Here’s a movie that no one really wanted to make. Its production was troubled from the very beginning. From professional spats to last-minute recuts and reshoots, it had disaster written across it. So how did this hellish production end up as one of the most iconic and memorable horror films of all time? Does it live up to its reputation? Is it worth seeing for the casual viewer? We are going to engage in a little silent movie archaeology in order to find out.
Oh please. Who would want to see Lon Chaney play a monster?
Notes: This is my 150th silent film review and so I am pulling out all the stops. I hope you enjoy it. Also, as this is one of the most viewed silent movies of all time, I am taking for granted that everyone has at least a passing familiarity with it. Therefore, I shall be spoiling the living daylights out of it.
The Phantom of the Opera remains a beloved classic of silent cinema. However, even its most devoted fans admit that the film is deeply flawed. Gorgeous sets and costumes are undermined by lackluster direction. Lon Chaney’s performance has to make up for the dreadful acting of his co-stars. At yet, these pluses continue to overwhelm the minuses of this unique production.
The film is often classified as horror but that’s not truly accurate. The movie horror genre was still very young and no one was sure how far they could go. In fact, The Phantom was pulled back for tinkering after its premiere. Why? Universal was dismayed to discover that audiences found it scary and suspenseful. (Gadzooks! Whatever shall we do?)
When the film was re-released with its toned-down terror, it eventually became a hit and cemented Lon Chaney’s claim to stardom.
Nowadays, people are more likely to think of The Phantom as a stage musical but Chaney’s makeup remains iconic, often cited as an example of the crazy lengths that he went to for realism. In fact, Chaney’s makeup used very normal techniques and its success is more due to careful planning than masochism. More on that in a bit…
For those of you who would like a refresher, here is a quick rundown of the plot:
The Paris Opera has a resident phantom. He demands tribute in the form of his own private box for every performance. When crossed, he tends to leave a trail of strangled bodies. Meanwhile, Raoul (Norman Kerry) is a nobleman who has just been dumped by his love, Christine (Mary Philbin). It seems that she has a spectral music teacher who promises to make her the prima donna of the opera.
It turns out that her music teacher is the masked Erik (Lon Chaney), aka The Phantom of the Opera. He takes her to his underground lair, confesses his love and proposes. Christine cannot resist the temptation and unmasks him. We all know how well that goes.
The terrified Christine rushes back to Raoul but before they can run away together, Erik kidnaps her. Raoul attempts a rescue, assisted by a mysterious secret policeman (Arthur Edmund Carewe) but soon falls into one of Erik’s traps. An angry mob saves the day. They pursue Erik through Paris and finally tear him to pieces.
This sort of monster-with-unrequited-love narrative would become Chaney’s bread and butter once he signed on with MGM. Speaking of MGM…
Thalberg, von Stroheim and The Phantom
Two of the men who had enormous influence on The Phantom of the Opera were no longer at Universal when it entered production. Irving Thalberg and Erich von Stroheim were both powerful figures at the studio. Thalberg basically ran the show while von Stroheim made pricy but popular tales of European decadence and was the artiste in residence. You know, he classed up the joint.
Thalberg had an eye for talent and he recognized that Lon Chaney had something special. Chaney had had several breakout roles (The Miracle Man, The Penalty) but no one seemed to understand how to harness his talents. Chaney did not have leading man looks. His tastes were downright morbid. He was an actor’s actor but also a demanding perfectionist. His career up to this point had him seesawing between leading roles and supporting character parts.
Proof of this can be seen in the fact that Chaney was still freelancing after several significant hits under his belt. He was not, as is believed in some circles, loaned out by MGM to Universal for The Phantom. In his book, A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures, Chaney historian Michael F. Blake points out that Chaney did not have a contract with MGM when he made HE Who Gets Slapped. It was yet another breakout role that directly preceded Phantom and Thalberg used its success to get Chaney a lucrative long term deal with MGM a few months later. (Blake’s book was a major source of background information for this review.)
