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?