6 September 1925, the première was 17 October in Hollywood, and the general release was 25 November. After all that hard work, it was a huge success with audiences, though some critics still felt it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.

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Lon did his own makeup as always, and kept it a secret all during filming. Audiences also didn’t know what was coming, as there were no pictures of him as the Phantom released. Many audiences reportedly screamed or fainted when they saw the unmasking, magnified on a huge screen. If you have the opportunity, there’s nothing quite like seeing a silent film as it was intended, on the big screen, with a great soundtrack.

Lon first appears as a shadow against a wall, and the next two times he appears, we only see his hand, until finally we meet the masked Phantom. It’s worth paying attention to how he uses his hands when he acts, since he knew how to talk with his hands before he could speak. His parents were both Deaf-mutes, so his first language was ASL. It was little wonder expressing such a wide variety of emotions through just body language came so naturally to him.

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The differences between the 1925 original, the 1929 silent reissue, and the 1930 sound reissue (of which only the soundtrack discs survive, and on which Lon’s voice doesn’t appear) are too long and detailed to get into here. Suffice it to say, until recently, many people have been more familiar with the 1929 version than the 1925 original, though the original is the one I prefer. However, only the later version retains any of the Technicolor sequences. The only surviving Technicolor sequence is the masked ball. The Phantom’s red cape in the roof scene was also hand-colored with the Handschiegl color process.

The Phantom of the Opera, Part I (General overview)

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As promised, I’ve saved the very best for last!

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The Phantom of the Opera, released 25 November 1925, is perhaps the best-known of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s films, and the reason he’s largely (but incorrectly) thought of as a horror actor in the modern era. This was the second film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of the same name. The first film adaptation was a 1916 German film which is now lost.

Unless you live under a rock, I’m assuming you’ve read the book, seen at least one film adaptation, and/or seen at least one stage adaptation. However, it’s always nice to recap the general storyline, particularly since the 1925 version differs from the 1930 reissue with some synchronized sound, as well as a 1929 silent reissue.

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The Paris Opera House has just begun its new season, and young hopeful Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) is singing in Faust. Her sweetheart, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), attends with his brother in the hopes of hearing Christine sing. Christine has quickly risen to become the understudy of Madame Carlotta, the opera’s star. During the performance, Raoul visits Christine in her dressing room and asks her when she’s going to marry him. Christine says not yet, since she’s compelled by a strange force to remain in the opera.

This is the opera’s most prosperous season, but the management inexplicably resigns midway through. They tell the new managers of the opera ghost, and provide a few details about this mysterious creature. The new managers have a good laugh, and don’t take the warnings seriously. Meanwhile, mysterious things start happening in the cellars, and Carlotta receives a note signed by “The Phantom,” demanding Christine replace Carlotta in the show. If this request isn’t met, bad things will happen.

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Raoul meets Christine in the gardens and begs her to reconsider, and she admits what we just saw, that she’s being mentored by a strange voice who promises to advance her career. Raoul refuses to believe this is on the level, and Christine angrily stalks off.

Carlotta falls ill, and Christine indeed takes her place. During the show, the managers go into Box #5 and see a shadowy figure, just as they were told. The show is otherwise a success, and Raoul tries to convince Christine again when it’s over. She pretends not to know him because her unseen mentor is present, and Raoul leaves and lurks outside the door. Raoul hears this strange voice talking to her and even making romantic overtures, but when he enters the room again, Christine is gone.

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The next evening, Carlotta defies the Phantom’s orders and appears in the show. This was a fatal mistake, as the great chandelier falls onto the audience. Christine escapes to her dressing room, and is transported to the Phantom’s lair through her mirror. Her mentor declares his love, says his name is Erik, and gives her instructions to never remove his mask. Of course, Christine can’t help herself, and unmasks him not long afterwards.

The unmasking is one of the all-time greatest moments of horror cinema, and Mary Philbin’s shock and horror aren’t all acting. Lon kept his Phantom makeup a secret all during filming, so she had no idea what she was about to see when she pulled off that mask.

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Erik has pity on Christine, and lets her visit the other world one more time before returning to be his eternal prisoner, on condition she not see Raoul. Christine attends a masked ball, which Erik attends as Red Death, from the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Masque of the Red Death.” Christine defies orders by finding Raoul, and they go to the roof, where she tells him what’s happened. A mysterious man in a fez shows them to another exit, so Erik can’t find them. Unbeknownst to them, Erik was up there spying on them and already knows everything.

Erik’s voice returns to Christine in her dressing room the next evening, informing her he knows all about her secret plans. Raoul has a carriage waiting to take Christine away after the show, but Erik beats him to it and abducts her during a blackout.

Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, 1925.

Raoul goes to rescue Christine, with the help of the mysterious man in the fez, who finally reveals himself as Ledoux, an undercover cop who’s been investigating Erik for a long time. But it’s not going to be easy to find Christine, rescue her, and escape Erik’s underworld lair, as obstacles are encountered every step of the way.