When he was at Universal, it had been Thalberg who allowed Chaney to ascend from mere popularity to major stardom with the production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Chaney had been struggling in the lower ranks for years and had developed a wariness toward the front office but he liked and trusted Thalberg. As is clear from Thalberg’s creative decisions, that trust was well founded.
Depending on which version of events you believe, either Thalberg obtained the Phantom rights for Chaney while he was still with Universal or Chaney sought them out himself when he was negotiating a one-off performance for the studio. It was one of several stories being considered to make the most of Chaney’s makeup skills and acting ability.
This is where Erich von Stroheim enters the tale.
Thalberg had departed Universal for his new post with Louis B. Mayer, who was in the process of becoming the second M in MGM. Before he left his old job, though, Thalberg did something that established the pecking order of the studio system. Erich von Stroheim’s films made a fortune but they cost a fortune. Some of this was due to lavish subject matter and some was due to inefficient shooting methods. It was a case of business vs. art and, while Thalberg was a proponent of artistic films, he was not about to see cash thrown down another von Stroheim money pit.
With von Stroheim’s latest picture heading toward new heights of expense, Thalberg took action and fired the director. The movie, entitled Merry-Go-Round, was completed by Rupert Julian, whose previous career high point had been directing and starring in the vile propaganda picture, The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.
With Merry-Go-Round completed generally on budget, Julian was seen as a savior. According to Carl Laemmle, Jr., when it came time to decide on the new Chaney picture, Julian suggested that they could rework the Austrian costumes and props from Merry-Go-Round to make them French. With this money-saving suggestion, Julian inherited the plum assignment of directing The Phantom of the Opera.
Along with the sets and costumes, Phantom also borrowed the leading man and lady of Merry-Go-Round. Mary Philbin was a friend of the Laemmle family and had been specially chosen by von Stroheim for her part.
Mary Philbin was a lovely woman and had a sweet nature by all accounts but she was no natural actress. To put it bluntly, she was terrible in almost everything she appeared in. (Conrad Veidt managed to coax something more out of her in The Man Who Laughs and The Last Performance but he was an extremely kind man noted for his patience with newcomers and amateurs.) It didn’t help that her first mentor, von Stroheim, did not use orthodox methods in his filmmaking. He shot in sequence (instead of shooting all the scenes for one location at once) and he micromanaged his performers to the nth degree. Mary Philbin came into Phantom untrained and unprepared and without any natural talent to fall back on.
Norman Kerry had been the leading man in Merry-Go-Round. He came from an affluent family and movies were just a hobby. It showed. I have heard conflicting reports about his relationship with the very serious Chaney. Some sources state that they hated one another. Others say that Chaney wasn’t nuts about Kerry’s lazy work ethic but he respected his honesty. (“It was either this or go to work!”)
If Chaney really hated Kerry, I am inclined to think he would have rejected him as the romantic lead of The Unknown, made when Chaney was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and surely would have had veto power. Because of this, I think I believe the grudging respect version of the story.
Kerry was no Barrymore but he managed to maintain his popularity as a second-tier leading man through most of the silent era. Mary Philbin had an awful time with him as he had a tendency to get, shall we say, imaginative with where he put his hands during their love scenes. Philbin later recalled a particular time when his hand went astray once too often and so she grabbed it and held on.
“I remember Norman Kerry very well. He was very naughty, on screen and off, but he was a very handsome and charming man despite his roving hands… They did the scene (at the top of the opera house) several times and he always found a new place to hold me. I could not react to this on camera and though he was a rascal, he was very proper in a way. I finally had to take his hand and hold onto it to prevent it from wandering.”
As a result, she was able to save both the scene and her backside. Philbin’s recollection is excellent. The scene is in the finished film.
I am always happy when I discover these scenes to be exactly as the performer described. It definitely gives their credibility a boost, doesn’t it?
(Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Mary Philbin were both interviewed by Philip J. Riley for his book on the history of The Phantom of the Opera. Philbin was famously shy with her reminisces but became friends with Riley after helping him find his lost dog.)
