David Meeker, keeper of feature films at the National Film and Television Archive, on Lon Chaney's lost film London After Midnight
"It has long been recognised that approximately three-quarters of films produced during the silent era, that is up to around 1929, are now irretrievably lost. Just think about it. Back in the early 1930s, when sound film as we know it today had suddenly become the standard cinema format, no one, not even H G Wells, could have imagined a future of colour television and video, of national film archives and specialised screenings of silent movies with orchestra, and of the cult of the director. Silent films were obsolete. They no longer had any commercial value and, therefore, no future. They were wilfully destroyed; they were lost or used as landfiller; their chemical instability led to irreversible decay. All cinema films until 1951 were produced on a highly inflammable and chemically unstable nitrate cellulose stock. If films are to survive, they must be copied at great expense on to a more secure safety film and archives the world over are busy doing just that.

Among the many features that disappeared all those years ago is one that today's archivists would dearly love to find. MGM's stylish horror movie London After Midnight, which received rave reviews at the time, is, according to the American Film Institute, one of the most important lost films of the silent era. The few surviving stills show Chaney (with Marce Pine Day, above right) with bulging eyes and sharp teeth, which begs the question as to whether this was Hollywood's first representation of a vampire. Chaney plays Detective-Inspector Burke, who masquerades as a twisted, disfigured individual attempting to find the truth behind the `suicide' death of his friend Roger Balfour. Burke solves the mystery by hypnotising the prime suspects and placing them in the murder setting in order to observe their reactions.

The film's absence leaves a major gap in the work of two of Hollywood's most fascinating characters, Chaney himself (1883-1930) and director Tod Browning (1882-1962). By 1927, Chaney had appeared in over 100 films and was famous for being the master of disguise - `The man with a thousand faces'. He had thrilled audiences with his bravura performances in classic melodramas such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the Phantom of the Opera (1925). A quite extraordinary contortionist, he became obsessed with playing mutilated and severely disfigured characters. Tod Browning, who had a similar taste for the grotesque, had already enjoyed a fruitful working partnership with Chaney through a series of highly successful chillers and this relationship was to last until the actor's untimely death in 1930. Browning is best remembered today for his seminal 1931 film of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, and for having made one of the most bizarre movies that ever came out of the Hollywood studio system, Freaks (1932). He also remade his own London After Midnight in 1935 under the title The Mark of the Vampire and one wonders whether that was the moment when the negative of the original film was thought to have outlived its usefulness and was summarily junked."

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