The Phantom of the Opera (1925)


Like many of Universal's classic monsters the Phantom of the Opera had literary beginnings, with the movie being based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel.  Before becoming a fiction writer he had been a journalist, and one of the stories he had covered was the discovery of cells under the Paris Opera where prisoners had been held and tortured during an insurrection in 1870, which undoubtedly played a large part in the formation of his novel about a deformed madman living in the lair he constructed under the opera house and his obsession with a young soprano. 

Leroux was still alive to see his novel brought to cinematic life in 1925.  Produced by Carl Laemmle, and given a premiere production rather than the low-budget treatment of many detective and horror films of the time, The Phantom of the Opera centered around Lon Chaney playing the central role.  Chaney was a major star at the time, in demand both for his acting skills as well as his revolutionary makeup work.  Directed, for the most part, by Rupert Julian and co-starring Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, the look of the Phantom was withheld from press releases and Laemmle did his best to build up the anticipation of the movie.  It even had a cosmetic tie-in, with Philbin used in the promotion.

This would usually be where one would say how badly the movie flopped after all the money spent and all the effort into doing promotion, much of it for the first time in cinema history.  However, in this case it worked, with The Phantom of the Opera being one of the biggest movies of 1925, and bringing in even more profits upon its re-release in 1929, though slightly recut and with early attempts at sound added.  The reveal of the Phantom's face, which comes at about the midway point of the film, is still one of the classic horror movie scenes to this day.

After purchasing the Paris Opera, the new owners are warned that they have a ghost problem.  At first skeptical, they soon learn of a cloaked man who hides his face that sits in Box 5 to watch the performances.  The tale is widely known amongst the crew and the actors, with the Phantom being thought to be some strange creature that lives in the depths of the opera house.  He begins to make himself more known when he comes obsessed with a singer named Christine (Philbin), for whom he is able to procure a major boost to her career after frightening the normal leading lady away from the part.

Christine's suitor, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Kerry), is not content watch as the woman he loves is wooed by an unknown presence.  However, he finds that Christine, rather than being fully unfaithful, is in dire need of his help.  After the Phantom brings her to his lair she does the one thing he asks her not to - removes his mask - and he declares that she should be his or he will kill both her and Raoul.  As the truth becomes known about the Phantom's identity, Raoul teams up with a police inspector named Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe) to rescue Christine, while the crew of the Opera plan their own revenge for the death of one of their own. 

Rupert Julian, despite being named as the director and being the one that demanded Lon Chaney be cast in the lead, was constantly at odds with the cast.  To make things worse, tension arose between Chaney and Philbin, as she claimed he made advances toward her.  The ending was changed and a good portion of the movie was reshot before being released, but despite everything that would signal a disaster today the movie became a major hit.  Chaney himself directed a number of scenes, as did Ernst Laemmle and supposedly a number of others between reshoots for the original and new scenes and revisions for the 1929 release.  Despite this the style of the movie, framed by cinematographer Charles Van Enger, is consistent throughout, using shadows on walls, trap doors, secret passages and such to great effect.  The set design is some of the most elaborate of the time as well as some of the most memorable, with the opera house set itself being reused and restored a number of times for movies throughout the decades.

While innovative, it is not the first movie to use color.  George Méliès used hand coloring for many of his most famous films, but The Phantom of the Opera was one of the first to employ both hand tinting (in the scenes of the Phantom, in costume as the Red Death, on the roof of the Opera) as well as early Technicolor in the scenes during the Masked Ball.  Despite the reveal being one of the most famous scenes, the Red Death costume is almost as striking, with Chaney appearing both in costume and unmasked in different scenes.  The film is tinted throughout to represent different light sources, as most major productions from the 1920s were, even though some of the other color scenes at this point are lost.  Unfortunately, without the movie not being under copyright, many versions of the movie are presented with generic soundtracks and with no color or tinting, and often heavily edited.

Somewhat unfortunately the sources we do have are from the 1929 re-release, although the sound portions (which were primitive) have been lost.  The fortunate part is that by Laemmle doing an early George Lucas on this movie much more of it was saved that would have been, even if parts were re-edited from the original 1925 version.  The film had still deteriorated by the time restoration efforts were made in the 1950s, and further efforts to restore it were done in the 2000s, leading to the most complete version that was released in 2016 and is usually shown on Turner Classic Movies.  This is fortunate because, although Chaney was one of the biggest stars and definitely one of the great cinematic actors of the time, many of his movies are lost.  This shows him at the peak of his career, both as an actor and a makeup artist, but Philbin, Kerry and Carewe all hold their own as well.

It is still a production of its time.  Silent films relied heavily on pantomime and overacting and, while the camera is mobile when it has to be, much of the filming is still done with stationary filming.  By this point even that was largely dealt with by making sure that, if the camera couldn't move, everything in frame was.  There would be motion in front, to the sides and in the distance, layering the picture much the way a monophonic record would be layered before stereo.  The Phantom of the Opera is so kinetic that much of the time it is hard to tell that one is looking at a static shot.  Still, despite being of its time, the movie delivers on its promise of suspense and excitement, and has been hard to top despite almost constant remakes down through the decades.  

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Time: 93 minutes
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe
Director: Rupert Julian

 

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