Today’s cinema adventure: The Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 silent horror film featuring the legendary Lon Chaney in his most famous and recognizable role; it was a troubled production, but it ultimately proved so successful that it sparked a two-decade reign by its studio, Universal, as the premiere source of horror on the big screen. Critics at the time were lukewarm in their overall response to the film, though most were impressed by its production values and visual style, but they bestowed unanimous acclaim upon the element which was- and remains- its greatest appeal: the electrifying performance of Chaney as the title character, and the still-terrifying makeup he designed to transform himself into a ghoulish human monster.
Based on the 1909 novel by French author Gaston Leroux, the film’s plot differs somewhat in its details from the one familiar to fans of the now-better-known stage musical based on the same source, but the general premise remains the same. The prestigious Paris Opera is haunted by a mysterious shadowy figure known only as “The Phantom,” who is, in reality, a grotesquely disfigured musical genius that dwells in a secret lair deep within the catacombs beneath the opera house. Becoming enamored of Christine, the understudy to the Opera’s temperamental prima donna, he coaches her singing from behind the walls of her dressing room, and begins to send threatening letters to the Opera’s owners demanding they allow her to replace their star onstage; when they refuse to cooperate, he sabotages a performance, crashing the grand chandelier into the audience, and then kidnaps his protégé, prompting a desperate rescue attempt by her lover, Raoul, and sparking a manhunt to capture the fiend and put an end to his reign of terror, once and for all.
This highly melodramatic plot has since been fleshed out by a numerous variety of interpretations, from the gothic horror approach of Hammer Studios to the campy glam-fantasy of Brian DePalma’s seventies cult classic, The Phantom of the Paradise; but this original screen version remains, nearly 90 years later, the most iconic. Though many in today’s world have never seen the film, it would be hard to find someone unfamiliar with the horrific countenance of Lon Chaney’s Phantom; his pale, grinning, skull-like features are still among the most recognizable in horror cinema, turning up in various forms of media throughout our popular culture- even on a postage stamp- and continuing to inspire artists and actors today in their efforts to terrify. Without question, unless you are a serious film scholar- or a hardcore completionist- Chaney is the only real reason for a modern viewer to see The Phantom of the Opera; his makeup alone is worth the time investment, an impressive creation of face paint and wire which caused him excruciating pain during filming. His appearance- the most faithful depiction of the character to date, as described in the novel- is so gruesome that audiences of the day reportedly leaped from their seats in terror, and some weaker spirits even fainted from the shock- though doubtless some of these incidents were embellished by the studio for publicity purposes. However, Chaney’s magnificently deformed visage is only part of his draw here; the reason he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was that he had an uncanny gift for making such monstrous characters profoundly human, finding their hearts and rendering them with a rare poignancy that ultimately made them far more sympathetic than the stiffly artificial performers that surrounded them. His work is a revelation for anyone whose conception of silent film acting is limited to the stilted, melodramatic style represented by most of his contemporaries; his gift shines through the antiquated techniques of the form, reminding us of the effectiveness of pantomime as practiced by a true master. He communicates volumes of complex emotion with his body language and tells whole stories with the subtlest of gestures. He presents such a clear portrait of the pain and sadness lurking beneath the phantom’s furious persona that we cannot help but be on his side, for all the mayhem he causes; he conveys the depth of this man’s tragic experience- the isolation, the ridicule, the self-loathing- that has led him to hide himself away from the eyes of the world, and he makes us hope alongside him that the beauty of his musical gift will be enough to make Christine see past his physical ugliness and fall in love with the tender soul it conceals. We know that it won’t work, of course, which only serves to heighten our pity for this miserable outcast, dangerously mad though he may be.
Thanks to the success of Chaney’s previous blockbuster for Universal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the studio knew they had a major asset; consequently they spared no expense in the preparation of this follow-up, building lavish sets of enormous scale upon which to play out the drama. The production design (headed by the uncredited Ben Carré) centers on a complete vision of the Paris Opera House, giving us its opulent interiors, its magnificent façade and spectacular rooftop, and the elaborate sets and costumes for its onstage production of Faust (which, appropriately enough, figures prominently in the plot), including a backstage view full of looming and ominous props and set pieces. As for its dark underbelly, the Phantom’s sinister hideaway is a splendidly imaginative mix of gothic gloom and regal refinement, with dark labyrinthine passageways that include such improbable elements as a horse and an underground lake, leading to residential chambers resplendent with elegant décor and devilish mechanisms. Adding to the visual bedazzlement, the film utilizes a the technique of monochromatic tinting to create moods and to differentiate settings- a fairly common method of the era, and a far cry from the drab look most modern viewers associate with the silent cinema, due to the decades in which only faded black-and-white prints of these films were available. Thanks to modern restoration, we are treated not only to the recreation of this effect, which greatly enhances the visual experience of the film, but also to the full glory of the two-tone color process used for the film’s centerpiece, a grand masked ball sequence in which the Phantom appears amongst the revelers costumed as the Red Death.
