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Phantom of the Opera

Phantom of the Opera

Universal / US

Lon Chaney - Erik / Phantom
Mary Philbin - Christine Daae
Norman Kerry - Raoul de Chagny
Snitz Edwards - Florine Papillon
Gibson Gowland - Simon
Rupert Julian - Director
Carl Laemmle - Producer
Raymond Schrock - Screenwriter
Charles Van Enger - Cinematographer
Charles D. Hall - Art Direction

Chaney as the Phantom Gaston Leroux wrote The Phantom of the Opera in 1911, and it is surprising that the story was not filmed for the first time until 1925, when Universal Pictures adapted it as a vehicle for Lon Chaney. Nearly all great horror movies are also great romances, and Leroux's tale of a deformed, masked composer, haunting the labyrinthine Paris Opera like a ghost, redeemed only by his love for a pretty young singer, has both qualities--horror and romance--in abundance. Erik, the Phantom (Chaney), may exhibit occasional homicidal tendencies, but like most of the screen's great "monsters," he is also in love, and this is his saving grace.

In adapting the novel, Universal was somewhat clumsy; the first half of the movie is uneventful, and there are too many extraneous characters throughout. Character background is also neglected; the audience should at least be filled in on Erik's origins, exactly who he is and how he came to be, but in one scene, after it is established that Erik's activities are being investigated by the police, we are shown a close-up of a file card, with one paragraph informing us that Erik (no surname) is criminally insane, a prison escapee and a "master of black art"--whatever that means.

The physical attributes of the movie cannot be faulted; the sets are big and impressive, the art direction imaginative and the costumes expensive and detailed. But, as noted, the film is sloppily constructed, and not at all as good an adaptation as Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At times the picture has a frantic, slap-dash editing style, almost like a serial, and this haphazard cutting may be due to difficulties that arose during production. According to Phantom cinematographer Charles Van Enger's statements in a published interview, Chaney and director Rupert Julian were in constant disagreement, and the animosity between them on the set was almost palpable.

Chaney & Philbin Eventually Chaney, a top star with real clout, wound up directing some of the picture himself. He may well have been justified in doing so, since Julian, though a competent enough director, simply wasn't the outstanding craftsman that flamboyant material like this demands. In fact, Julian almost completely botches one of the film's most famous scenes in which Erik ruthlessly saws through the chain suspending a massive chandelier over the opera auditorium, sending it crashing into the audience below. Julian filmed this potentially exciting thrill-piece in a bland and unimaginative manner. The same scene was filmed much better in the 1943 remake.

It is unclear exactly who shaped the picture's most famous scene in which the Phantom, in his underground lair, is unmasked by the young opera singer Christine (Mary Philbin) after he has abducted her. This mid-point show-stopper is cunningly devised, both photographically and editorially, with the camera positioned so that both Christine and the Phantom are facing forward when the unmasking occurs, allowing the audience to see the Phantom's monstrous, cadaverous visage first, and then Christine's shocked reaction when he turns around to confront her. The scene packs a jolt even today, after the rest of the film has lost much of its power to frighten, and the effect on audiences in 1925 must have been overwhelming. Chaney's make-up is fascinating, although a much lighter application than his make-up for Quasimiodo, really little more than an extension of his own features. Much has been written about the complexity of Chaney's various make-ups, and while some of this commentary is true, a good deal of it is also publicity hyperbole, endlessly repeated.

Chaney's enormous talent is readily apparent when cornparisons are made between his film make-ups and the unsuccessful reproductions of them in the 1957 biographical drama Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney as Chaney. In this film, a soapy but generally accurate and more or less sincere tribute to Chaney from Universal Pictures (the studio that intentionally destroyed all of his movies when they junked their silent film inventory in the 1940s), the various make-ups look stiff, mask-like (because they are masks) and not at all convincing. Aside from Chaney, the casting for The Phantom of the Opera leaves a lot to be desired. Mary Philbin is pretty as Christine, but not as good an actress as Patsy Ruth Miller in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although adequate, she falls short occasionally, coming across as too emotional in some scenes, and not emotional enough in others. Norman Kerry, Philbin's leading man, was a good enough actor, but looks shockingly middle-aged to be playing the hero romantically involved with Philbin, who was only 23.

at the masked ball In 1943, Claude Rains appeared in a big-budget, full-color sound remake of Phantom of the Opera for Universal, starring Susannah Foster and directed by Arthur Lubin. Because of the large budget and glossy treatment, the horror elements were intentionally deemphasized in favor of music and romance between Foster and her leading man Nelson Eddy; when Rains' make-up was finally revealed, it proved to be tame, sketchy, and not at all frightening. A new version of Phantom of the Opera, starring Herbert Lom and Heather Sears, was produced by England's Hammer Films in 1962, but the movie, although returning to the horrific intent of the original, was cheap and ineffective, with Lom's make-up no better than Rains' had been.

A low-budget made-for-television version, starring Maxmilian Schell and Jane Seymour, appeared in 1983. Schell's make-up consisted of a stiff, lifeless rubber mask, and director Robert Markowitz seemed incapable of generating any melodramatic atmosphere or of disguising Seymour's lack of singing talent. Due to the success of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical stage production of The Phantom of the Opera in the late 1980s, a new theatrical version, directed by Dwight H. Little and starring Robert Englund, was released in 1989, but the film failed at the box office.

A 200 minute made-for-television version also inspired by the popularity of the stage musical was broadcast in 1990, starring Charles Dance, Teri Polo and Burt Lancaster--who was cast for name value as the Phantom's father--and directed by Tony Richardson. But the most unconventional version of The Phantom of the Opera was director Brian DePalma's 1974 spoof The Phantom of the Paradise, starring Paul Williams, in which the oft-filmed story was reworked with a rock music theme. Despite its structural flaws, however, Chaney's Phantom remains the best screen adaptation of the novel.

--ROY KINNARD, from Horror in
Silent Films
, 1995

Note: The Phantom of the Opera has had a checkered distribution history; the 1925 version most commonly seen in circulation today exists only in prints of very poor quality. The vast majority of cheap video and DVD releases are from these prints. In 1929, Universal had prepared two new re-edited versions of the film, one recut from the original release version, the other with newly shot dialogue scenes, for which Philbin and Kerry were recalled, five years after the fact. While the re-edited 1929 version plays havoc with the film's original continuity--changing the order of shots and even altering the identity of at least one character--the existing prints are derived from 35mm materials and are of excellent quality. The release of this version, with a vibrant organ score by Gaylord Carter, is available from Kino International Video.

In the 1970s, a two-strip Technicolor print of the masked ball sequence (in which Chaney appears in masquerade, garbed in crimson as Poe's Red Death) resurfaced and has been restored to most prints (including Kino International's). Although it is of excellent quality and fascinating to see, originally the entire movie was full of tints and tones, and not in basic black-and-white. The newest restored version from Milestone DVD provides both versions. The 1929 re-edit, with a recently discovered sound effects track and some digital color tinting added, has some problems with double-exposure ghosting of the images, but also boasts an orchestral score by Carl Davis. The DVD also contains the original full-length (though poorer quality) 1925 black & white version.

A selection of Phantom related merchandise.

Find Phantom of the Opera on eBay

A selection of Phantom of the Opera books.

A History of Horror

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