On not finding London After Midnight

Lon Chaney in London After Midnight

When the news first starting buzzing across the wires that lost scenes from Metropolis has been discovered, many old hands in the film world suspected a hoax. There have been so many such bogus announcements, perpetrated by the naive, the over-optimistic, and – increasingly – the fraudulent. It is so easy to create a narrative, a plausible history bolstered up with links, pictures and air of expert knowledge, and then to have such rumours speed around the world, finding out the credulous.

The amazing thing about Metropolis, and the discovery last year of Bardelys the Magnificent, is that the rumours were true – the lost films had indeed been found. But the lost silent film that is most subject to fantasies of discovery, and which indeed probably comes at the top of many silent film buffs’ wish list of films that they would love to see discover, is London After Midnight. And today the rumours have gone flying around following a rambling but insistent account on a horror film forum that the 1927 Lon Chaney horror film had been found (the argument is that MGM had been hiding it under its alternative release title, The Hypnotist). Of course it hadn’t, as should be obvious to anyone with grain of sense who reads it – it’s riddled with naiveties and fantasies.

The last known print of London After Midnight is believed to have been destroyed in a vault fire at MGM in 1967. Ever since then the rumours have circulated that a print had survived somehow: that a 16mm copy was in secret circulation, that one or other of the renowned collectors was sitting on a print (not daring to announce its existence for fear of losing it to rights-holders MGM), that MGM itself was sitting on material that for assorted mysterious reasons it had chosen to suppress. Or, in the case of this most recent claim, that MGM was somehow unaware of what was lying on its own shelves.

This basic history you can get from Michael Gebert’s London After Midnight Myths pages (though beware that the first few pages do their best to tease the unsuspecting with ‘evidence’ that might indicate the film does exist). It is true that you can find London After Midnight on the TCM schedules every now and then, and on DVD accompanying Chaney’s The Unknown, but this is a 45-minute compilation by Rick Schmidlin of extant stills, recreating therefore what the film looked like. Until a print turns up one day to expose all the so-called experts to ridicule – who knows, as Metropolis has shown, it might be in South America – the Schmidlin recreation is the nearest to this most celebrated of all lost silent films that we have.

For more on lost films, see Moving Image Collections’ Lost Films list, the Deutsche Kinematek’s Lost Films wiki and Silent Era’s Presumed Lost section. And continue to dream.

11 responses

  1. I think the guy’s account of finding the film actually sounds sensible. The thing that he says that makes it sound like something’s wrong is when he mentions that after he called the print to attention, TCM was intending to air the film but then cancelled it. That sounds like maybe when they went to look the film over, it either wasn’t what he said it was or else actually was incomplete like they had originally said. A couple people who know the guy have come forward or been contacted by folks writing articles about this story, and say the fellow claiming to have found the print is a reliable fellow. He probably at least believes he’s found the print, whether or not that turns out to be the case. I think his goal is really to get someone to look for the film again so it can be copied, regardless what the canister actually contains (a lost silent called The Hyponotist or a partial reel of London After Midnight would still be very valuable finds and definitely need preserving.)

  2. I would love to be proved wrong and get laughed at along with all the other cynics, but I’m just not convinced. The rambling narrative has some interest, and is no doubt based to some degree on personal history – and may in most respects be absolutely sincere. But…

    1. MGM would have undertaken the most thorough search for the film before now, and would not have overlooked the possibility that it might have been lurking all that while under its British release title. Ditto Rick Schmidlin, who produced the stills-only ‘restoration’
    2. A print-checker would not have pronounced a film incomplete because it seemed too short by eye alone (the reels would be numbered) – and in any case, a late silent like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT would more likely be shot at 22 or 24fps, not 18.
    3. The original incident described took place – if it did took place – in the 1980s. So he’s waited two decades to tell his story?
    4. American Movie Classics is not produced by Turner
    5. Where’s the evidence of the TV schedule that announced a screening of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT in the early 1990s, before it was supposedly withdrawn?
    6. And then there’s just the hackneyed tale of the big studio not knowing or caring what might be lying on the shelves and only the humble amateur being able to spot what the big guys had missed, and then being ignored or laughed at for his pains. It’s been told too many times.

