Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Story: The "ghost" of the Paris Opera House extorts the starring role for his unknown protege Christine Daae. For his benefaction he demands her love, but she loves another. A scorned madman, his malevolence is boundless, endangering all who dare come near the opera.

Seventy-eight years after its release, The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney still stands as one of the seminal works in the horror genre and is quite probably the most famous silent film known today.

Unfortunately, it's not the best. It's a bit choppy, overwrought, and superficial. But it's still around and there's good reason for that.

The Phantom of the Opera, both the film and the character, underwent more than one tribulation on the way to immortality. Director Rupert Julian's original cut of the film was so unsatisfying to Universal President Carl Laemmle, he ordered more scenes shot and the end completely redone by a different director. Julian pushed his actors to theatrical extremes making the acting stilted and stagy even by the standards of twenties. Julian had a history of being a bully of a director, and had been so even to Lon Chaney during their partnerships on The Small Girl and Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. Even though he turned in a performance for the ages, the actor's great talent was underutilized and misdirected. Chaney's self-devised makeup, astonishing to this day, and the strength of his characterization are what has carried the film into history, despite its flaws.

The story centers on the Opera House; upon the film's opening, the new owners of the theater are informed by the former owners about the "Opera Ghost." Dismissed by the unfamiliar proprietors as nonsense, we are shown backstage at the opera that the ghost is not dismissed by those who've worked there long enough to know the truth. He strikes fear into all who move backstage. Only one person had ever seen the ghost and to those who asked, he related a horrible description of a living skull!

It doesn't take long for the ghost to introduce himself as the "Phantom of the Opera," and demands the opera''s prima donna Carlotta, step aside and allow an unknown girl from the chorus to sing the lead. Falling mysteriously ill, Carlotta indeed steps down for the next performance. The Phantom's choice, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), wowed the crowd, including her suitor, a young nobleman, the Viscount Raoul DeChagny (Norman Kerry).

For the next performance however, Carlotta returns to the role, despite the Phantom's numerous threats. As Carlotta takes the stage, the giant chandelier hanging above the auditorium is dropped in a fairly impressive bit of special effects (I rewound and watched it about three times in a row) onto scattering, frightened, and flattened patrons. In the midst of the confusion, Christine slips away, back to her dressing room. Hearing the voice of the Phantom beckon her sweetly, she walks toward her mirror, and through it! For the first time she sees her benefactor; he's cloaked all in black, his face hidden by a mask.

Catacombs flicker with torch-light as the two descend into the sepulchral domain ruled by the Phantom in the winding tunnels beneath the city. Almost like Charon the boatman of the dead in Greek mythology, the Phantom takes Christine across a stygian lake that separates his inner sanctum from the rest of the Parisian underground.

Christine had been listening to the voice of the Phantom for years through the walls of the Opera House. He'd guided her and trained her, but she'd never known he was the Phantom. How she hadn't figured it out yet is a little beyond me, but she's not portrayed as the sharpest stick in the woods. When Christine finally does figure out her mysterious benefactor's true identity, she collapses in fright. Coming to, she slowly approaches the masked Phantom from behind. In one of the single most enduring images of fright filmdom, Christine quickly unmasks the Phantom, revealing his horrifying visage. Standing and turning, he lashes out at the terrified girl. He tells her she shall stay with him forever in his kingdom beneath the city. As Christine begs to be free, he partially concedes, granting her one last visit to say goodbye to the world; she must not, however see her lover Raoul. This, the Phantom gravely forbids.

At the grand Bal Masque (a masquerade ball), shot in an impressive, early, two-color Technicolor process, Christine finds Raoul. In a grandiose entrance, the Phantom coolly strolls into the Bal, dressed as Edgar Allen Poe's depiction of the Red Death. With a great flowing red cape and a skull-headed walking stick (to match his skull-head mask) he commands the attention of all in the great hall. As they stop and stare and the ominous, blood-colored ghoul, he scorns them for reveling atop the bodies of those tortured and buried in the tunnels below. While the Phantom delivers his mad tirade, Christine and Raoul duck away to the roof speak for the first time since her disappearance.

