(1925/1929) Directed by: Rupert Julian; Written by Elliott J. Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock; Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux; Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Snitz Edwards, Virginia Pearson and Mary Fabian; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video
“Look not upon my mask – think rather of my devotion, which has brought you the gift of song.”
– The Phantom (Lon Chaney)
Even if you’ve never seen the original cinematic version of The Phantom of the Opera (and if you haven’t, what’s your excuse?), Lon Chaney’s inimitable portrayal of the title character is embedded in our consciousness. Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel about a shadowy figure that haunts the Paris Opera House has been interpreted and re-interpreted on stage and screen so many times, I’d wager most people have seen it in one form or another. It’s the original adaptation, however, that all other versions are inevitably judged against.
The lavish Universal Pictures production “…which would give Lon Chaney a chance to use more make-up and Carl Laemmle a chance to spend more money.” (excerpt from 1926 article “The Phantom Jinx,” by Robert E. Sherwood, Photoplay Magazine), endured a rocky road to the silver screen. Chaney and director Rupert Julian reportedly didn’t see eye to eye on the production, and rumors persisted that the veteran actor took over directing chores for some scenes. The original cut ran an ungainly 22 reels, or approximately four hours, before being edited down to a more manageable length. Before its initial fall 1925 release, it underwent several iterations, bouncing around preview screenings in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Comic-relief scenes featuring Chester Conklin and garden party sequences with Ward Crane were casualties of the editing process. Once again, the film received a major revision for the 1929 version, with some additional editing and scenes being re-shot (Virginia Pearson, who originally starred as the prissy diva Carlotta became Carlotta’s mother in the new version). Further tweaks involved adding sound elements (with a spoken prologue). Time wasn’t kind to the film, as Universal* allowed the copyright to lapse in 1953, and the film fell into public domain.
* Not So Fun Fact: Universal had a particularly bad track record taking care of its silent legacy, melting down many film reels for silver. As a result, most of Chaney’s early work with the studio is presumed lost.
Who better to depict the anguished title character than the crown prince of unrequited love, Lon Chaney. His anguished interpretation shines through the various versions and troubled production history. As was his trademark, Chaney created the makeup (unthinkable for a large production today), which remains to this day the definitive depiction of the Phantom, with a distinctive skull-like visage, his face frozen in a ghastly rictus. It’s a testament to Chaney’s strength as an actor that he doesn’t rest on the laurels of his impressive makeup. As the unseen muse for the ingénue Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), he speaks to the audience with his body movements and gestures. Whenever the Phantom (aka: Erik) is on screen, all eyes are firmly planted on Chaney.
Christine and Raoul de Chagny, co-stars Philbin and Norman Kerry make a cute couple, but add little else, other than to move the story along. When they share the screen, it’s clear that Philbin isn’t in the same league as Chaney. Her movements and expressions seem rooted in melodrama, whereas Chaney appears to be channeling the spirit of the Phantom. Thankfully, the supporting roles make up for any deficits from Chaney’s co-stars. The real standout is Arthur Edmund Carewe (whose screen-time was shortened for the 1929 re-issue) as the enigmatic police inspector Ledoux, who’s been on the trail of the Phantom for months, and seems to possess a sixth sense about how he operates. Carewe is a joy to watch, creating an air of mystery with a simple gesture or stare. Although many of the comedy bits were removed (probably a good thing), the film retains some nice bits of humor to lighten the mood, particularly from the fine character actor Snitz Edwards. As stagehand Florine Papillon, he witnesses the mysterious comings and goings of the Phantom.
Aside from Chaney’s remarkable performance, The Phantom of the Opera is a treat for the eyes, featuring amazing set pieces,* including an enormous re-creation of the Paris Opera House, and the extensive underground catacombs where the Phantom dwells. Only second to the famous unmasking scene is the stunning two-strip Technicolor masquerade sequence (the only color sequence that remains) of the Phantom striding in his red cape and costume, with a skull mask (“Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does Red Death rebuke your merriment!”). It’s the film’s meticulous attention to detail throughout that makes other versions pale in comparison.
* Fun Fact: According to film historian John C. Mirsalis, the boat-shaped bed in the Phantom’s lair (set aside for Christine) appeared 25 years later in Norma Desmond’s bedroom in Sunset Boulevard
Unlike many subsequent versions (notably the 1943 film with Claude Rains and Hammer’s 1962 version with Herbert Lom), the silent Phantom of the Opera doesn’t get bogged down in Erik’s origins. Instead of an elaborate back story, we’re left to speculate about the situation that led to his self-exile and infatuation with the Paris Opera House. Leroux’s book and the Chaney film also influenced the hugely successful Broadway musical (yes, I’ve seen it a few times), and a tepid film adaptation by Joel Schumacher. The story has undergone quite a few additional permutations, including Brian De Palma’s underappreciated mini-masterpiece Phantom of the Paradise (1974), and if I know Hollywood (well, I don’t know Hollywood personally, but you get the idea), the powers that be are probably cooking up yet another version. Nothing quite compares to the original film, though, for a traditional take on the material. Forget about the glut of inferior public domain home video releases, and splurge on the deluxe Kino Blu-ray.* You’ll be glad you did.
* The options on the Kino disc can be quite confusing, with three versions, 24 fps and 20 fps, and a wealth of features and soundtrack options, including an informative commentary by John C. Mirsalis. Due to degradation of the silver nitrate source print, not every frame is pristine, but who’s complaining? This is about as good as it’s ever going to look.