And so, armed with a groping leading man, a woefully under-qualified leading lady, an incompetent director and one of the best actors in motion pictures, The Phantom of the Opera was on its way to being made.
He won’t be happy until someone chops off his arm.
There are a lot of conflicting stories as to who obtained the rights to the novel, just how Lon Chaney did his makeup and how everyone was cast. There is, however, one thing that every single person involved with the film seems to have agreed on: They hated Rupert Julian. What’s more, they thought he was a hack.
Julian was known to be a bully and a braggart. Whether he picked up his cartoon Prussian mannerisms from pretending to be the Kaiser or he was trying to be the successor to von Stroheim, he was easily the least popular man on the set.
According to cinematographer Charles Van Enger, Julian lacked even the basic grasp of his craft. Michael Blake makes a compelling case against the director by pointing out all the opportunities for suspense and excitement that Julian squandered. (The chandelier drop being a case in point.) Lon Chaney reportedly despised him and directed himself and Mary Philbin in their major scenes. (No absolute evidence of this but it is likely given Chaney’s intense perfectionism.)
I tend to cut Philbin a little slack in this film. She had Kerry pawing her on one side and she also had to deal with Rupert Julian’s nonsense. Philbin looked like she would blow away in a stiff breeze and so she was padded up to more womanly proportions. According to Van Enger, Julian took every opportunity to, ahem, adjust her padding. Nudge nudge. That being said, I do groan internally every time she starts “acting” as she fulfills every negative cliché about silent films with her fluttering eyelash and weird mannerisms.
Van Enger later recalled that he simply started agreeing to whatever crazy thing Julian demanded and then would do things the right way. Julian never knew the difference. According to Van Enger’s account, all the best scenes in the film were either the work of Chaney or the assistant director. The scenes that meander or fail? Julian’s fingerprints are all over them.
At this point, it was abundantly clear that Julian had no business going within a hundred feet of such a major undertaking. Thalberg’s guidance was sorely missed at Universal but they had tens of thousands of dollars tied up in sets, costumes and salaries. And so The Phantom marched on.
Makeup myths and real performances
Lon Chaney was responsible for designing his own makeup. Like anyone practicing the art of illusion, he guarded his secrets closely. He also realized that the unmasking was the critical point of the film. The impact could not be dulled. In order to ensure that his appearance would shock, he refused to allow any photographs of the makeup to be released in advance.
The Phantom is Chaney’s most famous creation and just about every makeup trick has been named as the secret ingredient. I have heard tales of pins shoved up his nose (seriously, how?) and discs inserted into his cheeks. In fact, it is pretty obvious that Chaney was able to achieve most of the Phantom’s signature look with putty, careful shading and well-planned costuming. Taped-back ears, suitably nasty false teeth and a skullcap completed the look.
The nose remains a mystery, it seems. Let’s discount the pins, shall we? Because, you know, putting pins up your nose tends to be lethal. The two most common theories I have seen involve either pulling the nose back with some sort of adhesive tape or using wires. It’s also possible that Chaney used a combination of these techniques.
In the end, though, the hows of the makeup are less important than what was going on underneath.
Here’s the thing about Chaney that you only realize after seeing him in action: The man could act. He was one of the finest actors in Hollywood and it had nothing to do with makeup. Some of his most frightening roles and most acclaimed performances actually used minimal makeup. (West of Zanzibar and Tell it to the Marines come to mind.)
While Chaney’s Phantom makeup was certainly elaborate, it was just one aspect of his performance. He was shown in shadow for the first half of the film and his unmasking takes place at almost exactly the halfway mark. And yet, Chaney had already gone a long way in establishing Erik’s personality.
Erik relishes theatricality and he knows it. He loves setting his own stage and creating drama. He prefers to have an audience but it doesn’t really make a difference. He is always “on” whether the audience is Christine, a violent mob or no one at all.
We only see his hand when he slips a threatening letter to the opera management but he makes the most of it. Just toss in the letter? Oh no. The letter is flicked onto the desk and then the hand withdraws with a little abracadabra gesticulation thrown in for good measure. Who is the audience? The one in his head, darling.
