The Ingrid Pitt column: London After Midnight

Ingrid searches high and low for some legendary lost films... including at a chicken farm?

London after Midnight

One of the most famous ‘lost’ films is London After Midnight (1927), starring Lon Chaney Snr. Briefly, the story is about the apparent murder of Sir Roger Balfour in London. Mr. Plod appears in the guise of Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard (Lon Chaney). Then a suicide note is discovered and the case closed. Five years later the Balfour home is bought by a strange looking man and his ghostly assistant. The speculation is that it’s Sir Roger returned from the dead. Chaney wears some gruesome disguises – and that is about it. The Chaney name is enough to keep the work forever on the blotter of the enthusiast and its discovery would make a lot of hearts beat faster.

Even I must admit to what might be termed a frisson of excitement the other day when I came across a website claiming that the old silent movie had surfaced. I diligently read the longish article from start to finish. It claimed that an 82 year old chicken farmer called Clyde McGuffin (a clue if ever I missed one) had found the film propping up one of his chicken sheds in El Segundo, California. The story claimed that Clyde was an ex-achivist for MGM and when he returned the lost treasure to the company they went just a little bananas. The tale finished by saying the company was now trying to sort out the legals before restoring it and issuing it on DVD. I was a little surprised at not having heard about the discovery before but swallowed the story whole until I logged off. A box came up explaining it was all a spoof – but wasn’t it fun? You would think at my age I might have learned something.

The reason I was searching for a lost film was that I have these moments every so often. In 1971 I made a film called Nobody Ordered Love. It was produced and directed by Robert Hartford-Davis and was released by Rank together with Don’t Look Now. Other cast members were Judy Huxstable, John Ronane, Tony Selby and Peter Arne. These were the dying days of the time when a trip to the cinema was considered a night on the town. Travel, a bucket of popcorn, two films, a fumble in the back row and change out of a pound note. Before the home entertainment industry got its claws into everything, reduced it to pigmy size and left the films to flounder between making cups of tea, discussing Sharon’s new baby, Chelsey’s divorce and trips to the loo.

When I was first offered the job I was told it was the modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I’m still trying to work that out. Roughly, as far as I can remember, the story was about an actress, Alice Allison, (me) making a film about the iniquities of war while her husband/director is having it off with her understudy, Caroline Johnson (Judy Huxstable). Alice gets to hear about it and is not best pleased. It all goes a bit pear-shaped after this with Alice sacrificing Caroline on an alter. Or not!

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I’ve always hoped that one day I might find the elusive celluloid just to see if it really is as bad as the reviews make out. For some reason I’ve never actually seen it. Someone once told me that they had seen it in France on Canal Plus but when I contacted the TV station they denied everything. But they are French. Anyway the real drama connected with this film happened after the film was released.

The story goes that producer/director, Hartford-Davis, was so incensed by what was said about the film and the lack of support from Rank that after a flaming row with the distributor, he snatched up his film, tucked it under his arm and stormed out of the meeting. He had made scuds of films, including The Sandwich Man (1966) which had practically every British comedian who was out of work starring in it and he didn’t intend to stand around and be treated like an idiot. When he stopped fizzing he was in Los Angeles. He didn’t get offered a lot of work but he did meet a merry widow, married her and stowed the cans of film in her garage amongst the other bric-a-brac. Time passed and Robert died in 1977 of a heart attack. His widow was looking for someone else to support her in her dotage so decided to clear out the garage so that she would have a fresh start. The cans of film, along with a life-time’s memories, finished up, as do most people’s, on the back of a garbage truck.

At least that is what I have been told. But every so often someone pops up to tell me that they have seen the film at some festival or other but when I try to track it down it mysteriously disappears. So if you should see Nobody Ordered Love being advertised, please let me know. But if a chicken farmer from El Segunda tries to offer you free eggs with a rare copy of London After Midnight – tell him to scramble ’em.

Ingrid writes every Tuesday at Den of Geek – read her last column here.