electricsheep

London after Midnight

The literary history of Hollywood’s first vampire movie

London After Midnight

Book cover for London after Midnight by Graham Humphreys

A 1920s pulp novelisation is the sort of book that you’d expect to find with a cracked cover and torn yellow pages at a collectors’ fair, rather than see lovingly republished in a tactile and tantalisingly limited edition. But in an era of mass-produced paperbacks and digital text, it’s not just Penguin Classics and the Folio Society but small presses such as the newly formed Imaginary Book Company that are keeping alive the beautiful body of the well-designed hardback. Their edition of London after Midnight is a rare beast indeed: a hybrid of the British and American versions of the novelisation of Hollywood’s first and long-lost vampire film, it illuminates one of the holy grails of silent cinema, reminds us of the connection between the detective genre and the supernatural, and repositions the debates about the merits of fan fiction and spin-offs almost a century before E.L. James’s Twilight homage, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Described by Jonathan Coe as ‘that bastard, misshapen offspring of the cinema and the written word’, the novelisation has usually been a derided form. It has existed alongside cinema since the early years of feature-length movies, to augment the commercial success of a film by satisfying the fans’ desire for more – to relive the experience, to expand upon it. But who buys these things anyway? Geeks and nerds (specialists), or relatives who don’t know what the cool kids really want for Christmas? My teenage enthusiasm for David Lynch’s film of The Elephant Man extended to the gift (or purchase? I don’t remember) of its novelisation by Christine Sparks (Futura, 1980), who in the 1970s-80s wrote diverse novelisations – Yanks, The Good Life, The Enigma Files, Open All Hours – before her bibliographic trail runs cold. The back cover claims the book was ‘based on the life of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and not upon the Broadway play or any other fictional account’. Eight pages of production photographs in the middle of the novel are given captions, not to credit the actors and name the characters (e.g. ‘Anne Bancroft as Mrs Kendal’) but as if they were part of a biographical story written in the present tense (‘Befriended by Mrs Kendal, Merrick’s future seems bright with hope…’). Novelisations still exist, mainly as franchises for the younger market – although Hammer have recently revitalised their publishing arm – but the advent of home entertainment in the 1980s and particularly the greater capacity of DVD by the early 21st century challenged their reason to exist as video made ownership of the movie possible, and in a format that expands on the original experience by including not just stills galleries but additional material such as commentaries, interviews, documentaries and deleted scenes.

We’ve rapidly become used to the accessibility of almost every film, on DVD or via the internet, so the prospect of being unable to track down or revisit a movie feels like a thing of the past, like smallpox or infant mortality. The destruction of the 1927 film of London after Midnight in an archive fire took out a work that, even if it was not to be the best of director Tod Browning or star Lon Chaney (but who’s to know, now that it can never be reassessed?), would remain a thing of fascination, thanks to the enduring popularity of the Gothic sensibility in film and literature, and the fact that its creators were between them responsible for many of the defining moments of cinematic grotesque.

Born in 1880 (probably) and having escaped from an eccentric Louisville, Kentucky family at the turn of the century, Tod Browning began his career literally buried alive in the world of carnival sideshows and vaudeville. In the burgeoning silent film industry he made dozens of movies, his superior knowledge of the canon of British Gothic literature inspiring his work and establishing his reputation as cinema’s Edgar Allan Poe. In 1919 producer Irving Thalberg paired Browning with actor Lon Chaney for their first film together, The Wicked Girl, a silent melodrama. Born Leonidas Frank Chaney on 1 April 1883, Chaney was the child of deaf parents who became a skilled mime and vaudevillian actor and was later known for his transformative skills in such iconic roles as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). He would make 10 films with Browning, including circus story The Unholy Three (a silent version in 1925, remade as Chaney’s only sound film in 1930) and The Unknown (1927), in which he plays Alonzo the Armless, a knife-throwing sideshow freak in a love triangle. London after Midnight was to be Browning and Chaney’s next film.