(It was not uncommon for actors to use stand-ins for close-ups of hands and feet. However, given Chaney’s intense dedication to his roles, I think it unlikely that he would opt for this.)
Later in the film, after Erik drowns Raoul’s brother, he emerges from the water, looks in the direction of his victim and dusts off his hands. It’s an unnatural gesture to do on one’s own. No one is watching. Except that audience in his head.
While the ending was a compromise (more on that in a bit), Chaney keeps in character. Erik is surrounded by an angry mob, torches and all. He reaches into his coat and pulls out… Is that a bomb? No one knows. The crowd backs away. Then Erik opens his hand. It’s empty. He made his audience react one last time. Reportedly, Chaney did not like this ending, preferring the one in which the Phantom dies of shock when Christine kisses him. No footage from this version exists.
Erik knows that he is not right in the head. I think it’s pretty clear that he enjoys his madness. What he does not enjoy is his physical ugliness. Not only does it keep him from Christine’s love, or what he supposes to be her love, but it also prevents him from using his musical genius to move a larger audience to euphoria. Terror? He can do that a million ways. Adoration is what he cannot achieve.
We have a character to who hates people but he needs them. His self-worth is tied up in making people jump, controlling their reactions. Even his love for Christine is based on manipulation. He presents himself to the naïve girl as an angel of music. However, he ends up falling into his own trap for he believes that he can win her love if he can just create the perfect circumstances.
Christine’s premature unmasking dashes all his hopes. The moment she removes his mask, he knows that he has lost. However, his first reaction is that of a performer. He rises, whirls around and advances. He holds Christine’s head so that she cannot look away. He laughs in her face. His second reaction is that of regret for his lost chance but it comes after he indulges in theatrical terror.
Chaney could very easily have opted for straightforward villainy. Instead, he seeds his performance with tiny details that help create a more three-dimensional character. Erik is the bad guy, twisted from years of scorn and torture. However, he is also still a human being.
We can never go back
Chaney stipulated that his Phantom makeup be concealed before the film opened. He wanted maximum impact. This was a wise decision (and one of the first cases of this Hitchcockian mind trick) as it gave the unmasking scene maximum oomph.
The problem? Chaney’s makeup is now famous. A good number of classic movie buffs cut their teeth on movie monster books prominently featuring Chaney’s Phantom gear. This whets everyone’s appetite for the film but it also dulls the impact of the reveal.
In short, more than any other silent film, we will not be able to experience it as the original audience did. Unless we live in a cave, we probably know what’s coming. We can never go back.
On the subject of the unmasking, let me address a backstage story that seems to be making the rounds. In her reminisces, Mary Philbin stated that she was afraid of everything: the boat, the horse, the sets. Chaney talked her through these scenes. She stated that Chaney had not prepared her for his appearance at the time of the unmasking and it gave her a shock when she finally saw it.
So far so good. Charles Van Enger then states that Chaney directed the unmasking scene behind Rupert Julian’s back and in order to get the most terrified reaction shot out of Philbin, he stood just outside the frame and unleashed a barrage of verbal abuse. The terrified actress responded in terror and that is the reaction that made it onto the screen. After he got the shot he wanted, Chaney apologized.
It is possible that Chaney tried to scare a performance out of Philbin by hurling abuse her way (though she herself makes no mention of this and her recollection has already proven to be excellent) and everyone agreed that not much acting was required to look afraid when he was in full Phantom gear. However, the story just seems a tad pat to me.
The unmasking scene is comprised of multiple shots and would have required numerous takes. I am not sure that Philbin could have kept up her hysteria for that amount of time, especially after receiving an apology. She simply didn’t have the chops. I think it far more likely that the timid Miss Philbin was terrorized by Chaney’s full throttle performance, which is in line with her side of the story.
1925 and 1929
Here’s an interesting tidbit: The Phantom of the Opera, at least the version most commonly shown, is not a silent film. That’s right. You are in fact watching a sound re-release of a silent film. And this is where things get sticky.
