Tag Archives: Tod Browning

Freaks: All Equals in Strangeness

Tod Browning with members of the cast on the set of Freaks

This article contains spoilers.

I recently answered a few questions about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) on Radio 4’s Today programme on the occasion of the film’s re-release in cinemas. Set in a circus, Freaks tells of the love of midget Hans for beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra, and the revenge of the other deformed performers when they find out that she has only married him for his money. The brief radio spot centred on whether the film’s representation of disability was offensive. As it was not possible to go into much detail in such a short time, this article is a follow-up, expanding on the issue in greater depth.

It is interesting that 73 years after its release and numerous positive reviews, it is still the question of the film’s exploitative character that was the focus of the Radio 4 spot. The fact that some of the initial American reviews and audience reactions were very negative, and that the BBFC refused to grant it a certificate in 1932, effectively suppressing it for 31 years, seem to have been enough to lastingly colour the perception of the film. Also detrimental was the exhibition of the film on the grindhouse circuit after the war by exploitation king Dwain Esper, under the title Forbidden Love. It was only after the film screened at Cannes in 1962 that the BBFC allowed a limited release with an X certificate in the UK the following year.

And yet, the early responses to the film were more complex and mixed than this may suggest, and it was even a box-office success in a number of cities in its full-length version, before it was cut by producer Irving Thalberg from 90 to 64 minutes, with a happy resolution tacked on at the end. More importantly, the reasons for which the film was vilified by some critics at the time would be deemed utterly unacceptable now, and demonstrate exactly the kind of intolerant, insensitive attitude towards difference and disability that director Tod Browning intended to fight. The Variety review started with praise but found fault with the story: ‘Freaks is sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared. But Metro failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story still is important. Here it is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for a too fantastic romance.’ In a passage that has now been cut from the text published on the Variety website, it went on to state: ‘It is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget.’

This sort of ambivalence was found in many of the contemporary reviews. Richard Watts, Jr., wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘It is my impression that Freaks is, in its quite repulsive fashion, a dramatic and powerful motion picture. It is obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work, not only in its story and characterization, but also in its gay directorial touches. Mr. Browning can make even freaks more unpleasant than they would be ordinarily. Yet, in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching… Mr. Browning has always been an expert in pathological morbidity, but after seeing Freaks, his other pictures seem but whimsical nursery tales.’

Also symptomatic of the time’s attitude to disability, The Film Daily found the reality of the performers’ deformities an obstacle to the enjoyment of the film: ‘It is a most unusual production, made at the time when the horror cycle appeared to be in full sway, and as a picture of this type it was produced with expert hands. But the nature of its theme makes its chances problematical. First, the fact that the ugly human monstrosities in this picture are that way in reality, whereas in other films the audience knew it was all make-believe seems to induce a different and not pleasant reaction.’

Contributing to the problem was the critics’ view of cinema as entertainment rather than art, as one of the articles on Freaks published in the trade journal Harrison’s Reports suggests: ‘Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.’ And the Louisville Times: ‘I cannot believe such a show will entertain any but the morbidly curious, or those poor souls with jaded appetites who are even looking for a new thrill.’ (This view of cinema has been one of the grounds for the BBFC’s decision to cut or ban films in the UK, including A Serbian Film a few years ago.)

Tod Browning was most certainly a film artist who created a powerful and singular world of dark, disturbing poetry and bizarre beauty, exploring the marginal, misshapen, misfit corners of humanity. Yet he was also an entertainer. At the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a circus. For a number of years he did various jobs there, including performing in an act called ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’, before acting in slapstick short films in Hollywood. His directorial work includes comedies and exotic dramas, as well as the first horror film produced by a major Hollywood studio, Universal’s 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which was a big box-office success. This enabled him to make Freaks for MGM the following year, but the financial failure of the film derailed his career. However, he managed to make Mark of the Vampire in 1935, and, more importantly, the masterpiece of fantastique cinema The Devil Doll in 1936.

Tod Browning’s background goes some way towards explaining the richness and complexity of Freaks, and the tenderness he felt for his characters. His work at the circus gave him a deep understanding of, and affinity with, the deformed members of his cast (the circus was the setting for a number of his films). His insistence on casting real ‘freaks’ gives the film a gritty documentary aspect that deepens and adds substance to the strange and nightmarish atmosphere. His respect for his cast is also demonstrated by the fact that he insisted that his performers had other talents and were not simply cast for their deformities. Early scenes show the sort of prejudice and taunting that the characters constantly come up against. Later sequences portray the characters in their daily lives: the armless Frances O’Connor eating dinner with her feet; the birth of the Bearded Lady’s baby; Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton with Daisy’s fiancé. Some of these scenes, such as the courtship of the sisters, are full of humour and lightness, which adds another level to the representation of the characters. Others, such as when Prince Randian, a man without arms or legs billed as ‘The Living Torso’, lights a cigarette, will have audiences stare in disbelief and wonder at the skill and ingenuity involved in performing a seemingly impossible act. Some will argue that featuring such scenes is no better than the exploitative freakshows that treated people with deformities as mere attractions. Indeed, one of the problems Freaks has had to face in its reception is that, as a film about freakshow acts, it has been confused with the freakshow itself. There is no denying that these scenes have a spectacular quality, but it is a spectacle presented to elicit not uncharitable curiosity or horror, but admiration for the inventive manner in which the characters deal with the difficulties of daily life.

