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The current copy of the Universal production of "The Phantom of the Opera"
(1925) is only a shadow of what was once a great film.
Originally, the way the film was shot, it stayed quite close to the book. Many people have complaints about the film straying from the novel, but key sequences like the Graveyard at Perros and the alternate ending where Erik dies of Christine's kiss were shot, then scrapped, then reshot, and then re-scrapped. Eventually, they were just rewritten or disacknowledged altogether.
The original cut was shown in Los Angeles on January 7 and 26, 1925. This was the cut that used the most footage from what was shot starting on October-December 1924. Due to poor reviews, the January release was pulled, and Rupert Julian was told to reshoot most of the picture. Already having become a difficult director and egocentric over the fact that he was the star director ever since he replaced Erich Von Stroheim on THE MERRY-GO-ROUND (1924), he walked out on the studio.
Edward Sedgewick (later director of Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN), who was working for Universal at the time, was asked by Carl Laemmele to reshoot and redirect a bulk of the movie. Raymond L. Schrock, who along with Elliot Clawson, was the screenwriter for the film, re-wrote new scenes to add into the film by the request of Sedgewick. Most of these scenes were added subplots, with Chester Conklin and Vola Vale as comedic partners to the heroes and Ward Crane as the Russian, "Count Ruboff" dueling for Christine's affection. This cut premiered in San Fransico on April 26, 1925 and also failed miserably with reviews.
The final cut had to be made, so Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber re-wrote the final draft script, which was edited to the final nine reels, which debuted on September 6, 1925 at the Astor Theater in New York City, and October 17, 1925 in Hollywood. This cut only exists in 16mm Show-At-Home prints made by Universal for home movie use. These prints are not top quality, but watchable, and even the most complete existing version of this print today is incomplete from years of splicing. These 16mm prints sometimes make it to the underground video market and are best to watch for story, but not for quality.
If you think about all of the mishandling in between, you realize how much has been tampered with the film so far. To add insult to injury, most prints circulating today, including Kino's and the Kevin Brownlow restoration, are actually from a re-release in 1929. When sound came around, Universal immediately redubbed Phantom in sound and re-shot about 40% of the film (whatever Lon Chaney was not in, since he was unavailable). The only quality 35mm print today is a copy made in 1950 for Eastman House in Rochester, NY of the silent cut of the sound re-release to distribute to theaters that didn't have sound systems.
So as you can see, it is really almost impossible to truly critique THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). It is a semi-lost film.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Universal, 1925), directed by Rupert Julian,
from the celebrated novel by Gaston Leroux, stars Lon Chaney, the
legendary "man of a thousand faces," in what is hailed to be his most
famous movie role, as well as one of the most bizarre presentations of
his thousand faces ever shown on screen.
Hailed as a horror movie, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is actually a mystery tale with added suspense that takes place in a Paris opera house believed to be haunted by a mysterious cloaked figure obsessed by one particular girl, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), an understudy, whose main interest is her love for Raoul De Chagny (Norman Kerry), her fiancé. Christine keeps hearing a compelling voice behind the walls of her dressing room that gives her encouragement to perform. Her career soon takes a turn for the better when the lead performer is "mysteriously" unable to go on and Christine is called to take her place. The voice later summons Christine to the cellar five flights beyond the opera house where she follows this sinister man whose face is covered with a mask. Although she fears him not, Christine becomes very curious about "The Phantom," but curiosity gets the better of her when she decides to creep up from behind the phantom and remove his mask, only to get the surprise of her life. The Phantom agrees to release Christine from his underground cellar (consisting of a coffin bed where the Phantom sleeps) at a promise that she not only devote herself to her opera singing, but to never see or speak to her fiancé again. Only after Christine has a secret meeting with Raoul during a ball masque does the Phantom, who shadowed her, to make Christine his prisoner of love.