I mentioned before that the film was pulled back for retinkering after its premier. Reels and reels of footage were cut, new scenes were shot, it was a mess. The original original version of the film is surely lost, only stills remain of the scenes that were cut. (This review is long enough so I am not going into massive detail. If you want to full scoop, plus stills, check out Philip J. Riley’s giant tome on the film, mentioned above.)
There are only two elements from this premiere cut that I mourn. First, we are done out of Lon Chaney chucking skulls at Norman Kerry in a graveyard. I know the feeling. Second, Arthur Edmund Carewe’s menacing character was called The Persian (as he had been styled in the book) and his relationship with Erik was an old one. He was turned into a member of the French secret police for the recut.
So when people talk about the original cut of The Phantom, they are talking about the version that finally was presented after retitling, reshooting, re-retitling, more shooting, cuts, cuts, cuts. When sound came to Hollywood a few years after the film’s success, it made sense to make some more coin from this popular property.
Chaney was under contract for MGM but Mary Philbin and Arthur Edmund Carewe were still with Universal. The movie was cut yet again, a few roles were recast, some scenes were reshot, the silent sequences were retitled and some scenes were reordered. There were also additional song and dance numbers, intended to bank on the novelty of sound.
At the time, movie soundtracks were recorded on separate discs and much of this material is lost or at least uncatalogued. So, revivals of The Phantom generally used the reissue print with live or rerecorded scores.
The 1925 release version has survived but in poor shape. The available prints are likely from foreign release. The choicest footage was reserved for the domestic release while the less desirable angles/takes were spliced together for foreign markets. For this reason, the 1929 version is what you are most likely to see.
So, which one is better? Let’s take a look. Here are some of the main differences between the 1925 and 1929 versions of the film.
Raoul and Christine’s Romance
The single biggest difference between the versions is the amount of time spent on Raoul and Christine’s romance. We are shown that they are childhood sweethearts turned grownup lovers but then Christine begins to draw away from Raoul. She says that she must give herself to music. She has a teacher, an angel of music, and she must give up earthly love. Raoul smells a rat and decides to investigate.
Raoul and Christine are the weak spots in the film but the additional footage did help improve the story. In the 1929 cut, we are shown Raoul hanging outside Christine’s dressing room. He is jealous but as no longstanding romance has been established, just a few smooches, he seems to be strangely possessive.
In contrast, the 1925 version makes it clear that they are longtime lovers, everything was going well but then Christine abruptly dumps Raoul and gives a bizarre explanation. Any normal person would consider this suspicious and worthy of investigation. Raoul’s behavior becomes completely understandable.
There are more dibs and dabs of Raoul and Christine but most of the footage is loaded into the first act. Finally, while the 1929 version ends with the Phantom’s death at the hands of the mob, the 1925 version ends with a clutch between Raoul and Christine. Not a fan of this.
Okay, who moved the body?
One of the true horror elements of Phantom was the murder of the stagehand, Joseph. His hanged corpse is discovered by Snitz Edwards’ ‘fraidy cat character. In the more familiar 1929 version, the body is discovered just before Erik kidnaps Christine and kicks off the finale. In the 1925 version, the murder occurs in the first act, before Christine meets Erik in the flesh.
This move makes two major changes to the story. First, it makes the angry mob hunting down the Phantom into a more spur-of-the-moment event rather than simmering rage at one murder too many. Now Joseph’s brother has the entire middle of the film to work up his fellow citizens and convince them to seek out the killer. This also makes it more apparent that the Phantom is not easy to find. With the murder happening so near the climax in the 1929 version, it makes tracking Erik look like a piece of cake. So why didn’t they do it sooner?
Second, it subtly alters Erik’s character. If the murder occurs after Christine’s betrayal, it could be seen as the work of a wounded animal pushed to the brink. However, with the murder happening even before Christine’s rejection of Erik, it makes it clear that he was a homicidal maniac from the very beginning. This is important for the film’s suspense as no one has been taking the Phantom or the “angel of music” very seriously up to this point. The only people who seem scared of him are the ballerinas and Snitz Edwards.