The Unknown

The Unknown

After the MGM archive fire of May 1967 all that was left of London after Midnight was the production stills, and to mark the film’s 75th anniversary in 2002 Turner Classic Movies commissioned film preservationist Rick Schmidlin to produce a 45-minute long photo-film based on nearly 200 stills edited according to the film’s continuity script to give a sense of what it could have been like. Available as an extra on Warners’ Lon Chaney Collection DVD box-set, the photo-film is well constructed but unavoidably feels repetitious, stagey and stilted. The plot revolves around private detective and hypnotist ‘Professor’ Burke, who is called to investigate the apparent suicide of Sir James Hamlin’s friend Roger Balfour and uncovers a nest of vampires in a decrepit mansion before revealing the identity of the murderer. Neither particularly lyrical nor mysterious in its own right (in contrast to that most famous of photo-films, Chris Marker’s La jetée, for example), this version of London after Midnight very much leaves the viewer with the impression that the real story lies elsewhere, in what cannot be seen. A shooting script doesn’t convey much more than the bare bones of the narrative because it is the prose that evokes the spirit of a story, in the same way that production stills can barely begin to capture the complexities of performance, and the abbreviated dialogue of silent film intertitles (credited here to MGM titles writer Joe Farnham – ‘Brevity was his Bible’) can only say so much.

We know that many of even the earliest films were based on stage shows or books, such as Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow’s 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland or the silent adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays and Charles Dickens’s novels because the titles have become literary classics. But it can still be a surprise to discover that a well-known film was based on a forgotten book, or realise that Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser-known silent feature The Manxman (1929) was based on a bestselling novel of 1894 by Hall Caine, largely a forgotten name now but in his day a wildly popular writer associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Then – as now – the studio machine turned over a vast amount of material, and it could be both quicker and more reliable to adapt a novel than to generate completely new screenplays. And in marketing terms, the odds of investing in the adaptation and production of a better-known entity are greater than the chances of going for something more obscure. But what if the story that the filmmaker wants to tell belongs to someone else and can’t be bought?

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula had not been an immediate best-seller, but the reviews were good and its reputation grew steadily during the early part of the 20th century. In 1921 German director F.W. Murnau directed an unauthorised first adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu eine Symphonie des Grauens, demonstrating that the haunted screen of silent expressionist cinema and folkloric supernatural subject matter were spectacular bed-fellows, and setting the ground rules for the next century’s worth of Gothic film imagery. Scripted by Henrik Galeen – also responsible for The Golem (1915) and The Student of Prague (1926) – the plots of Nosferatu and Dracula are very similar, their differences being name changes, the setting (from Britain in the 1890s to Germany in 1838) and the omission of secondary characters. There are also some subtle variations in vampire behaviour, for example Nosferatu’s Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck) does not create other vampires, but kills his victims, which the townsfolk blame on the plague. Whereas Count Dracula is only weakened by sunlight, Orlok sleeps by day because sunlight will kill him – and he is ultimately destroyed at sunrise by a woman’s sacrifice.