In true Universal fashion, this Gothic presentation has all the elements of a suspense thriller. From its opening shot shows a cloaked figure creeping about the underground cellar of the opera house. The storyline immediately gets down to basics in which there's a discussion amongst the staff regarding a mysterious figure roaming about, followed by the sudden appearance of another mysterious character (Arthur Edmund Carewe) walking about the opera house, saying nothing but observing everything. In between these key scenes leading to the purpose of the movie title, there are ballet and opera sequences inter-cutting the plot, along with a stage hand (Snitz Edwards) supplying some "comic relief.". This being a silent film, the compositions from FAUST cannot be heard, but are usually heard through the underscoring which accompanies the film. Besides the now familiar story and its just famous unmasking sequence, it's Chaney as Erik, the mysterious phantom, with his skull-like appearance, who makes this one of the most intense characters ever played on the screen. The movie, itself, fails to explore the background to Erik's character, as to why does he choose Christine as his selected one. Only late into the story is it realized, through the investigation in the police records by Christine's fiancé, Raoul, that Erik is not only a self-educated musician having escaped imprisonment from Devil's Island, but is actually insane. Other than being insane, he's a genius, for that he has decorated his underground chambers with certain traps, including a room that can fill with water or become filled with intense heat for his intruders. While Erik being insane might explain certain aspects as his intent to kill certain individuals at the opera house (with one scene finding one man left dangling from a noose), but fails to answer the question, "Was Erik born this way or was he a rejected creation of Doctor Frankenstein?"
So popular upon its release, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was reissued in 1930, a shorter print with added talking sequences and new orchestral score. Universal remade THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1943 with Claude Rains; and in 1962 with Herbert Lom, each performed differently from the Chaney carnation, but with some explained detail to the Phantom's background of character.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has achieved cult status over the years, due to constant revivals, ranging from theaters to television. It was one of the selected twelve movies shown on public television's 1975 presentation of "The Silent Years", hosted by Lillian Gish. During the era of home video in the 1980s, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA not only became a public domain title, but consisted of various versions and different scores. The Kartes Video Communications print features no scoring but a different opening introducing Raoul de Chagny (Kerry) and his brother, Philippe (John St. Polis), through title cards, and other scenes detailing the character of Carlotta (Virginia Pearson). There's even a conclusion with Christine and Raoul kissing on their honeymoon in Viroflay, a fade-out that's non-existent in most prints. BLACKHAWK Video, later Republic Home Video, included an excellent organ score (by Gaylord Carter) and clear picture quality of 79 minutes, the standard length of many video copies, but excluding the brief honeymoon closing. This similar print can be found from KINO Video.
In one of the Turner Classic Movies cable TV presentations of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA during its weekly Silent Sunday Nights a few years ago, the station, having broadcast with a traditional organ score in years past, presented Halloween night one of the worst reproductions and bad orchestrations ever presented for a silent movie, making this 97 minute version appear endless. Eventually TCM went ahead and a more soothing copy and organ score afterwards.
As it stands, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA can be seen numerous ways on video and DVD (at either 97 minutes or longer with orchestral scoring), but it's Lon Chaney's cloak figure that will remain in lasting memory long after the movie is over. (***)
Lon Chaney was the first of the long line of Phantoms and the one
against whom all his successors had to be measured
The story, despite all its alternatives, is the familiar one of the musician avoiding the world because of his disfigurement and retreating to a hideout beneath the Opera House, from where he emerges to terrorize singers and audience alike
He kidnaps a young girl singer perhaps to teach her to become a great star; certainly because, in his grotesque and pathetic way, he loves her and carries her off to a boudoir he has prepared far underground
There was melodrama in plenty: in the first version, for example, two would-be rescuers found themselves trapped in an uncomfortable mirrored room the Phantom had prepared, where they first got a heat treatment and then were flooded
But, beyond all the heightened effects, it was the pathos of the Phantom underscoring his lonely menace which gave the character a dimension, and the isolation of the captor and his captive, imprisoned to a literal underworld, which gave the suspense of the whole film its power
"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.
Turner Classic Movies owns a restored copy of this film, which I saw
from beginning to end for the first time last night. Thanks Ted!
For an 80 year old film, I was honestly swept away by the strengths of this production. OK, once you get past some of the hammy acting, remembering that it was completely de reguer for the time, you get caught up in it.