A hanging corpse? Yeah, that makes the audience sit up and pay attention.
The Masked Ball
There is one title card in the ball sequence that clears up a little confusion. In the 1929 version, Erik makes his appearance dressed as Red Death. Raoul and Christine watch him from a balcony several stories about. Somehow, in spite of an enormous crowd, Erik is able to recognize them and follow them.
In the 1925 version, Raoul blurts out that the Red Death’s voice is the same as the one he heard in her dressing room. Erik hears and realizes that Christine has broken her promise never to see Raoul again. Okay, so it’s based on a boneheaded move from Raoul (why are we not surprised?) but it makes a lot more sense.
The sound reissue had new scenes of song and dance added. Mary Fabian took over as Carlotta, the snotty soprano. In the silent version, Virginia Pearson had played the role. In order to make use of Pearson’s non-singing footage, the title cards changed her role to that of Carlotta’s mother. (How flattering…)
These new singing and dancing scenes take up quite a bit of the runtime in the 1929 version. The story essentially comes screeching to a halt to accommodate them. In contrast, the 1925 opera scenes were meant to further the story and have better reaction shots and pacing as a result.
Oh, those ballerinas. In the first act, they are everywhere. They are afraid of the Phantom! (Twirl in terror! Spin in suspense! Did she show her panties? Whoopsy!) They will investigate the Phantom! (Clutch her tutu! Higher, higher! Oh dear, did she show her underwear again? My, my.)
I’m not the target audience for this but I think it’s pretty obvious that Rupert Julian was. And when the recut of the film happened, whoever made such decisions kept every single one of these scenes. (Did I mention that the prima ballerina was played by Carl Laemmle’s niece?)
Think about it. Several scenes of Raoul and Christine are gone. So are some of Arthur Edmund Carewe’s delightfully menacing moments. But we still have the ballerinas. See what happens to proportion?
Even though the 1929 version is shorter, it has more dead spots in the narrative. From the ballerina fanservice to the interminable singing sequences, much of what makes Phantom a slog can be traced to creative decisions for the sound version.
Which do I prefer? It’s a tough call. The 1929 version has better prints and better scores but I do think the 1925 version has better flow and character development. Both versions are flawed but the original (original-ish?) cut makes a lot more sense.
P.S. The Messenger
One more little bit to clear up. When Raoul and Ledoux (the name give Arthur Edmund Carewe’s character when he was changed from Persian to French—and yet kept his eastern attire) are in the cellars seeking the Phantom, they run into a messenger in the dark. He passes by, warns our duo to turn back and then leaves, never to be seen or explained. Some may assume that this was added for foreign release or that it is an example of a muddled plot.
In fact, the messenger (called a “shade”) was in the original novel. And the author, Gaston Leroux, does not explain it. In fact, he has a big honking footnote explaining why he won’t explain. It all comes down to state secrets. Or something.
Yeah, doesn’t make much sense to me either. It clearly made sense to someone at Universal as it is present in all cuts of the film.
Why is this the one we remember?
Lon Chaney made better films. Universal made better silent horror films. Yet The Phantom of the Opera is the one everyone remembers. Why has it nestled itself into our hearts?
I can’t pretend to speak for every fan but I think that the successful elements of the film are so memorable that they drive out the duds. Sure, Kerry and Philbin are dull and painful in most of their scenes. Chaney makes up for that. Sure, the direction is staid but the set design is incredible and that is what we remember. The unmasking remains one of the most memorable scenes in cinema.
Yes, this film could have benefited from Irving Thalberg’s guidance and a top level director at the helm. It could have been a masterpiece. Yet there are hundreds of masterpieces that lie in vaults, unseen and forgotten. The Phantom may be flawed but it has flair. In the end, I guess that’s what matters.
Sexiest (Disfigured) Man Alive
Thanks to Broadway musicals and the general gussying up of stock horror characters, the idea of the Phantom is hotter than ever. In more ways than one.