Nosferatu Symphony des Grauens

Nosferatu eine Symphonie des Grauens

Dracula was adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Hamilton Deane in 1924, and opened at the Little Theatre in London’s West End on 14 February 1927. As Stoker’s widow had successfully sued Murnau for plagiarism and the film rights to Dracula remained unavailable, by the spring of that year Browning had written an original story, ‘The Hypnotist’. It was cloaked in the studio-friendly detective story, this literary genre having emerged strongly during the mid-19th century due to the popularity of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and its narrative compatibility with both stage and screen. The machinations of the detective story meant that the audience wasn’t asked to believe in the ‘horrible impossible’ but in the plausibility of the horrible possible. In 1924 Conan Doyle published ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, a short story that plays upon the fear of vampires within a domestic setting as a man suspects his wife of sucking the blood from their baby son’s neck. Holmes investigates and debunks the vampire theory, finding the culprit to be the man’s crippled older son who has been jealously shooting poisoned darts at his baby half-brother, the infant’s mother having extracted the poison by sucking it out of the wound. Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism had developed around the same time as his creation of Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century (1886-87), but he generally kept the two separate. As a doctor, Conan Doyle was also fascinated by experiments in healing and thought transference through mesmerism and hypnotism. Hypnotism had not been part of Stoker’s original novel, but was introduced into the stage play of Dracula, as by the 1920s the phenomenon had become increasingly popular as a compelling method for detecting the truth, with currency not just in stage entertainment but in self-knowledge (Freud was an enthusiastic proponent of hypnotherapy before developing psychoanalysis) and criminology. Hypnotism became the lynchpin of Browning’s story.

Scripted by Waldemar Young (who also wrote The Unholy Three and The Unknown), ‘The Hypnotist’/London after Midnight was sufficiently different from Dracula to avoid charges of plagiarism while retaining enough similarities to satisfy blood-thirsty audiences turned on by the Count. The familiar Gothic iconography of haunted houses, cobwebbed rooms, howling wolves and swirling mists, but more specifically the bats and fangs and bitten necks, also the business of estate rental and the stock characters of the ineffectual clerk and his pure bride, root London after Midnight in Dracula’s territory. The film began shooting on 24 July 1927 for a month, and Browning came in a week under schedule on a budget of $152,000. Meanwhile Hamilton Deane’s play had been rewritten by John L. Balderston for its Broadway debut on 5 October 1927, starring the Hungarian classical stage actor Bela Lugosi (born Béla Ferenc Dezs&#245 Blaskó, 1882). The play would run for over two hundred performances before touring the country, warming up the audience for Browning’s film, which opened in the States in December 1927, with the novelisation on sale soon after in 1928.

Marie Coolidge-Rask was a hack journalist formerly of the Pittsburgh Press (Illustrated Magazine Section), who the year before had authored the book versions of King Vidor’s La Boheme, starring Lillian Gish, and Sparrows, starring Mary Pickford (both 1926). It seems that the first version of Young’s script was probably the basis for her novelisation of London after Midnight for US photo-play edition publisher Grosset & Dunlap, and that she would have been unlikely to have seen Browning’s finished film in advance of writing. The differences between Rick Schmidlin’s photo-film, which has Joe Farnham’s titles and is based on Young’s second-version script, dated 16 July 1927 (reprinted along stills of the excised scenes in Philip J. Riley’s 1985 book London after Midnight, although the 2011 version of it instead uses a facsimile script dated 21 July 1927 of almost identical content), and Marie Coolidge-Rask’s novelisation are, if not like night to day, then certainly revealing of a substantial literary reworking of the basic story and the procedural whodunit.

Coolidge-Rask developed the family melodrama as the framework for her story. The lonely widower Roger Balfour has committed suicide, leaving his two young children, Harry and Lucy, to be adopted by his friend and neighbour, Sir James Hamlin. Balfour House is left empty to rot. The children’s future seems assured, but five years later after an argument about the renovation of the property, Harry is found dead in the neglected grounds of Balfour House, with small wounds in his throat. Strange tenants have moved into the decrepit Balfour House, and Lucy, the last of the Balfours, can hear her name being called from beyond the trees. Unlike some other early cinema novelisations, Coolidge-Rask’s introduces not so much a sense of colour and life – it remains a black and white tale of the un-dead – but a great deal of atmospheric sound into what would have been a silent film accompanied only by a small orchestra or lone pianist. The pages reverberate with howling banshees, screaming maids and the clatter of a black cat knocking over saucepans in the kitchen chaos of a household descending into panic. There are streams of dialogue, much of which is colloquially written to give a strong sense of individual voices, particularly those of the lower classes.