Little did the love birds know, the Phantom slipped away behind them and sat atop the Opera House listening to their plan to flee.

As the curtain rises on another performance at the Opera House, the Phantom blacks out the theater and abducts Christine! Raoul, along with a mysterious man from the Phantom's past (Arthur Edmund Carewe) discover the entrance to his lair and descend to rescue Christine.

Can the men survive the many dangerous traps set by the Phantom? Will Christine be forced to succumb to a madman for the rest of her days? Does the Phantom reign triumphant?

God love Lon Chaney. The old joke around the days of his highest popularity was if you saw something crawling, "Don't step on it, it might be Lon Chaney." With a simple makeup kit of standard items he created that bug-eyed, grinning, no-nosed ghoul and it has stood the test of time. And let me tell you, after all the changes the movie has been through over the years, that makeup is the one thing that has always stayed the same, and always been the best thing about the movie. A great deal of speculation has gone on over how Chaney actually achieved that ghastly look. Poplular myth has him sliding disks up his nose to point it; another story tells he glued a thin strip of latex or fish skin, yes fish skin, to the tip of his nose, pulled it tight, and glued it to his forehead. The prevailing story of those eyes is fairly constant, however. Chaney looped wires around his eye-sockets to make that wide-eyed, cadaverous gaze. In the end, I'm glad we aren't sure how he did it. In the age of CGI, it's nice to still see some magic in a movie.

What might be the biggest problem with viewing the Phantom of the Opera is knowing what version you are watching. It's quite hard to tell because it was re-released in 1929 with sound and extra footage. Notoriously wasteful, Universal lost all original copies of the print or processed it for the silver nitrate in the film (that's where 'silver screen' comes from). Over the years a foreign copy of the sound release, minus the soundtrack, was recovered and restored... several times, in several different ways. Universal let the copyright run out in 1953 allowing the film to fall into public domain, further muddying the waters. So depending upon which version you watch you might see Carlotta on screen, or she might be referred to as Carlotta's mother. That scene was added for the '29 release and was not seen in 1925. You might also see Raoul's brother who wasn't in the '25 version, or you might see a honeymoon scene at the end of the film (I won't spoil who's). No matter what version you watch though, what you always see is that historic unmasking and the horrible face, and that's what stays with you.

Unfortunately, Lon Chaney's presence in the first half of the movie is implied in order to build mystery around the Phantom. The most we see of him are his hands. The master pantomimist uses them to full effect, but they just don't convey emotion like his face. I completely understand that choice, but it's an enormous waste of Chaney's ability. Speaking of wastes of abilities, Mary Philbin was so far over the top, I half expected to see Snidely Whiplash jump out and threaten to tie her to railroad track. Norman Kerry was Norman Kerry. Not much ever changed with him from one movie to the next except costumes.

While Norman Kerry may not have changed much from film to film, this film changed a lot from director to director. Rupert Julian's replacement was comedy director Edward Sedgwick who inserted the chase through the streets of Paris, and a great deal of comedy. The comedy was scrapped before the release in 1925. The movie just had problems.

The color sequence at the Bal Masque, while dull compared to the sharp brilliant colors we're all used to now, is impressive. There were more color scenes in the original version, but over the years before the film's restoration all were lost. The color tinting of the Phantom's flowing red cape as he sat atop the Opera House was originally achieved by hand painting the film, today we see a computer-colored version. Still nice, but it's like having a replica of the original radio in your classic '57Chevy. It's just not as good as the original.

So, the Phantom of the Opera is not the best movie ever made. It's not the best silent movie ever made. It's not even the best Lon Chaney movie ever made. But it IS worth seeing, even worth owning if not for historical value, then to pop in the DVD player whenever you get sick of seeing CGI monsters and cheesy rubber masks. Watch Chaney grin and glare a few minutes and you'll be better in no time. Impressive to this day, but still a flawed piece of cinema, it's not as good as it could be, alas. But never mind.

This beats the hell out of Andrew Lloyd Weber's stage version.


  1. I love phantom of the opera are u kidding best show ever

  2. The Phantom of the Opera is a classic, to be sure.

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