Watch the original trailer for Tod Brownings’s Freaks:

These scenes are also important for another reason: they contribute to the fact that the disabled characters never appear as passive, weak, dependent people, but as fully functioning, mobile, autonomous human beings, including those with the most challenging deformities. In keeping with this, they are given a full range of emotions, from love and desire to violence and vengefulness. It is very clear that the film’s sympathy lies with the ‘freaks’, and that physical deformity is not equated with wickedness, rather the opposite: the villains of the story are the characters associated with physical perfection – the tall, blonde Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules. But Tod Browning does not offer a facile, simplistic vision of the disabled characters as poor helpless victims of their villainy, and he gives them the power to act on their emotions, including the darkest ones. The extraordinary final scene, in which the ‘freaks’ wreak their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules during a dark stormy night, menacingly crawling under the trailers towards their victims, is made all the more creepy and nightmarish by the deformities of the characters. This has been seen as exploitative by some as a scene that re-establishes the association of physical deformity and villainy. But this simply ignores that the scene is part of a whole, and that Freaks shows the many facets of its characters. By presenting a morally complex, physically active portrayal of fully rounded characters, Tod Browning treats his disabled characters exactly as any able-bodied character. This refusal to paint a worthy, sanitized view of disabled people as all-good unfortunates to be pitied may well be one of the reasons for the discomfort the film has caused in some viewers and critics.

Another thing worth noting is that most films that deal with disability will only have one disabled character, an anomaly among the norm, an exception among the majority. Freaks remains deeply unusual in that the majority of its cast is disabled or suffering from a deforming illness. The circus is their world and there it is the able-bodied characters who are the exception. The film gives visibility, legitimacy and screen presence to a large number of people who would have been ignored by the film industry. Tod Browning introduced the reality of disability and deformity in the midst of a Hollywood obsessed with physical perfection (MGM was Greta Garbo’s studio). The protests of MGM personnel during the shooting are revealing of contemporary social attitudes to disability and the sort of reaction the cast would have had to face on a daily basis. The studio executives refused to take their lunch with the performers because they could not stand the sight of them, which meant that most of the Freaks cast had to eat outside in a tent especially set up for them. This shocking aspect of the production highlights how subversive the making of such a film was in the context of the time.

Throughout his work Tod Browning was interested in the blurry line between what is considered normal and what is seen as abnormal, and one of the implications of Freaks is that that line is easily crossed. It is something that he explored in The Unknown (1929), a film that provides an essential point of comparison with Freaks. In this silent film also set in a circus, Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, a knife-thrower who pretends to have lost his arms in order to woo the pretty ringmaster’s daughter Nanon (Joan Fontaine), who has an uncontrollable phobic fear of hands. There is a stunning scene, remindful of the scene in Freaks when Frances O’Connor eats and drinks with her feet, in which Lon Chaney lights a cigarette with his feet, his arms lying motionless by him, having become so used to pretending to be a cripple that he forgets to use his arms in private. The Unknown is the fascinating tale of how a man, seemingly ‘normal’, falls for a girl with an ‘abnormal’ sexuality, acts ‘abnormal’ to seduce her and then really becomes ‘abnormal’ in his desperation to secure her, only to find out that she has become ‘normal’ and now wants a ‘normal’ partner – again, a strongman.

Watch a clip from Tod Browning’s Unknown:

Emphasizing the idea that the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ may not be as clear-cut as it may seem, it is suggested in Freaks that the ‘tall people’ may not be as fully endowed as they should be, and therefore are ‘abnormal’ too in a fashion. In a spirited quip to Venus, Phroso the clown reveals that he is impotent (‘You should’ve caught me before my operation.’). And in a scene that was edited out, the sexually frustrated Venus wants to look for ‘a couple of sailors’ and ‘have some fun’ (which became ‘falling in love – getting married – having kids’), which would place her very much outside the moral conventions of her time and therefore make her a social outcast.

Both The Unknown and Freaks are as much about sexual abnormality as they are about physical and social abnormality, and it is perhaps its sexual undertones that made Freaks so unsettling to early viewers, despite the fact that many of these scenes were cut out. The characters of Lon Chaney in The Unknown, Venus and Phroso in Freaks, are about sexual excess or lack, and the impossibility of making individual desires coincide. Throughout his films, Tod Browning shows much sympathy for misguided, mishandled, mismatched, miscalibrated desires and the terrible, tragic acts they lead people to commit. Hans’s desire for Cleopatra is poignant because, despite his childlike appearance, he is a man, as he constantly reminds everyone, and she does not treat him like one, as exemplified most dramatically in the humiliating wedding scene where she carries him on her shoulders in a grotesque cavalcade around the deserted banquet table. For this, she will pay dearly, and will be made ‘one of them’ after being horribly mutilated by Hans’s friends (the violence has been cut out in the film as it stands). Her punishment for scorning his manhood is to be stripped of her beauty. As for Hercules, in the original version he was castrated by the deformed characters, making the sexual element of the film very explicit. The seemingly ‘diminished’ characters are able to take away the potency of the traditional virile strongman. Sexual and social power are aligned here and the ending depicts a subversive act of revenge by the powerless ‘abnormal’ against normative potency.

And yet, amid the darkness, there is also a humorous and lighter side to the strangeness of human desire: in a scene where Siamese twin Violet is kissed by her suitor, sister Daisy is seen to visibly enjoy the pleasure of the kiss. It is a lovely scene that celebrates the wondrousness of human life and an openness to all the shapes and forms that it may take. And so the answer to the question ‘Is the film offensive?’: no, certainly not, because it paints an exceptionally complex, nuanced, multi-layered portrayal of human beings on the margins of mainstream society that refuses to kow-tow to conventions and offer any facile reassurances.

Virginie Sélavy

London after Midnight

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 (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