At the Opera of Paris, a mysterious phantom threatens a famous lyric singer, Carlotta and thus forces her to give up her role (Marguerite in Faust) for unknown Christine Daae. Christine meets this phantom (a masked man) in the catacombs, where he lives. What's his goal ? What's his secret ? Written by
"The Phantom of the Opera" is a tale that's been oft told, but all too often it's told poorly. The story--a grand melodrama, like much of opera itself--requires a fine balance of terror and tragedy, with perhaps a bit of camp humor to lighten the proceedings, and finding the right tone is a task which has defeated many a director and actor. But it can be done, as this first of the many film incarnations proves.
For anyone needing an overview of Gaston Leroux's tale, the premise is briefly thus: during the latter decades of the Victorian Era, the great Paris Opera is troubled with whispers of a ghost--a frightening specter which visits misfortune on the company should they fail to please him. Up-and-coming singer Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), meanwhile, is more preoccupied with her singing tutor--a disembodied voice she believes to be an emissary from her dead father, who guides her to new heights but demands she put her music above all else, including and especially her handsome childhood sweetheart Raoul (Norman Kerry). Neither Phantom nor tutor is a spirit in truth, but are two different sides of the same man--a horribly disfigured, unnaturally gifted, and frighteningly passionate man, but a man nonetheless.
Despite dated acting techniques and some extremely overwrought title cards ("You must save me, Raoul--oh, save me!" Christine pleads at one point), the silent film version of "Phantom" has held up remarkably well, thanks to some evocative scenes and an unforgettable turn by Lon Chaney in the title role. The moment when the Phantom, driven by his all-consuming desire for Christine, lures the girl into his home beneath the Opera is every bit as eerie and compelling as it should be. An Escher-like series of ramps descends into the earth, leading to the sort of black subterranean lake Charon would feel at home on, and an underground apartment that seems fairly normal, until you see the coffin in the master bedroom and the mirrored torture chamber adjoining.
Any version of "Phantom," though, lives or dies by its title character, and Chaney does not disappoint. Even in his early scenes, where he appears almost solely as a shadow on the wall, he has a remarkable presence, his gestures expressive and elegant in silhouette. The audience first sees him in physical form as Christine first sees him--a masked and cloaked figure, disturbing yet with an aura of weary sadness about him. When that mask finally comes off in the film's landmark scene, Chaney's makeup genius is instantly in evidence. The wild-eyed, cadaverous skull remains the most frightening interpretations of the Phantom's disfigurement, and also the one which hews closest to Leroux's description. (To be fair, it's doubtful Chaney's makeup would have been practical in a sound film; the distortions of his nose and mouth would have made speaking--and singing--very difficult indeed.) The movie's greatest weakness is its ending, a chase scene (complete with the standard Angry Torch-Bearing Mob) that feels wedged in, probably because that's precisely what it is. The original ending stuck with Leroux's novel, where the Phantom, moved by Christine's compassion, releases her to marry her young suitor--but the first audiences, apparently not as empathetic for the character as his creator was, found this ending an unsatisfying one. Unfortunately, the current resolution denies the Phantom the redemption which has been a major part of his appeal to modern audiences, and one wishes that we had an opportunity to see Chaney portray it. But on the whole, this is a "Phantom" that remains head and shoulders above its many film successors.
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