Erik just gets sexier with each passing generation. This is very, very bad. Look, I understand that you hire a star and may not want to have his pretty face concealed from a paying audience. If that is the case, you should not make The Phantom of the Opera. The man hides from the outside world because his face horrifies all who see it. A bit of scarring on the upper bit of his visage isn’t really convincing and makes our villain (yes, villain) seem like a vain jerk rather than a tortured monster.
The latest big movie version of Phantom was the 2004 musical with Gerard Butler. The film is infamous for, to quote the L.A. Times’ deliciously catty review, making the Phantom “uncommonly attractive for a horribly disfigured man. In fact, as horribly disfigured men go, he’s a total babe.” (Do read the entire review. It’s a scream, especially to longtime Andrew Lloyd Webber anti-fans such as myself.)
This is even more ridiculous when you consider that a significant number of Europeans at the time found facial scars sexy, posh, macho and even went so far as to artificially create them in order to claim dueling injuries. Never mind. I suppose that we must accept that a scarring injury to the upper quadrant of a man’s face limits his prospects in life. It seems that there are only two professions open to such a person: Opera Ghost or Defense Minister of Israel.
Presumably, the next version of the Phantom will convey his hideousness with a mid-size pimple near his left eyebrow.
I wouldn’t mind so much if so many of our classic monsters weren’t getting the heartthrob makeover. We started out with Max Schreck and we ended up with Robert Pattinson. What a disagreeable turn of events.
It seems that we still want our classic monsters but they must be sugar-coated in order to appeal to modern viewers. Well, everyone else can keep their beautiful monsters. I am going to stick with the honest-to-badness brilliance of Lon Chaney and his skeletal Phantom.
To my knowledge, the Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera is the only major motion picture in which the Phantom’s hideousness is both skull-like and is not the result of an injury. (If you know of another, do give me the particulars.) Erik was born with his terrifying visage. This makes an enormous difference in the character and goes a long way toward explaining his grudge against humanity. The whole “splashed with acid and made hideous” thing is weak sauce in my opinion, almost as bad as the “oh, part of my gorgeous face is less than perfect” approach.
The Phantom in the original novel was described as something very like Chaney’s makeup:
“He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame. His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull. His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can’t see it side-face; and THE ABSENCE of that nose is a horrible thing TO LOOK AT. All the hair he has is three or four long dark locks on his forehead and behind his ears.”
Mr. Chaney nailed it, I think you will agree. No one has had the skill or the nerve to do it since.
While the film is not a masterpiece in the accepted sense, it remains beloved by fans born decades after its initial release. It is essential viewing for anyone serious about movie history. There may be a few elements out of whack but all in all, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
There are dozens of home video editions available, thanks to the picture falling into the public domain. Remember, you absolutely get what you pay for. Bargain editions will likely have canned scores, so-so print quality and even the wrong projection speed.
Music is very important as Phantom can be ruined by poor accompaniment. Fortunately, the movie’s fame ensures that there are numerous versions with high quality scores. I am a huge fan of the orchestral score by Gabriel Thibaudieau, which is included on the Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray release. The Kino release includes both the 1925 and 1929 versions and is the release I recommend.
Excellent, fascinating post! I have the Milestone release to watch from time to time.
Thanks so much!
Thank you for posting such an in-depth, intelligent review that springs from a contemporary 2014 perspective, which is always interesting when juxtaposed against a vintage film. This film was one of the first full-length feature silent movies I ever saw, and it left an indelible shadow on me that taints to this day. Your review makes me want to see it again. -David W. Menefee, author of Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story; Sarah Bernhardt: Her Films, Her Recordings; Richard Barthelmess: A Life in Pictures; The Rise and Fall of Lou-Tellegen.
Glad you enjoyed! Yes, if I had to make a list of “most likely to be someone’s first silent” this film would be at the top.
Amazing write-up, Fritzi! I had to bookmark this informative post. Thanks for also sharing your thoughts about the different editions on DVD. I’ve been meaning to purchase a copy of The Phantom for my collection and wasn’t sure which was best. You’re absolutely right about the discount versions – I once owned a Phantom/Nosferatu double feature DVD that I purchased for $1 and both the musical score and video transfer were atrocious.
