Hello and welcome to a new series! As you may already know, a good number of silent films have been lost, some of them quite famous. However, many of these films were remade as talkies. Some of the remakes even used the original silent as reference material before it was lost. Missing the Silents is going to focus on these remakes and examine how they can help us imagine what the original might have been like.
I decided to start things out in an obvious manner. I will be branching out into more uncharted territory in later posts.
Fake blood, wax teeth and bat wings…
Our first film is Mark of the Vampire, which is a remake of the holy grail of lost silents, London After Midnight. The original featured Lon Chaney in a dual role while the remake has the duties split between Lionel Barrymore, Lionel Atwill and Mr. Vampire himself, Bela Lugosi. Tod Browning directed both versions.
In order to discuss this movie properly, I am going to be examining the ending. If you have not seen the film and want to be surprised, I suggest stopping here.
The Silent Original:
A gunshot in the night! A man lies dead, a revolver by his side and a suicide note neatly laid out. Private investigator Professor Burke (Lon Chaney) seems to accept that the victim took his own life but his neighbors seem a bit shifty. Five years pass and a pair of very weird people move into the dead man’s house. Could they be v-v-v-v-vampires? Actually, it’s Burke in disguise. He uses vampire terror to properly prepare the real murderer’s mind so that he can hypnotize him and get him to confess. It works, for some reason.
It seems that a small European village as a problem with v-v-v-v-v-vampires. No one has ever seen them, mind, but the townsfolk religiously festoon their homes with bat-thorn (a not-at-all-made-up plant that repels the undead). However, vampires start to look a whole lot more plausible when local landowner Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert, last seen on the receiving end of Pola Negri’s bullwhip) is found dead with teeth marks on his neck and not a drop of blood in his body.
His daughter, Irena (pronounced eye-REE-nuh for some reason and played by Elizabeth Allan), is in shock but soon finds comfort in the arms of Fedor (Henry Wadsworth) and the paternal affection of Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt), her father’s best friend. Donald Meek is also on hand to play the local doc who is a firm believer in vampires. He adds nothing to the tale but I am never one to complain when a Donald Meek performance comes my way.
The murder remains unsolved and Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) is baffled as to how Borotyn was murdered. Enter Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore), who lends his expertise to the investigation.
Hark! Something is afoot. It seems that Irena—oh, sorry, eye-REE-nuh—and Baron Otto have new neighbors. Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland) have taken up residence in the murdered man’s house. Also, they make off with Borotyn’s reanimated corpse, so there’s that.
(Seriously, is no one else bugged by the hideous nasalization that the entire cast gives Irena’s name? This sort of nonsense makes me mourn the silents. I don’t feel like I am in Prague when the American accent is spread this thick.)
There are vampire attacks, creepy organ playing and Luna flying about on wires. If this sounds interesting, let me assure you it is deadly dull. Mostly, the characters just stand around having the same boring conversations over and over again. It’s all very stiff and awkward. Worse, Bela’s famous Hungarian accented voice is wasted as he only gets one line of dialogue at the very end.
It turns out that Baron Otto is the killer. Neumann and Zelin hired actors to pose as vampires and the reanimated Borotyn in order to get Otto good and creeped out. Neumann would then hypnotize him into confessing how he murdered Borotyn. It works because reasons. Otto used nail scissors to pierce Borotyn’s throat and then heated the bottom of a glass and pressed it to the wound in order to draw out the blood.
No. Just no. (More on that later.)
It turns out that everyone except silly Fedor was in on the scheme. Which means that the vampires and their “victims” never broke character even when no one could possibly see them. Um, why?
(Borland later stated that she suggested changing the ending by adding a twist. Everyone would congratulate themselves on a job well done when a telegram would arrive. The actors apologize that they were unable to make it. Da da DUM! However, it seems that due to Universal’s copyright on the Lugosi Dracula, MGM was forced to keep the phony vampire twist.)
Similar issues have plagued adaptations of Seven Keys to Baldpate, which has a very similar plot. The only way for this sort of story to work is if it is told entirely through the murderer’s point of view. But then we don’t get a plot twist.
Hmm, seems like a fair trade. I mean, anyone with half a brain could figure out who the killer is within two minutes of the murder.