The book features subtle changes to names and relationships. For example, in the photo-film Sir James has a nephew called Arthur Hibbs, who is referred to as ‘Jerry’ by Lucy in the script while the novelisation has a secretary named Jeremiah Hibbs. The photo-film shows that Harry’s death was cut from the final movie, but it’s there as the opening scenes of the script; meanwhile the book dwells upon Harry’s disappearance and the discovery of his corpse with the mysterious marks on its neck as key moments within the story. Coolidge-Rask also amplifies the central character of Colonel Yates, the occult expert recently returned from India with a head full of ancient beliefs and a fistful of charms. While the shooting script and photo-film are clear that Burke and Yates are one and the same, in the book this is not revealed until the end. It’s likely that even if Browning and Young had initially conceived of wildly different triple roles for Chaney – the Scotland Yard Detective, the Man in the Beaver Hat, and Colonel Yates – this had proved too confusing for such a slender film. Although MGM was cabled by Scotland Yard during the production requesting more information about the film in order to give permission to use shots of its building, the shooting script shows that scenes 18-48 – apparently establishing Chaney as the Detective – were cut. The final film was just 65 minutes long.

London After Midnight1

London after Midnight

Famous as the actor with a thousand faces, Chaney excelled in multiple roles. But while the Scotland Yard detective of Coolidge-Rask’s novel cameos as a Machiavellian figure behind the scenes of the drama – almost like the writer or director of the picture itself –Chaney’s dour ‘Professor’ seems to have been a much less impactful character, allowing his stunning alter-ego, The Man in the Beaver Hat, to steal the show. Young’s script comments that when Burke (as Yates) fondly puts his hand to his cheek where Lucy has kissed him, ‘we have a feeling that if his life were to be lived over again he would like to have romance in it’. Meanwhile the vampire is ‘more ghost-like than human… twisted and mis-shapen. Mostly eyes and teeth’. His image scorched itself onto the audiences’ retinas and – like Malcolm McDowell’s psychopathic Alex in A Clockwork Orange decades later – became part of the popular imagination; Chaney was responsible, as always, for designing his own make-up, and the power of his top-hatted, pointy-toothed, ghoulish image was such that ‘he’ inspired a real-life murder in Hyde Park in 1928, of which The Times newspaper reported that ‘[the prisoner] thought he saw Lon Chaney, a film actor, in a corner, shouting and making faces at him. He did not remember taking a razor from his pocket, or using the razor on the girl or on himself’.

While Coolidge-Rask goes to town with the tropes of Gothic horror and revels in themes of drug addiction and alcoholism that would have not pleased the silent film censors, her representation of the subplot of paedophilia – Sir James’s unhealthy interest in the 13-year-old orphan Lucy – is no stronger in the book than in Young’s script or what we can see in the photo-film. Although in 1927 the film of London after Midnight was not subject to as much scrutiny as its subsequent remake, Mark of the Vampire – made after the enforcement of the 1934 Hays Code and cut on the grounds of incest – Coolidge-Rask seems to have had little interest in detailing the unedifying relationship, despite its pot-boiling potential.

Even given the pulp genre credentials of London after Midnight, today the novel also reads a little like historical true crime. With its crisp attention to the architecture of English country houses, awareness of class differences, portrayal of the ineptitude of the local police and a pervasive fear that the capacity for the ‘horrible possible’ could come from within the family itself, it’s not too much of stretch of the imagination to say that the pleasures of this surprising text could sit alongside those of Kate Summerscale’s best-selling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). For that reason, one hopes that Imaginary’s new edition – limited to just 300 copies – will find its way to public libraries, and not be snapped up and kept hidden away by private collectors. It certainly isn’t one for the Kindle, with its thick creamy pages and cobwebbed inlays, full of exquisite details such as the tiny image of a black bat printed at the end of each chapter and again in gold on the clothbound cover, hand-printed and stickered marks of authenticity and, incredibly, a die-cut Desmodontinae bookmark. The cover art image of Chaney’s Man in the Beaver Hat (by contemporary London-based graphic designer Graham Humphreys) evokes the illustrated film posters of the day but with a twist. In true novelisation style, this edition includes 15 pages of tobacco-tinted stills, the original Editor’s Note, a new introduction and, with some poignancy, the Times newspaper obituary of Lon Chaney, who died of throat cancer in 1930 aged 47.

