Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Directed by Rupert Julian
Starring: Lon Chaney
              Mary Philbin
              Norman Kerry
Running time: 94 mins
Studio: Universal
Black & White

The Phantom of the Opera was a troubled production. Cast and crew clashed with its director, Rupert Julian, who walked off the project after a disastrous preview . The film's producer, Carl Laemmle, was forced to reshoot large chunks of the movie. (Even Lon Chaney found himself having re-direct some of his own scenes.) The result is a visually impressive but frustratingly uneven film. Nevertheless, it’s ultimate success made Universal Studios sit up and and take notice of horror. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chaney's performance as the horribly disfigured Erik - the Phantom of the title - is of course at the heart of this film, but the first thing to grab our attention is the spectacular Paris Opera House set (apparently parts of the set still exist at Universal Studios) and it's clear from the start that a great deal of attention and money was lavished on this production. The Opera is under new management and the new season has opened with an extravagant version of Gounod's Faust. As the new executives celebrate in their office, they are warned to beware of the Phantom, a mysterious masked stranger who has reserved Box 5 for his exclusive use. So far, so good.
Rumours are rife backstage that the Phantom has returned and it is during the scenes involving the over-excited stage hands and ballerinas that things start to look less promising. We are told that the Phantom has eyes "like holes in a grinning skull" and that his skin is like "leprous parchment...drawn tight over protruding bones." Yet the scenes are played for laughs. When one of the ballerinas anounces that she thinks she's seen the Phantom emerging from a secret panel, they all run around like hyperactive children in a fairground haunted house. Coming so early on in the proceedings, these scenes give the unfortunate impression that the film you're about to watch isn't to be taken too seriously. (On the other hand, it's quite possible that the intention was to lull the original audience into a false sense of security.)

The Phantom, it turns out, is obsessed with a young, pretty soprano, Christine Daar (Mary Philbin), and has been tutoring her in secret, speaking to her from his secret hiding place behind the wall of her dressing room. To ensure that Chritine's career flourishes, the Phantom issues a number of written threats to the management, warning of dire consequences if Christine is not allowed to perform as the Phantom wishes. When the managers ignore one of his warnings and allow the toothy Mme. Carlotta (Virginia Pearson) to sing in Christine's place, the Phantom tampers with the lights and brings the huge chandelier in the auditorium crashing down onto the panicking patrons below. It's a superb moment, brilliantly shot. Although you don't see any explicit carnage, the implication is certainly there that members of the audience have been crushed.
Intrigued and flattered by the Phantom's attention, Christine has begun to lose interest in her sweetheart, the dashing Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), who hopes one day to marry her. She informs him, somewhat coldly, that her career must take precedence over their love. Raoul, for all his status and bearing, appears to be a pretty ineffectual chap. As Christine's attentions turn ever more toward her unseen admirer, Raoul seems incapable of acting to defend what is his, even when he overhears the Phantom wooing her.

Answering the Phantom's call, Christine passes through one of the Opera House's many secret panels to be with him (in this case the mirror in her room) and the film moves into new territory: that of the dark fairy tale.
The Phantom escorts Christine on a dreamlike journey through the Underworld, down through the catacombs beneath the Opera House, first on horseback and then by gondala across a subterranean "black lake". Any romanticism is dispelled by the fact that Christine is clearly disturbed by the Phantom's masked appearance and becomes increasingly frightened as they descend to who-knows-where. Having realised that she has made a big mistake, the last thing she wants to hear is the Phantom declare his love for her, which is exactly what he does when he has her safely ensconsed in his crypt-like lair. The fact that he sleeps in a coffin doesn't help matters much, either.
The Phantom claims that he wishes the good in him to be "aroused by [Christine's] purity". He wishes to be redeemed by her love - and, perhaps more importantly, by her music. Music is the only thing that makes his existence tolerable, as evidenced by his profciency on the organ that dominates his lair. It is while he is playing the organ that Christine decides to end the mystery and find out who she's dealing with, despite the fact that the Phantom has warned her never to touch his mask. Mustering courage after a night's unmolested sleep in the fairy-princess room that the Phantom has prepared for her, Christine creeps up on him from behind and, after some hesitation, whips off the mask.