It has a very steady editing pace, which carries you along in the story, and so there are few, if any, slow points. The plotting and narrative are clear, there are no ' what did he say/mean' moments. The characters are pretty well filled out (there are a few exceptions, most notable the character of the boyfriend/hero) and so the plot wraps around you easily and enjoyably. The production values are amazingly high in this film, the recreation of the Opera (the grand staircase, the auditorium and the stage) the underground (the Phantom's lair, the underground river, the chambers and sub-chambers) and the exteriors were all created in Hollywood full scale. Unlike now, when we would have gotten some truly terrible CGI trash, when that chandelier drops from ceiling it's a real chandelier, it's a real ceiling and its really COOL!
Cant leave out the amazing secret that few if any talk about, but did you know that not only are certain scenes single color tinted, but there is an amazing 2 strip Technicolor sequence, the Masked Ball, that takes place on the grand staircase. Further, there is an stunning sequence that takes place on the roof of the Opera, the Phantom lurking on the parapet, his 'Red Death' costume from the ball billowing behind him in the wind while he stalks the heroine.
If you are expecting buckets of blood and Spiderman-like effects, this isn't the film for you. If you are looking for a fun film with romance, adventure and thrills in it, if you have an appreciation for classic film making, or just want a film you can watch with the kids, this one has a lot to offer.
This 1925 silent classic is still impressive, even after seventy-nine
Lon Chaney's performance is easily the highlight of the movie. His ghostly movements about his underground lair are haunting even by today's standards.
Use all of the computer generated images you want, but there is no substitute for authentic, old-world macabre. The scene where Erik's face is revealed is still shocking. He seems as horrorified by Christine seeing his face as she is by seeing his face. He seems to feel genuinely violated by her taking his mask off, revealing his horrible visage to the last person on earth he would want to see it. The Technicolor scene of the "Bal Masque" is also quite famous. The backdrops are very effective in creating the moody, medieval atmosphere of the underground passages. All in all, an excellent version of a timeless story.
The titled character is a badly disfigured man (Lon Chaney) who stays in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House. He falls in love with the theater's newest leading lady (Mary Philbin) and hatches a plan to take her down to his tomb. Masked, able to play lovely music and say such lovely things, she finds herself strangely attracted to Chaney. However, she makes the mistake of unmasking him and that is when he shows his true deviant colors. "The Phantom of the Opera" is one of the finest pictures of the late silent era and Chaney was arguably the greatest performer of the period (of course Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin fans would not agree). His ability to literally transform himself into movie monsters is truly uncanny, especially considering the lack of technical resources in the 1920s. New Zealand director Rupert Julian (who took sole credit in spite of the fact that Chaney and fellow director Edward Sedgwick also did some of the work behind the camera) uses tone to stretch his audience to their outer-limits throughout. Spooky, dramatic, stressful and memorable, "The Phantom of the Opera" is one of those silent pictures that will suck you in and never let you go. 5 stars out of 5.
Lon Chaney, Sr. gives a legendary performance as well as making an everlasting horrifying spectacle of himself. The make-up and elaborate sets are truly to be held in awe, even by today's standards. The rare use of two-strip Technicolor brings dazzling effect to the incomparable masquerade ball scene. Sit back and enjoy the silent and definitive film version of a classic monster fable that sound, technology and time have yet to top. 8 Stars
One of the most eminent horror films ever made and perhaps even the most
famous silent horror movie from that time. Lon Chaney starred in over 150
films (most of them silent ones) but he'll always be remembered best for his
personification of Erik, the Phantom. And justified! Even though this role
was played by many respectable actors afterwards (like Claude Rains, Herbert
Lom and Robert Englund) Lon Chaney is and remains the one and only
Phantom of the Opera. The film itself is depressing and dark, with terrific
photography and settings. Deep down the catacombs of the Parisian Opera
building, the phantom reigns in forgotten dungeons and underground lakes.
