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.)