Indianapolis, IN–Born April 1, 1883, Lon Chaney was one of the greatest of silent film stars. Best remembered for his roles in Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney was known the world over for his chameleon-like ability to inhabit strange and different roles. One of his most famous was as a vampire in London After Midnight (1927), a film that has not been seen in public since at least 1970, and probably well before. The last known copy perished in a vault fire, and no copies were known to exist in private hands.
Preservationist Eric Grayson, who independently seeks out rare films to preserve and share them, discovered a print in a private collection in October.
“Like so many silent film finds, it wasn’t where you’d expect to find it at all,” Grayson said in a telephone interview. “People have been searching for it for decades. There was a rumor that the film had been in San Francisco, in Sweden, or that a French 9.5mm print survived. This was in the basement of a collector in rural Illinois.”
The print, on 35mm safety stock, was a surprise to everyone. As far as anyone knew, no prints had been made since the 1920s.
“This guy was a bigwig in the local theater circuit, and he wanted a print, so he asked MGM, and they made him one. It was struck in 1956, so it’s in good shape and looks better than a lot of the other Lon Chaney pictures that have survived,” Grayson said.
Such things are unusual, but not unique. A 35mm print of Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928), printed under similar circumstances, has been bouncing from collector to collector for some years now. Also, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), long thought to be lost, showed up in a near-mint 16mm print in a private collection a few years ago.
Grayson stated that the print required a little cleaning and special care, but is essentially projectable as-is. He quietly prepared a special high-definition digital transfer and then had a special card up his sleeve.
“London After Midnight will premiere on TCM,” said programming president Charlie Tabesh. “Eric basically blackmailed us to do what he wanted. We didn’t have a choice.”
Grayson, an ardent film preservationist, has been trying to sell an independently made television show for several years now. Entitled Dr. Film, the show promotes film preservation while also being a silly tribute to old-fashioned movie hosts.
“He said he’d sent us several copies of his pilot,” Tabesh said, “but frankly we’d never seen it. Then, when London After Midnight showed up, he called us and said that we weren’t getting it unless it became part of the first Dr. Film episode on TCM.”
Grayson wasn’t kidding. He has wanted to share other films from his collection for years, but runs into a lot of audience apathy. Having dealt with archives for many years, he knew about a special loophole that would cement his case.
“I told them if they didn’t green-light a few episodes of Dr. Film, then I would donate London After Midnight to an archive, with the stipulation that Warner Brothers, the copyright owner, couldn’t access it. There are a lot of films at archives with silly stipulations on them like that, and they have to be honored.”
“Eric is lucky,” said another film collector, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Frankly, his pilot for Dr. Film was awful. He’s so passionate about preserving oddball films that the ones he picked for the pilot episode were just appalling. Sure, they were rare, but who cares? TCM is so stodgy and stuck in its ways that something like his goofy take on Dr. Film would normally just leave them wondering what they were seeing.”
Instead, Grayson has a six-episode commitment from TCM for his new show, headlined by a Lon Chaney retrospective as the first installment. He promises to showcase films that others have ignored and abused over the years.
“London After Midnight won’t be the only lost film we show,” Grayson said. “It will just be the most famous one.”
And what of the timing of the announcement? Some might question the revelation on April Fools’ Day.
“Yes,” Grayson said, “but it’s also Lon Chaney’s 130th birthday, so we thought it was appropriate. I can’t show any of the film because of my contractual agreement with TCM, but I’ll put up a YouTube video that should quiet most of the doubts.”
London After Midnight debuts on December 17, the 86th anniversary of the film’s release.
Dr. Film will continue on the next 5 Friday nights afterward on TCM.
“If enough people watch, then TCM will have us do more. I’ve got more movies… we just have to see if people care enough to watch them.”
OK, enough drama over this post! It was all an April Fool, guys! Come on! Did you really think that if I had this movie since October that someone would have leaked info on it?