Photoplay Editions of silent movies are considered collector’s items to the cognoscenti who are drawn to books adapted for the movies. Photoplay Editions are the actual novels the movies were based on or novelizations of movie screenplays that contain photo stills of the movie. A select few of these Photoplay Editions are considered crown jewel of sorts to bibliophiles and movieholics. London After Midnight is one of them. Of course finding a Photoplay Edition with the remarkable color photo dust jackets would make it even more of a treasure. Mine is unsurprisingly lacking the dust jacket. But all of the eight photographs are intact and unharmed.
Marie Coolidge Rask, working from Tod Browning’s screen story and the scenario of Browning's frequent co-collaborator Waldemar Young, penned the novelization of the movie. This is all we have to go by as to the film’s story and content. That and, of course, the myriad movie stills that have been reproduced for decades. Some of the eight stills from the Photoplay Edition are featured as illustrations for this post. I was hoping for an eerie tale of madness, murder and vampires and a few good frights. After all Lon Chaney, the Man of 1000 Faces, was the star of the movie. He was terrifying as the first screen Phantom of the Opera and still, IMO, the best non-singing performer in that role. Based on photos in the book he played two roles in the movie. But as is the case with many of these longed for reading experiences that finally come to fruition reading the story was a huge let down. London After Midnight – at least the novelized version of the story – is a messy and transparent murder mystery couched in Gothic excesses and weird or supernatural incidents that all turn out to be rationalized.
Ingredients: one haunted house, a suspicious suicide, a murder made to look like the work of a vampire, two creepy and kooky neighbors who put on a spook show for the police investigating the murder, a plethora of mysterious incidents and a ridiculous number of characters in disguise or using alter egos. It all reminded me of early 20th century French detective novels with their fascination with policemen in disguise and fantastical plot elements. Browning who concocted the story may well have been a fan of not only Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe but Maurice LeBlanc, Gaston Leroux and Marcel Allain, creator of master criminal Fantomas, the English translations of those books were still selling well in the US in the late 1920s.
|Pictured left to right: Conrad Nagel as Lucy's lover Jerry Hibbs, |
Henry A. Walthall as Sir James and Lon Chaney in his
second role as Prof. Burke(called Colonel Yates in the novelization)
|Chaney as the Man in the Beaver Hat|
And what of the mysterious appearance of Colonel Yates, straight from India, who claims to be a former military comrade of Sir James Hamlin, whose ward is Lucy Balfour, Roger’s beautiful daughter? Why did the Colonel show up so conveniently just as Balfour House was leased by the Man in the Beaver Hat? Why does Yates know so much about the occult, and vampires in particular?
Rask's storytelling is modeled on a cumbersome Edwardian prose style infused with stilted dialogue, overly complex sentence structure, antiquated vocabulary, and an abundance of histrionics and melodrama. She gives away the fact that the suicide is a murder almost immediately and is clumsy in trying to create suspense and surprise revelations. It is very obvious from the start who killed Roger Balfour and his son Harry. Even the motive is obvious. And that perhaps is the creepiest part of the book. In the book’s denouement the killer has been hypnotized into recreating Roger Balfour's murder. Reading the killer’s pronouncement of his love for a 15 year-old girl and his “covetousness of her since she was an infant" was nauseating and gave me chills in a manner completely unintended by the writer. Not exactly the kind of thing that reads well at all in the 21st century.
Next week’s Friday Fright Night episode will be a vast improvement on this offering.