Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reconstructing Lost Film: London After Midnight (1927)

My film topic posted have now officially moved to Thursdays starting today. Enjoy!


Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is doing its Summer Under the Stars program this summer, which dedicates every day in August to showing movies strictly from one movie star each day. August 15th was Lon Chaney day and one of the films aired was the reconstruction of London After Midnight, which is one of the most sought after lost films. The only known surviving print burned in the 1967 MGM Studio Fire. As someone interested in film history, I had to check this out.

London After Midnight was reconstructed using more than 200 still photographs and a "complete continuity script" in 2002 (coinciding with the film's 75th anniversary) by filmmaker and archivist Rick Schmidlin. The film is considered to be one the "holy grails" of lost cinema for several reasons. First of all it starred Lon Chaney, the "man of a thousand faces" and was directed by Tod Browning who is most known for directing Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). The film was based on the Tod Browning original story, "The Hypnotist." December 17, 1927 was the premiere date for London After Midnight. Even though the film did well financially, critical reception at the time was mixed. Lon Chaney made ten movies with director Tod Browning and London After Midnight was the pair's highest grossing film. Below is a picture of Browning.

London After Midnight
was also the first American vampire film and influential on the imagery of vampires in popular culture (creepy eyes and teeth, plus a cape). One of the most interesting stories about this film is that in 1928 a man accused of murdering a woman in Hyde Park, London used the film as part of his defense. He claimed that Lon Chaney's performance drove him to temporary insanity. However, his excuse did not hold up in court as he was still convicted of the crime.

This reconstruction is almost like reading a comic book since we have still images and text, although obviously music was added. Being a silent film is advantageous to doing this type of reconstruction. With a sound film I'm not even sure how something like this could be done. Would you hire new actors to dub lines? At that point you are basically re-making the movie to some extent.

It's hard to judge the film itself based on this reconstruction as it is essentially a historical artifact to recreate the original for future generations in case it is never found. That said, Lon Chaney's vampire make-up is creepy even by today's standards. The praise he received for his ability to "become" other people in his acting and make-up is definitely deserved, and he played a dual role in this film. I liked the twist ending as it tied up everything and felt organic to the story and not forced like many twist endings often are. London After Midnight was re-made by Browning in 1935 as Mark of the Vampire (with Bela Lugosi as the vampire) which I am now interested in seeing. I wonder if Lon Chaney would have reprised his role as the vampire in the remake had he not died in 1930.

This is a fascinating re-creation of a film that is most likely (although hopefully not) lost to time and may be as close as we will ever get to the original. I know that there have been reconstructions of other lost films but I wonder if any of those films have eventually been found. If you have seen a reconstruction of this or any other lost film please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. If London After Midnight is ever found it would be interesting to compare the original with the reconstruction to see how close it came.

See the Reconstruction here at google video!

Come back Sunday for the weekly wrap-up!


  1. I've seen a reconstruction of a lost film. 1927's "Greed" was a 10 hour silent film that has butchered by its distributor to an hour and a half. It's lost footage is considered to be one of the most sought after in cinema history. A few decades ago, about four hours of additional lost footage was rediscovered. The version that I saw was a seven and a half hour reconstruction of the original featuring the original footage, the rediscovered footage, and movie stills. Definitely worth watching.

  2. Thanks for the input as this is the only reconstructed film I have seen. I find it interesting that Greed was reconstructed from a few different sources (original footage, re-discovered footage, stills) as opposed to London After Midnight which only had stills and the original script. I'll have to check out Greed sometime, when I get several hours!

  3. There's also Lost Horizon, from 1937. The first deleted scene Iin the plane) has perhaps the best speech in the film, but a lot of the rest of the inserts didn't add a great deal, in my opinion. I appreciated the effort though.

  4. Thanks for the comment L. Byron. I've never seen Lost Horizon but I'll have to watch it eventually. That case is a bit different at the film exists today, but in a different format than the original since it was cut when released. I always find it interesting to compare the original cut of a film to a director's cut or reconstructed cut.

  5. The 'Lost Horizon' restoration was to restore that Directors Cut, as I understand it. It was edited for time after initial release, and what landed on the floor was thrown out. It was reconstructed from several restored edited versions, depending on the quality of the reels and scenes. The stills were of course the fill in material for the original directors script and notes. Hope that helps.

  6. Hi Anonymous, thanks for elaborating. I still haven't seen Lost Horizon yet but will try to see it at some point!