So glad you liked it! Yes, it’s a real challenge to sort through all the terrible prints to get a good version of this film. I have heard great things about the BFI Blu-ray/DVD set but have not seen it myself so Image is my first choice.
Great review! I too disdain the newer “sexy” phantoms. No one could ever top Lon Chaney with his hideous visage and magnetic power. Did you ever see the nightmarish Dario Argento version where the Phantom has no disfigurement at all and whose back story involved him being raised by telepathic rats in the opera sewer. Dear Lord, we’ve gone downhill with these adaptations!
In the commentary on the Milestone release, didn’t Scott McQueen say the unexplained messenger in the catacombs is supposed to be the opera rat exterminator? That might make a little bit more sense.
I may be the odd one out, but I actually preferred the Davis score to the Thibaudieau one, though both are excellent, at least in my opinion.
Telepathic rats, eh? Yeah, I think I will pass on that origin story.
The original shooting script does have the messenger state that he is the rat catcher but it also describes him as a disembodied flaming head. This raises more questions than it answers. Did the Paris Opera hire him to catch their rats despite him being a disembodied flaming head or because of it? What does rat catching pay? How does his lack of body affect his retirement policy? Are the rats that he catches telepathic? Inquiring minds want to know!
The nice thing about Phantom is that even though there are lots of cheesy scores, there are a ton of great ones. I know the Carl Davis score has a lot of fans, as does the Gaylord Carter organ score.
Is the Carter score the one used on the 1925 print on the Milestone DVD edition?
The double disc edition? I believe that is the synth score from Mirsalis.
Wonderful post! Chaney’s Phantom was my first silent movie – my parents bought a VCR as a Christmas present to themselves in 1983 (a big expense back then), and my great-aunt and uncle bought a couple silent movie VHS tapes for them… Phantom, and Chaplin’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance. The Chaplin VHS never worked, and one afternoon, I decided to watch Phantom, by my nine-year-old self. The print was awful (the clown that tumbles down the stairs in the Bal Masque scene just disappears halfway down, which was hilarious), the projection speed wrong, no score what-so-ever, no tinting… and I was transfixed, scared out of my wits, and hooked. Hooked both on silent movies in general, and on Chaney. Several years later (thanks to Lloyd-Webber’s musical), the Fox Theater in St. Louis showed Phantom on the big screen, with live organ accompaniment. Of course, I was there. Still a bad print, but larger-than-life it was great! (And, for the record, I have the Milestone DVD, and love that release.)
So glad you enjoyed it! Yes, this film has enormous power to enthrall.
Your gif of the embrace between Kerry and Philbin is hilarious. Roving hands indeed!
I don’t think there has ever been a film of Phantom that wasn’t seriously flawed. Lon Chaney makes this one the best out there, IMHO. Believably, shockingly monstrous. Sexy phantoms are just as bad as sparkly vampires. :0
Down with sexy phantoms!
This was EXCELLENT. I am usually treated to seeing this movie once a year around Halloween with live organ accompaniment here in Chicago, along with another brilliant though lesser-known Chaney classic (this year it was The Monster, last year I believe was The Penalty).
And yes, getting a good score is VERY worth it. I picked up a $2 DVD package of Hitchcock’s unknown films, including his original 9 silent films. The Lodger was horrendous… until I saw it live with a 40 piece orchestra and an original score. Blew my mind – it was one of the greatest live musical events of my life. Most of those cheap DVD sets take a “happy track” a “terror track” and a “nothing is happening” track and someone clicks a button, switching from one to the other when they feel it is appropriate.
This article also reminded me that I need to track down Tell It To the Marines and West of Zanzibar, which I have yet to see. Thanks again for such an epic review!!
Glad you liked it! Yes, the hardest thing is convincing new silent movie fans that watching the $5 DVD and the $30 Blu-ray/DVD will lead to incredibly different viewing experiences.
Comments are closed.