Would Lon Chaney have played Dracula if he had lived? According to Philip J. Riley’s book Dracula Starring Lon Chaney (2010), the actor had indeed been in negotiations with Universal to play the Count (other sources speculate that he would have played the dual roles of Dracula and Van Helsing), despite recently signing a new contract with MGM and having agreed to a sound-version remake of The Unholy Three, albeit without Browning as director. Following the North American success of the stage play, Universal had acquired the screen rights from Stoker/Deane/Balderson for $40,000. For the script they had hired best-selling novelist (but film industry novice) Louis Bromfield, who’d won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his novel Early Autumn, teamed with screenwriter Dudley Murphy (co-director of Fernand Léger’s 1924 surrealist short Ballet Mécanique). The Browning biography Dark Carnival by David J. Skal and Elias Savada (1995) details Bromfield’s attempts to realise the first sound version and official adaptation of Dracula, and the fact that in the event, the final scenario for the film was written by Garrett Fort.

Browning was hired to direct, and, despite the fact that there seems to have been disagreement about the casting, he seems to have always favoured Bela Lugosi to reprise his 1927-28 stage role as the Count (Universal had reservations about the audience-pulling power of a non-American lead). Lugosi had recently appeared in Browning’s first sound film, The Thirteenth Chair (1929), also released in a silent version, as the uncanny Inspector Delzante who solves a murder mystery with the aid of a spirit medium. Some accounts of the making of Dracula have the previously meticulous (but now alcoholic) Browning in a state of distraction and despondency, discarding pages of the scripts and leaving much of the director’s vision to cinematographer Karl Freund, who worked through a translator and always wore white gloves – although the inexplicable appearance of some Texan nine-banded armadillos in Dracula’s Central European castle could only have been attributed to Browning. Skal and Savada assert that Browning and Freund would almost certainly have studied the print of Murnau’s Nosferatu captured by Universal, as there are numerous similarities between the two films, but Browning also ransacked his earlier work for ideas, notably London after Midnight.

Yet, strangely, while that silent era film inspired a novelisation that revelled in sound, Browning’s sound version of Dracula was a film of silences, almost devoid of music. Universal also prepared a silent version of the film for those cinemas not equipped for sound projection; the number of intertitles used in this version was more than twice that in The Unknown, which is testament to the fact that the plot had come to rely on dialogue. Lugosi had to rein in his stage techniques for the screen, while his limited fluency in English resulted in, as Skal and Savada state, ‘a highly mannered and oddly inflected style that become his trademark – and the very essence of vampire elocution’. When Terence Fisher came to make his 1958 version of Dracula for Hammer, Christopher Lee played the Count without speaking, as if to erase the traces of Lugosi (Hammer had perhaps not reckoned on Lee’s rich, aristocratic drawl being a perfect fit for a new kind of vampire antihero).

Dracula

Dracula (1931)

Dracula took two disorganised months to shoot, and by night producer Paul Kohner shot a rival Spanish-language production on the same sets with a completely different cast and crew, including director George Melford. Browning’s budget was $355,000 (it actually came in overspent at $441,000), Kohner’s a mere $68,000, but the latter emerged as technically superior. Browning was not allowed the final cut, and the studio trimmed the director’s version down by nearly 10 minutes. Dracula premiered on Thursday 12 February 1931 (ironically moved forward a day from the unlucky Friday 13), apocryphally advertised as ‘the strangest love story of them all’ as a counterpoint to St Valentine’s Day. Lugosi’s performance was almost universally praised and the film was a box office sensation, pulling in $1.2m worldwide and stabilising Universal’s finances to give the studio its only profitable year throughout the Great Depression. The film was uniquely frightening to audiences at a terrifying moment in social history, and thus marked a turning point in American cinema.