    The problem with these stories is that the writer can’t lose. If the film is found (and when are they ever found in narratives such as these?) then the author was right. If they are not found, then that just proves the conspiracy. The cans are out there, somewhere…

  3. Urbanora,

    The author of this article is not the first or only person making the claim that it was once scheduled for television. There is an entire thread on the IMDB page for London After Midnight that was started months before this article came out. Many people remember seeing LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT announced and scheduled, then never to be shown.

    The thing that gets me about all the critics and conspiracy buffs that have come out against this article is that they so often rely on conjecture and unsubstantiated facts themselves. They should not be believed as their statements are not cut from whole cloth, whereas the author of this article has been a known public figure that has been respected in the film community for decades.

    Certainly there have been hoaxes in the past, but they had an entirely different temperature than this article. The author has stated specific names, addresses, and tried to even narrow down dates. That is more than we have ever been offered before. Regarding hoaxes, this is reminding me of the story of the boy who repeatedly cried wolf… Now that there is a real wolf in the house, some people don’t want to believe it, and they might just get bitten on the ass.

  4. This particular debate, from all that I’ve read, has gone beyond rational assessment of the evidence to becoming an article of faith. Either one believes that the film must exist somewhere, or one does not. Of course it might exist somewhere – it’s just that this particular story, for all its attempt to convince through narrative detail, offers not a shred of actual evidence. It might be true – anything might be true – but it won’t stand up in court. The critics you disparage are simply those who are exercising proper scepticism, which anyone with any responsibility ought to demonstrate in such circumstances.

    If someone can come up concrete evidence that LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT was scheduled for a television screening some years ago, that would be a start (though of itself it might prove nothing except some clerical blunder). But no one has, so far as I know i.e. come up with a printed schedule, rather than a vague memory.

    It’s perfect possible that a copy of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT could be lurking neglected in an archive somewhere, and I would rejoice along with everyone else if it did turn up. It’s just that this current story, sincere as it may be, is fundamentally a fantasy. If the film exists, it’s somewhere else.

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  6. Figure it this way… LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is one of the most famous, if not THE most famous, lost film in history. Anyone sitting on a print stands to make a fortune, but only after MGM’s copyright expires in 2022 (the film’s original publication date of 1927 plus 95 years). The most anyone can say for sure now is that MGM no longer has a print. So, we probably won’t see anything until 2022 at the earliest, if a print is in a private collection somewhere, which is anyone’s guess.

  7. Well, we’ll just have to wait then. Thirteen years isn’t too long. Doubt that anyone will make their fortune out of it though – has anyone ever made much money out of a rediscovered silent? And who will want to watch silent films by 2022…?

  8. Dear Forum,

    One quick question: If London After Midnight was filmed in 1927 and destroyed in 1965, how come copies were not made in that 40 year period and why was it not shown on TV?


  9. A print and negative were in existence to 1955, when the print was has inspected by MGM. There was a then vault fire at MGM around 1967 which is believed to have destroyed both. Multiple prints would originally have been made, of course, but MGM were assiduous in gathering up prints once they’d come to the end of their distribution run. For their own archive purposes, they only needed a print and camera negative, which seems to have been all that they kept. Of course, that doesn’t preclude a print being out there somewhere – it’s just that one has never come to light.

    Why it wasn’t shown on TV I don’t know, except that silent feature films generally didn’t get shown on US TV in the 1950s.

    More info here: http://www.michaelgebert.com/lam/lam8.html

  10. 1. Obtain the original screenplay. 2. Using the remaining still photos, recreate the movie according to the screenplay by using computer generated imagery. And make some stuff up if you need to. It won’t be the same as the original, but it’s better than nothing

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