In 1925, Universal released what would become one of the most influential and important movies ever made. Even today it stands as a singular achievement in film that still impresses some eighty years on.
From Lon Chaney’s outstanding makeup to the beautiful sets and costumes, it is a breathtakingly lavish film that entertains as much as it educates. The film cannot be overstated in its historical importance, as it was the first of the Universal Monsters to be born.
Without Chaney and his amazing creation, we would arguably never have seen Lugosi’s Dracula or Karloff’s Monster and so on. One could point to this film and say it was the birth of the horror film, as we know it today. Sure, Nosferatu had come before, as had The Golem, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and of course Edison’s Frankenstein. However, The Phantom of the Opera was the first to be commercially successful in a way the others weren’t and would prove that horror had a place in the business of filmmaking and not just the art.
The story is quite simple, and in fact many critics have slammed Phantom for its simple, gothic romance plot. Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) is a young dancer in the Corps Du Ballet with the Paris Opera who dreams of someday singing the lead for the company. With the help of a mysterious stranger, the Phantom/Erik (Lon Chaney) she has been taking singing lessons. Enter Raoul De Chagny (Norman Kerry), a wealthy childhood friend of Christine’s who discovers the secret she holds and now the young girl is trapped between the man she loves and the man she admires and in some ways needs.
There are a few subplots in here as well that help open up the story. First, there are the much beleaguered managers of the Paris Opera and their dealings with the “Opera Ghost” who demands that Christine sing in place of the resident diva of the company, Carlotta (Virginia Pearson in the 1925 version and Mary Fabian in the 1929 re-release). There is a mysterious stranger lurking around the opera house who seems to have more than a passing interest in the events taking place. Lastly we see the lives and deaths of some of the stagehands and supporting cast of the opera. It’s these small pieces of life that really give the film its juice.
One of my favorite scenes involves a group of the ballet dancers (one of them being Carla Laemmle, niece of Carl Laemmle) and Simon Buquet (Gibson Gowland) the stage manager, as he explains the legend of the Opera Ghost to the terrified girls. When we first see Buquet, he is sitting and looking very mysterious, holding a prop head in his hands. Before he looks up to address his visitors, the head in his lap opens its eyes. It’s still a very creepy piece of business all these years later.
Based on the novel written by Gaston Leroux, which was initially published in serialized form between 1909 and 1910 in “Le Gaulois”, the script makes some strange omissions with characterization that really do the story no favors. The relationship between Raoul and Christine is presented as merely a romance with no history, when in the novel they had been friends in childhood. Raoul had come from a prominent family, while Christine was rather poor. She was raised by her widower father who was a violinist, and shaped her love of music at an early age. The character of Erik/The Phantom was originally written as one of the architects of the opera house who had built a home for himself in the cellars of the theatre.
Interestingly the film retains the character of “the Persian” who is called “Ledoux” in the films; a police investigator of sorts who has been on the trail of Erik for years because of his nefarious ways. This character has been omitted from every film version I have ever seen as well as Webber’s musical and I believe is only used once more in an animated version of the story made in the mid 1980’s that was visually very inspired by the silent film. The Phantom’s face looks like a green version of Chaney’s makeup by and large.
Rupert Julian’s Phantom cannot be credited to him alone as director. There are reports of Lon Chaney directing certain segments of the film for its 1929 release version, as well as uncredited work done by Ernst Laemmle, Carl Laemmle’s nephew, and Edward Sedgwick. Of course anyone could have directed the film, as the real star is Lon Chaney, and it is his vehicle entirely. The son of two deaf mutes, he learned sign language at an early age, and the result of having to speak with his hands enhances his performance here. Since he cannot vocalize with his mouth, watch his hands, they speak volumes. He seductively beckons Christine through the mirror of her dressing room into the vaults of the theatre, and menacingly turns his hands into talons when she betrays him for removing his mask during that most famous scene.
