Monday, February 20, 2012

Reviewed After Midnight

Many people are familiar with the works of Carl Sandburg, which includes a Pulitzer Prize winning biography on Abraham Lincoln, but many people may not know that he wrote movie reviews for the Chicago Daily News from 1920 to 1928.  The newspaper was a competitor of the Chicago Tribune and published an afternoon daily newspaper from 1876 until 1978.  One such review was for the lost Lon Chaney film, London After Midnight

from the Monday, January 9, 1928 issue of the Chicago Daily News
by Carl Sandburg

When Inspector Burke comes on the screen in London After Midnight there is a vast buzzing in the Chicago Theater.  Everybody in the audience is asking everyone else, "What actor is that?"

No wonder.  Inspector Burke is played by Lon Chaney with little or no makeup. The world has forgotten what Lon Chaney's real face looks like when he lets his own countenance shine forth he is disguised most of all.

In London After Midnight Chaney has all his legs and ears, all the normal features of mankind, and it is an interesting study to look upon him and wonder where those eyes and arms have been all these years.

Chaney only put on black-tailed nose glasses and a little pair of gray sideburns for his role of Inspector Burke, the hypnotic detective of Scotland Yard. For the major portion of this new Tod Browning story Lon is the mysterious man hunter and crime solver, but along the middle of the picture he takes on another roll, a minor one, but a part that outdoes for sheer terror anything even he ever saw in a looking glass. This secondary role is that of a squat and beast like little man in a high hat and an awful face who hangs around a haunted house. Wherever he goes through the cobwebbed mansion of fear there goes also a weird lady in white clothes and with mournful eyes and they move so spookily that the neighbors in this old English town are rapidly going nuts.

The story of how Inspector Burke solves the mystery is one of the most diverting and suspenseful in all the long association of Chaney, the actor, and Tod Browning, the director. Conrad Nagel, Marceline Day and H.B. Walthall have parts, but do not have them seriously enough to interfere wit Mr. Chaney and his performance.

To soothe the jumping nerves of patrons after this ghost-detective tale the Chicago Theater has Jesse Crawford back again at the organ from which he extracts such fine Irish tenor melodies. It has further such singers as Margery Maxwell, the Ravinia soprano, in an elaborate orchestral production by the inventive and musical Mr. Spitalny.
For those who are interested, Carl Sandburg's movie reviews and essays for the Chicago Daily News have been collected and published by Lake Claremont Press in a volume entitled The Movies Are.

Theater Manager Reports from the period can also be found. Here are a few I came across.

July 14, 1928 - Pastime Theatre in Mason, Michigan
"My people enjoyed two delightfully fearful evenings with the spooky, awesome thing."

September 29, 1928 - Rex Theater in Salmon, Idaho
"First money maker since last April and this run off in the middle of hot August. People evidently like Chaney. Play good, very good. The title did not fit but pshaw."
September 29, 1928 - Ne-Go Theatre in Toronto, Kansas
"Very good mystery, but we found about 50 percent of our patrons through it fine, balance just as much the other way."

October, 20, 1928 - Bloomer, Wisconsin
"The best Lon Chaney has made for some time. Comments very good from our patrons."

November 17, 1928 - Royal Theatre in Kimball, South Dakota
"Good as Lon Chaney has made yet. This is the best of his releases since The Black Bird. Mystery entertainment through all seven reels. Give us more like it, Lon."

December 15, 1928 - Bonny Theatre in Mansfield, Missouri
"Extra good Chaney picture that drew us the best Saturday night crowd we had in a long time."

I did a little looking into the cinemas mentioned above and of the ones I could find, only the Chicago Theater is still around today. I was hoping to find some information on the Pastime Theatre which was in Mason, Michigan; but any information is proving rather elusive.  It saddens me to see all these movie palaces being destroyed. The Esquire here in town is part of Alderman Reilly's new plan for yet another shopping complex. It's frustrating to see him not raise a finger for these movie palaces, but he bends over backwards to try and save an eyesore of a concrete building a few short blocks away.

This used to be the Michigan Theatre in Detroit, now it has sadly become a parking structure. A sad image indeed...


Matthew said...

This review twists the knife even further! I'm glad he liked it; if only we could like it too... Can you imagine how amazing it would have been to see this at the Chicago Theater with a full orchestra and a soprano?! Who am I talking to here? Of course you can.

Cinema Raiders said...

Indeed I can, sir. I've been to the Chicago Theater once and it was quite the experience.