It’s worth spending a bit more time on our recent mystery movie “While the City Sleeps” for several reasons. It’s not widely available and most copies seem to be missing large chunks of the film, making the complex narrative even more convoluted. And there are some shots of Los Angeles City Hall that are worth exploring.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
“While the City Sleeps” was one of four films Lon Chaney was scheduled to make in 1928, along with “West of Zanzibar,” to be directed by Tod Browning; “The Willow Walk,” based on a story by Sinclair Lewis published in 1918 in the Saturday Evening Post; and another untitled feature, according to a article on May 5, 1928, in the Los Angeles Times.
I came across one reference from early 1928 that said Chaney was appearing with co-star Anita Page in a film titled “Easy Money,” but it’s unclear whether that was the working title for “While the City Sleeps” or another project.
In addition to large amounts of missing footage, the print has significant damage.
“While the City Sleeps” is apparently unrelated to a 1914 play by Edward E. Rose, also involving police, but with a different plot. An April 29, 1928, Hollywood roundup in the Charleston Daily Mail says that Allan Dwan was supposed to direct the picture, but Jack Conway was the director.
Filming was underway by early June 1928, according to The Times, and was apparently completed by the end of the month.
The movie opened at Loew’s State Theatre on Sept. 21, 1928, and ran for one week. It had brief showings (less than a week) in Los Angeles at the Uptown Theater and at the Ritz Theater in November 1928. And as far as I can determine, the movie was never shown in Los Angeles theaters again – at least it never again was mentioned in The Times, except for Chaney’s obituary. An Oct. 28, 1928, Times story reports that the movie was playing for a second week at the Capitol Theater in New York, so possibly it was more popular there.
“While the City Sleeps” played against “Wings,” “The Docks of New York,” De Mille’s “The Godless Girl” and perhaps most important, Fox’s first Movietone talkie, “Mother Knows Best.” “While the City Sleeps” was silent with synchronized music and sound effects as was done with “Wings.”
Lon Chaney as Det. Dan Coghlan.
Directed by Jack Conway, photographed by Henry Sharp, edited by Sam S. Zimbalist with design by Cedric Gibbons and costumes by Gilbert Clark, “While the City Sleeps” was written by A.P. Younger, a prolific scenarist of the silent era who died in November 1931, at the age of 41, when he shot himself in the head at his home at 145 Beachwood Drive.
(Bonus factoid: Police said that Younger stood in front of the bathroom mirror, held the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, while his stepson said Younger accidentally shot himself while trying to unload the gun. Although Younger had $30,000 in savings, according to The Times, police speculated that he might have committed suicide because his studio had not renewed his contract.)
Significantly, the movie was released in two versions. One was the traditional silent movie and the other had a synchronized track of music and sound effects (now lost), but no dialogue.
Recall that Warner Bros.’ “The Jazz Singer” had opened in New York in October 1927 and had its Los Angeles premiere in late December. As a silent film, “While the City Sleeps” competed directly with Fox’s first Movietone talkie, “ Mother Knows Best,” and was on the bill with sound newsreels.
The complex plot of “While the City Sleeps” involves two romantic triangles, one between Police Detective Dan Coghlan (Chaney), Myrtle Sullivan (the 17-year-old Anita Page) and Marty (Carroll Nye), and another between Myrtle, Marty and gangland boss “Mile-Away” Skeeter Carlson (Wheeler Oakman). Everybody, it seems, wants Myrtle.
Mile-Away (Wheeler Oakman), left, is interrogated by Coghlan (Lon Chaney) about the death of Police Officer Burns.
As “While the City Sleeps” opens, Coghlan suspects Mile-Away in the killing of a police officer, but no one will testify against him and he says he was “a mile away” when it happened. After a police lineup in which he dismisses Marty as a good kid mixed up with the wrong crowd, Coghlan interrogates Mile-Away in the police officer’s death, but a superior officer intervenes just as he’s about to give Mile-Away the third degree.