The moment is played for all it's worth, and the payoff is magnificent . The reveal of the Phantom's hideous, ruined face is surely one of the classic moments in cinema history;  it's also the moment when Phantom of the Opera becomes a horror film.  Up to this point we have sympathised to a degree with the Phantom - there is something pitiable about his masked features - and if he is a monster, then it is only because men have made him so with their hatred; or so he tells us. But at the moment when Christine whips away the concealing mask, he is just a monster, worse than anything we could have imagined.

Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, designed his own make and, like the make-up he designed for himself on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was very painful to wear; but it had the desired effect - and it's just as original and alarming now as it was then. If legend is to be believed, cinema patrons screamed or fainted when they saw it. (I like to believe it's true!)
A terrified Christine begs the Phantom to let her leave, promising that if he does so she will be his slave forever. The anguished Phantom agrees, on the condition that Christine never see her lover, Raoul, again. If she does, then it will mean death for both of them. Christine agrees and is freed; but she immediately reneges on her promise and contacts her lover, arranging to meet him at the Opera's annual masked ball. The masked ball is the second best scene in the film, with the Phantom making his way down the grand staircase dressed as the Red Death and damning the revellers for daring to dance on the tombs of tortured men. It is the Phantom reminding Christine of their agreement. Some versions of the film have this scene tinted in red, which gives it a suitably infernal look. The Phantom's demonic aspect becomes even more apparent in the next scene, where he is perched like a gargoyle on the roof listening to the young lovers plan their escape. 
Unfortunately, from the moment when we learn from a secret policeman that Erik is an escaped Devil’s Island convict, albeit one versed in the black arts, the story loses some of the atmosphere it established with Christine's descent into the Phantom's lair. It becomes a bit of a runaround, with the Phantom kidnapping Christine again and letting loose with trickery and booby traps to try and thwart her rescue. When Christine promises him that she will do anything he wants if only he will let Rauol live, the Phantom falls for it a second time. He frees Raoul from a deadly trap, but is forced by a Parisian mob to flee with Christine in a carriage, which crashes soon after. Christine is rescued, but the Phantom is beaten to death by the mob and his corpse thrown into the river. In fairness, it's involving, even exciting, stuff; but it still has a slightly routine feel to it (although, of course, it could be argued that Phantom set the precedent here). It has to be said, however, that the Phantom's death at the hands of the mob is remarkably barbaric and the film therefore ends on a genuinely shocking note.

The Phantom of the Opera is a class product, to be sure, but its inconsistency in tone spoils it somewhat. What isn't in doubt, however, is Lon Chaney's performance - for all that the Phantom is clearly a psychopathic individual, we are never in doubt of the suffering he has had to endure as a result of his ghastly appearance. Phantom may not be the greatest horror film ever made, but like Count Orlok's shadow in Nosferatu, the face of the unmasked Erik is one of Horror 's abiding images. He remains the poster boy for the silent horror film's strange fascination with physical deformity. 


  1. Such a great film and it comes from the short novel (novella) which I had read three times by eighth grade... and Lon Chaney gave a truly great performance in his portrayal of this tragic character.... one of my all time favorite "monsters" of my youth.... at the time I had only seen clips of this classic film ..it was not till the 1990's that I was finally to find a copy of this silent movie... my admiration of this version of the Phantom came from the black and white photos in my favorite childhood book "Pictorial History of Horror Movies" ... this was where I was first really introduced to the world of classic horror movies ,,,this book along with "Dr. Paul Bearer" of the High Point/Winston Salem area's "Shock Theater"...late night on Saturday nights during my early youth.... Been a big fan of horror as far back as I can remember....

    1. Hi Dr Theda!

      Thank you for your comment. Interestingly enough I was given The Phantom of the Opera on blu-ray for Christmas, so I'm looking forward to reacquainting myself with it and, perhaps, reassessing my feelings about it (my review was, in places, a little more negative than I intended it to be - it's still a great film by any standards). Incidentally, was the Pictorial History of Horror Movies you mention the Dennis Gifford book? If so, then add me to the list of people for whom it was a favourite childhood book! The whole book was just such wonderful food for the imagination!

      Glad to have you on board. Hopefully I'll have some more reviews up shortly (have been somewhat distracted the last couple of months, but that's no excuse. Coming soon: Frankenstein!)

      Kidn regards