As for the rest of the cast, they are adequate, but by in large are very underdeveloped. Even Christine and Raoul are given too little back-story to cause much concern for their well being. Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry are attractive enough to look at, but they don’t emote terribly well. And being a silent film, the performances rest on their face and body gestures. That being said, there are gladly no moments of over acting to compensate for the lack of dialogue either. Turning to to some specific cast changes for the film in the re-release version of 1929, the largest is Virginia Pearson who played Carlotta in the 1925 version now playing Carlotta’s mother in 1929 by changing a few title cards. The new Carlotta who sings in the famous chandelier drop scene, an aria from Gonoud’s Faust, is Mary Fabian.
Visually, the film is very impressive considering its vintage. The sets, designed by Ben Carre and his crew, are fantastic in their scope and atmosphere. The film is photographed nicely, with some effective lighting especially in the underground lair sequences. The famous opera house auditorium set is still standing at Universal and it has been used in several productions since, most famously the 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains and Nelson Eddy. Of course, the famous Technicolor sequence in the re-release version presented here looks great, with its surreal bleeding reds and shifting blues that never stay within the lines.
Lon Chaney’s entrance as the Red Death is jaw dropping, like a floating puddle of blood with a skull on top, it leaves a distinct impression on the viewer that I am sure will not be forgotten once experienced. This early Technicolor process alternated the red and cyan on every other frame to create the colorization. The result of this primitive color process is quite stunning as it lends to the fantastic nature of the masked ball, and the grandeur of the occasion and really sets it apart from the rest of the film that is tinted heavily in blues and reds and greens to create a different mood depending on the scene. The brief appearance of the rat catcher down in the cellars of the opera is another standout moment. He appears as a floating head in the dark who passes by Raoul and Ledoux as they are searching for Christine in the bowels of the theatre. The rat catcher is a shimmering ball of light, which alternates colors as he hovers by in the dark.
This Blu-ray release presents the film in three separate versions:
1. 1925 version taken from a 16mm source that is presented in standard definition. It is color tinted, and is 114 minutes. The accompanying musical piano score is by Frederick Hodges
2. 1929 re-release version presented at 20 frames per second, 92 minutes long. This version is scored by Gabriel Thibodeaux and there is also a commentary by scholar Dr. Jon Mirsalis.
3. There is a second version of the re-release that runs at 24 frames per second, is 78 minutes long, and is accompanied by two scores. One by Alloy Orchestra that is newly composed and Gaylord Carter’s theater organ score.
The film looks about as good as one can expect without a major restoration. The 16mm version looks the roughest obviously, since it is older, but is still not terrible. The re-release versions fare better since they are taken from 35mm prints of the film and the bump up to HD reveals some startling details I had never noticed before in some of the costumes and especially in the initial meeting between Christine and The Phantom. You can actually see his mouth behind the fluttering cloth that covers it when he is wearing his “human” mask. Just don’t expect to be blown away by this presentation. There is a fair amount of emulsion degradation, scratches, tears, and the like. But considering how there are no original prints or any materials to work with, it’s perfectly serviceable.
All of the scores do what they need to do and I didn’t notice any one sounding that much better than the other. It really is just a matter of mood and what compositions you prefer in terms of the music. This is a hard one to judge or even describe. You just have to experience them all for yourself!
Bonus materials include the earlier mentioned commentary, along with an interview with composer Gabriel Thibodeaux, a still gallery, a copy of the shooting script, the original theatrical trailer, and a reproduction of the original souvenir theater program.
Image has done the world a favor by releasing this very important film on Blu-Ray for the first time. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time we will be seeing it, in what form, and with what other content, who knows? This is a vital film that anyone with an interest in film history needs to watch. If not for its historical relevance and curiosity, then surely for the central performance by Chaney which is a study in pure performance. And the fact that there are three separate versions of the film to watch with four scores along with a commentary that is chock full of interesting information, it really is a no brainer.
Film Score: 3.5/ Disc Score: 5/5