Although Browning subsequently horrified both his employers and the public with his extraordinary circus sideshow movie Freaks in 1932, MGM was in need of a horror film to rival Universal’s The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer’s adaption of Edgar Allan Poe’s story) and its upcoming Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale’s sequel to his 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. So Browning was hired again in 1935 to remake London after Midnight as Vampires of Prague or Mark of the Vampire, with a first version of the script by Guy Endore, whose 1933 novel Werewolf of Paris had been a ground-breaking best-seller. Numerous other writers contributed to the final version, including John L. Balderston, co-author of the stage version of Dracula. Lugosi was cast in just one of Chaney’s parts – that of the vampire, a caricature of Count Dracula. Lugosi and his much younger co-star Carroll Borland played their demonic father/daughter roles with great chemistry between them and were apparently oblivious to the fact that Browning had scripted an ending that revealed the vampires to be nothing more than actors. Fakes. The film is both highly derivative of Browning’s previous work, yet also in its own way innovative, as Borland’s character and performance created the prototype of the mute, yet hissing and growling, straight-haired female vampire that has haunted popular culture ever since. Production stills show Browning as a crumpled, broken figure; during filming his catch-phrase was ‘Lon Chaney would have done it better’. Unlike London after Midnight, Mark of the Vampire ran over schedule and budget. Despite being a sound film, like Dracula it was released without music, while Franz Waxman’s vital, atmospheric score for Bride of Frankenstein was the sweet music that underlined Universal’s triumph in the battle of the studio horrors.

Browning’s next film would be The Devil Doll (1936), inspired by fantasy writer Abraham Merritt’s dark arts novel Burn, Witch, Burn! (1933). But by 1939 his career as a director was over, although he stayed on the MGM payroll until 1942, during which time it has been claimed that Browning wrote mystery stories pseudonymously for pulp magazines. After decades of drug addiction, Bela Lugosi died in 1956 and was buried wearing his Dracula costume and make-up. Browning did not attend the funeral. Hobbled by gout and still drinking two dozen bottles of beer a day, Browning himself died in 1962, aged 82 (or possibly 88, depending on which version is to be believed). In accordance with Browning’s wishes, no funeral service or memorial was held.

The industrial speed with which both Browning/MGM made the film of London after Midnight and Grosset & Dunlap published Coolidge-Rask’s novelisation is probably a thing of the past. Stories were adapted, films were produced and remade, books came out of them, all in a cycle of quick succession. Nitrate film prints of the silent era were deemed without value, and recycled to extract their silver while avoiding print storage costs. Key titles of early cinema were routinely lost. But since the early days of Dracula, Nosferatu and London after Midnight, things have changed. Films and books are now routinely archived and preserved, while the cultural appeal of the vampire story has risen again and again, maybe ebbing and flowing from one generation to the next, but at an early 21st-century high, not least with the appeal of the Twilight series (based on a book, of course, by Stephanie Meyer). There have been many Draculas, and much debate about which actor best portrayed the Count. London after Midnight’s meeting of the occult monster and the detective seems now like an exceptionally early manifestation of what would become a popular trend in mid-late 20th-century Hollywood and pulp fiction, the mashing up of legends for new twists. Meanwhile the detective story also went on to capture new audiences in their millions, particularly the recent television adaptations of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for the BBC (with book spin-offs by Guy Adams). But if anyone knows whatever happened to Marie Coolidge-Rask after 1928 – or whether the Christine Sparks of The Elephant Man book became the prolific romantic novelist Lucy Gordon – that would clear up another little mystery … or case of mistaken identity.

The BFI’s Gothic season runs in cinemas UK-wide and online until January 2014. For further information visit the BFI website.

Jane Giles

Tagged as: ,

Comments are closed.