Apart from the scenery, though, when Chaney is absent from the screen we are left, for the most part, with little to hold our interest. Though it’s important to remember that the overwrought posing practiced by most of the other actors was the accepted technique of the day, and that the performers here were well-known, popular, and respected stars at the time, modern audiences are still likely to feel alienated rather than endeared by the likes of such primitive thespians as Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, who portray Christine and Raoul, particularly when contrasted with the raw, timeless power of the film’s star. It’s not that they give bad performances- by the standard of the day, they were more than competent- but that they seem vaguely silly to us now, holdovers from the pulpy melodrama theatre which dominated American entertainment before the movies took over our collective imagination. Still, if one can get past the stylistic gap created by the intervening decades of changing fashion, it’s possible to see the talent on display here. There are some nice moments from Philbin, who was a lovely young woman, to be sure, exuding a sweetness and sincerity that seems particularly noticeable when she shares the screen with Chaney; and some of the supporting players provide memorable contributions, such as early Broadway star Snitz Edwards as a decidedly fey and cowardly stagehand who provides comic relief, and the uncredited Bernard Siegel as the Opera company’s resident “expert” on the Phantom. Kerry’s Raoul gets the worst deal, despite his then-much-heralded matinee-idol looks; his character is a stock, one-dimensional bore, and though he does give every effort to make some real feeling come through, his performance comes off as wooden and unimaginative, and the character seems almost dull-witted at times, making us root all the more for the Phantom in his efforts to win Christine away from him. Far more interesting is Arthur Edmund Carewe, who portrays Ledoux, a police detective secretly investigating the case of the mysterious opera ghost, who emerges just in time to become an ally in the quest to save Christine; despite the fact that the character was completely rewritten during the process of creating the intertitles- having originally been a Persian former associate of the Phantom now on his trail- and his scenes were filmed with a completely different backstory in mind, he still comes off better than Raoul, decisive, determined and brave. Barring her acceptance of the Phantom’s love, it would be better for Christine to fall for this hero, instead of the boring, moon-eyed stiff with whom she ends up.
The subject of Ledoux and his rewritten backstory brings up a major point in the discussion of The Phantom of the Opera- its tumultuous production history. Universal originally hired Rupert Julian, a prestigious director of stylish romances, to helm the project, but the shooting process was marred by his difficult relations with the cast and crew. Nevertheless, he succeeded in providing a final cut, more faithful to the novel’s plotline, including the mysterious Persian and keeping the original ending, in which the Phantom allows Christine and Raoul to leave together and remains in his underground hideout to die of a broken heart; unfortunately, the unfavorable reaction of preview audiences prompted the studio to embark on major rewriting and reshooting, without Julian (though his name was- and still is- retained as the credited director), which involved the creation of several subplots, new characters, more comic relief, and a different ending in which the Phantom is chased down by an angry mob and savagely murdered. Unfortunately, this version also bombed in previews, so the desperate studio scrapped most of it (though they retained the new, more “exciting” finale) and attempted to salvage the project by re-editing and rewriting the original cut (this is when the Persian became a Parisian police inspector). This time, it clicked, and the film was a huge hit- though, as mentioned, the critics found it somewhat mediocre, save for Chaney- and became a cash cow for Universal; in fact, it was so popular that upon the advent of sound a few years later, the studio shot new sequences (including more extensive scenes of the opera) and added a dubbed soundtrack featuring members of the original cast, except for Chaney (who was by then under contract with MGM). This version was also a success, but it has proven problematic for the film’s subsequent history; over the years, thanks to the negligence of the studio in preserving its original negatives, the only remaining prints of The Phantom of the Opera are a widely varying mish-mash of combinations from its different incarnations, making it virtually impossible to reconstruct its original form. As a result, the version now widely available contains material from both the final release cut of 1925 and the 1930 pseudo-talkie edition; sadly, there are sections which only survived in badly deteriorated form, making the contemporary version frustratingly patchy in its overall visual coherence. There are other inconsistencies, too, such as the use of a different actress as Carlotta (the opera’s prima donna) in the later version, a problem explained by changing the character’s former incarnation into “Carlotta’s Mother” for her retained scenes in the Opera managers’ office and billing the second actress (who appears only in the Faust performance scenes) as the actual “Carlotta.”
Despite all this, however, the current restored edition of The Phantom of the Opera preserves a valuable piece of cinematic history, and provides the interested viewer with a chance to experience the original screen version of this oft-filmed tale in a condition as close as possible to its initial, pristine form. Some of it is eye-opening, such as the important role of color in telling its story, a factor that was lost for many years; some of it, of course, comes up short of the expectation created by the film’s reputation, revealing the shortcomings observed by critics of the day, such as a somewhat shallow focus on spectacle and sensationalism at the expense of the deeper subtext inherent in its ultimately tragic tale, and the inclusion of certain bizarre, melodramatic elements designed merely to elicit audience response without consideration for their logic within the larger scope of the narrative. That said, it would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to see this venerable classic, a film which has generated so much influence and so many imitators over the years that it has entered the realm of legend. Though the film itself may not live up to its legendary status, the performance at its center certainly does; in fact, seeing it today, Lon Chaney’s Phantom seems perhaps even greater than it did in 1925, as fresh and immediate as if it were filmed yesterday, despite the elevated style. This is a testament to his powerful gift, with which he was able to reach across the decades, even 80 years after his death, to touch our world with his understanding of the human soul.