Marty (Carroll Nye) is just a good kid mixed up with a bad crowd, Coghlan says.
Marty is romancing Myrtle Sullivan (Anita Page).
But Myrtle is also being romanced by gang leader Mile-Away … outside his funeral parlor.
Next, we meet Myrtle and discover that she is being romanced by Mile-Away and Marty. Although Mile-Away claims that he has reformed and is operating the Angelus Funeral Parlors, it’s merely a cover for his gang’s continuing robberies, including a holdup of a jewelry store in which the proprietor is killed.
Notice the dead body, one of several in the film.
Mile-Away gives Coghlan his business card for the Angelus Funeral Parlors. Nathan Marsak, this is for you.
Mile-Away tells longtime girlfriend Bessie (Mae Busch) that they’re through.
The budding love interest between Myrtle (played by 17-year-old Anita Page) and Coghlan (played by Lon Chaney, 45) is a bit strange.
Even Chaney’s character is uncomfortable about it.
In an attempt to get Myrtle for himself, Mile-Away entices Marty to join his gang and sends him on a bogus burglary in which Marty is supposed to get killed. And while Mile-Away is engaged in evildoing, he dumps his longtime girlfriend Bessie (Mae Busch).
Enter Coghlan, who persuades Bessie to testify that Mile-Away killed the police officer, and he spoils Mile-Away’s plot to get rid of Marty by bringing in the police to raid the burglary. He even saves Marty from arrest by claiming that Marty tipped him off. But Bessie is – somehow – killed before she can testify against Mile-Away.
Coghlan discovers that Bessie is dead. How was she killed? This is not a question that “While the City Sleeps” is interested in answering. And yes, that’s another dead body.
Coghlan knows Mile-Away’s plans because he staked out the funeral home by hiding in one of the coffins in the showroom and he overheard the details.
One of the stranger scenes in the movie: Lon Chaney climbing out of a coffin.
After saving Marty from being arrested, Coghlan convinces him to get out of town and forbids him to say goodbye to Myrtle, who is waiting for him at a nightclub. Marty writes Myrtle a farewell note, but it is intercepted by Mile-Away, who lures Myrtle to an upstairs room by claiming that Marty is waiting for her, and he attempts to force himself on her, leaving her dress ripped.
Enter Coghlan and the police, although Mile-Away escapes after shooting another officer in the raid.
Mile-Away tries to tempt Myrtle, eventually telling her that Marty is upstairs waiting for her.
Myrtle gets in over her head with Mile-Away.
Much of this sequence is gone, but it’s unclear whether it’s because of film damage or the content.
Before things can go too far, Coghlan arrives with reinforcements.
Mile-Away shoots through the door, hitting a police officer, and escapes.
Coghlan is shocked to discover Myrtle’s dress is badly ripped.
All the reviews from the era mention the machine gun, and the police in “While the City Sleeps” are certainly well armed. There are Tommy guns everywhere and at one point the police let loose on the gang with a water-cooled machine gun.
The 1920s, when the police had serious artillery.
A publicity still showing what is apparently a scene that’s missing in this print, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $119.95.
And here is where a big chunk of the movie is missing.
Apparently Coghlan decides that Myrtle is in danger because she can testify against Mile-Away, so Coghlan decides to protect her from the gang by taking her to live with him.
Marty confronts Myrtle over living with Coghlan.
The film picks up after a romance has bloomed between Coghlan and Myrtle, but just as he announces that they are going to be married, Marty returns to claim Myrtle with news that he is now a success. Furious that Myrtle is living with Coghlan, Marty confronts her and there is a reconciliation.
In the meantime, there is one more shootout in which Mile-Away is killed , then Coghlan reluctantly steps aside for Marty, and Coghlan and his love-starved landlady (Polly Moran) watch the young lovers go off to seek their fortune.
The end of Mile-Away. Another dead body.
Marty and Myrtle head off together.
The love-starved landlady Mrs. McGinnis (Polly Moran) and Coghlan watch the young lovers walk away. And no, this is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
To be continued.