After all these years of dwelling in the opera, he has fallen in love with
the unsuccessful singer, Christine. He helps her career a little and
threatens to kill the prominent singer Carlotta if she doesn't hand over the
her role in Faust to Christine. The until then unknown singer is thankful
and meets her `master' in the catacombs. Her appreciation soon turns into
fear when she finds out her benefactor is the horribly scarred Phantom of
the Opera. The biggest difference between this first version and the later
remakes lies in the roots of the Phantom. Here, Erik is said to be an
escaped madman whereas he merely only was a hurt romanticist in later
versions. His deformed appearance isn't explained and neither is shown how
he falls for the beautiful, shy Christine.
At least 3 sequences in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera are legendary and still astonishing after almost 80 years. The masked bal, which the Phantoms attends as the `Red Death' is an outstanding horror sequence and truly atmospheric. The grimaces of Chaney seem to look right through the other partygoers and his search for Christine is relentless. Immediately after this scene, the crew moves to the roof of the Opera building and Chaney takes place on top of the Apollo statue. A breathtaking piece of early cinema that stands the test of time like no other. The climax of Phantom of the Opera is an extended series of chasings and battues, resulting in the dramatic (and gruesome) death of our protagonist. Rupert Julian's classic silent has got everything! An actor capable of carrying the toughest role ever written, beautiful scenery, real-life drama, sentiment and romance. And last but not least an unbearable tension Throughout the entire film, you're looking at it with your eyes wide open.
Chaney is best known today for two roles: Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of
Notre Dame," and Erik in "The Phantom of the Opera." The pair contrast the
human response to physical deformity. While Quasimodo searches for kindness
and acts to protect his home and loved ones, Erik shuns humanity and in his
hatred and isolation becomes truly evil.
Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) is the understudy at the Paris Opera house, an ancient structure built over a network of torture chambers and interconnecting cellars. Rumors abound of a ghost or phantom who stalks the halls, and even rents his own box for the performances. With the help of this mysterious stranger, Daae becomes the lead diva.
Daae, apparently fine with her benefactor's use of extortion and mass murder to help her career, dumps her boyfriend Raoul (Norman Kerry) and follows the masked Phantom into the bowels of the opera house. She is, however, sensitive enough to collapse in a faint at the discovery that her benefactor is the legendary Phantom, and at his profession of love for her.
Awakening, she discovers herself in a lavish bedroom he has prepared for her, with her name engraved on a hand mirror. But upon snatching off the Phantom's mask, she realizes that he isn't Prince Charming after all, but hideously deformed, with a skull-like face.
The Phantom returns her to the opera, telling her that she must never see Raoul again. Upon reflection, however, Christine decides that looks and sanity are more important to her in a lover than she originally thought, and makes plans to meet Raoul at the annual masked ball. Raoul, neither particularly brave or smart, suggests that the two of them hightail it out of town. Christine, not one to run before her chance at the big time, suggests that they flee after the following evening's performance. Erik, of course, is listening in.
At that point Erik drops his nice-guy facade, hangs a stagehand who discovers his trap door, kidnaps Christine and flees into the cellars. He is hotly pursued by Raoul and a Secret Police inspector, who are followed by Raoul's brother, who is followed by angry mob led by the murdered stagehand's brother.
Erik, meanwhile, is trying to convince Christine of his capacity to reform ("No longer like a toad in these foul cellars will I secrete the venom of hatred -- for you shall bring me love!"). Alas, his plans to become a good husband are interrupted by the need to bump off a few of his pursuers, using elaborate boody traps and alarms throughout the dungeons.
The final minute of the movie is perhaps the best, with Erik's final gesture proving that his mental ability far outweighs that of anyone else in the film. He goes out in style, leaving the dim-witted Raoul and his amoral girlfriend to live happily ever after.
The two best things are Chaney's over-the-top performance as Erik and the spectacular sets. Chaney had a way of making any other actors in a film appear flat and lifeless, and this is no exception. The elaborate set of the opera house and the gothic appearance of the dungeons are still impressive, and the tinting and two-strip technicolor in the Bal Masque sequence look great.
"Phantom" is rousing horror/adventure, while "Hunchback" was a touching allegorical film. The latter is better and more serious, but "Phantom" is still some of the most fun it's possible to have before a movie screen.
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