Anyway, the whole plot is ridiculously elaborate. Let me get this straight. This entire vampire thing was a setup for hypnotism? Why go to all that trouble? I mean, it’s not like the whole “we pretended to be vampires” thing would stand up in any court of law. So long as we are breaking investigative ethics, why not bundle Otto into the trunk of a car, rough him up a bit and threaten his life? Surely that would have the same effect as the elaborate vampire charade.
Plus, we are to believe that Otto bled out his victim using a water glass? The glass was about six ounces. The average person has over a gallon of blood! Where did he put it all? Wouldn’t it spill? And the body had no marks except for the two small puncture wounds. As a veteran of both dry and wet cupping therapy, I can tell you that these things leave rather dramatic marks. Did no one notice a three-inch diameter round red mark on the victim? These detectives are morons.
There is no doubt that Mark of the Vampire looks great. The cinematography is justly famous (props to James Wong Howe!) and set design is beyond reproach. However, the direction is stiff and old-fashioned. Further, the film aches for a score. Compare the music (or lack thereof) and direction to 1934’s The Black Cat or to 1935’s Captain Blood and you will easily see how behind the times Browning was.
Some critics quip about Lugosi’s shortage of dialogue, stating that the director was still stuck in the silent era. I only wish. The film has none of the spark of Browning’s silent work. It’s dull, stodgy and slow as molasses. Speaking of which…
Mark of the Vampire is often listed as a dismembered almost-masterpiece from Tod Browning. The tale goes that the director’s original cut ran 85 minutes and the story involved incest between Mora and his daughter, which (along with his subsequent suicide) was supposedly how he became a vampire. MGM saw the original version, panicked and cut that aspect, along with a good deal of the horror elements, leaving a 61 minute film.
I had my doubts as MGM would not likely have approved such a script in the first place. This is post-Code, kids, and MGM knew which side its bread was buttered. Author Gregory William Mank confirmed my suspicions in his book Hollywood Cauldron: 13 Horror Films from the Genres’s Golden Age. Mank had access to the original shooting script and was able to put these notions to rest.
First of all, the original runtime was not 85 minutes. That was the result of a typo. Browning’s original cut was only 75 minutes. Of those missing fourteen minutes, almost all of them were expository dialogue and comedy relief. This explains the film’s choppiness. The infamous incest is not mentioned at all and this fact is confirmed by Carroll Borland, who stated that hints of such a relationship were not permitted in the studio and the only aspect that remained in the finished film was the bullet wound on Lugosi’s temple.
This myth very much reminds me of the fictional “original” ending of The Wind. When film historians, actors and directors tell us that the unreleased format was ever so much better, we want to believe them. Studios did not always save cut footage and so our minds come up with the perfect missing piece for the film, probably better than anything reality could deliver. The sad fact is that these tales usually prove to be so much hogwash.
Tod Browning was, politely put, not exactly adept at handling comedy and very little of what was cut could actually be counted as horror. In fact, I agree with Mank; the film seems to have benefited from the reduced runtime.
What we learn about the lost silent version:
Based on what we know about London After Midnight (and the reconstruction made out of stills that aired on TCM a while back) I think it likely that the film, had it survived, would have been considered a lesser entry into the Chaney-Browning canon.
While Chaney’s dual role doubtlessly would have been fun to see, the fact remains that the plot is stupid. Admittedly, many Chaney-Browning collaborations fall down in the scenario department but the story of London/Vampire is unusually weak. The silent original at least seems to have less of those weird “never breaking character” moments than the talkie. (Hard to judge though.) It also eliminates the ridiculous bloodletting murder method.
In general, the flaws of Mark of the Vampire are the flaws of London After Midnight. The story is an excuse for its biggest star to wander about in vampire garb (an understandable goal), logic be darned to heck. The problem is that with a little more editing and narrative logic, we could have had a fun little mystery.
And yet, we must still mourn the loss of any film. No matter how skillful the reproduction, it is impossible to know the exact tempo and feel of the original. Some of the performances may have saved the picture. We may never know.
Availability: Mark of the Vampire was released on DVD as part of the Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection. The set is a goldmine of lesser-known goodies, including the delicious slice of kitsch that is The Return of Doctor X. (Humphrey Bogart as an undead mad scientist with an equally undead pet rabbit, both of whom feed on the blood of the living. Yes, played straight. Who could resist?) The reconstructed London After Midnight was released as part of The Lon Chaney Collection.