Even after being released nearly 95 years ago now, Rupert Julian’s adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera remains a crowning achievement in gothic storytelling. Its production history is a storied one, with there being a great deal of drama both in front of and behind the camera, but without a doubt, there’s no denying the power that this iteration of Phantom wielded, as not only did it act as the catalyst for Universal Studio’s monster movies, but its legacy still carries on today as one of the most influential horror films of all time.
The first time I ever watched this iteration of Phantom was when I was an extremely young genre fan (I think I was maybe seven or eight at the time), and it was my first experience watching a silent movie ever. In fact, I distinctly remember that I couldn’t read all of the words on the screen throughout The Phantom of the Opera, but it hardly mattered—the performances and the visuals were enough for me, and I was completely enraptured nonetheless.
Easily one of the most ambitious films of that era, the 1925 version of Phantom came about after Carl Laemmle traveled to Paris and met Gaston Leroux, who was working in film at the time and provided Laemmle with a copy of his now famous novella. Carl, being a fan of the Paris Opera House, was immediately taken by Leroux’s story and purchased the rights as a vehicle for Lon Chaney, Sr., who had built his reputation as one of the greatest character actors during the 1910s and the early 1920s, and had a longstanding relationship with Universal through 1925 (a sad fact about Lon’s career is that more than 100 of his films are now considered “lost films,” which really drives home the importance of film preservation).
Despite the fact that the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera is still one of the greatest gothic horrors ever created for the silver screen, the film suffered from numerous production woes, including friction between Julian and Lon Chaney, Sr. and a myriad of changes to the film’s ending that never really quite captured the mysterious aura of Leroux’s original prose. Universal went back and forth with the ending several times after test audiences (the fact that they had test viewers way back then blows this writer’s mind, but I digress) kept rejecting various aspects of the movie, so Laemmle was forced to go back several times to shoot new footage.
At one point, Julian was either fired or left production on Phantom voluntarily (historians have never quite definitively found out which scenario was the case here), and Laemmle had Edward Sedgwick come in and reshoot large portions of the movie. At some point, Universal had cold feet about all the new footage and ultimately delivered the now famous version we’ve all come to know as fans that mostly restores all of Julian’s original scenes, with the exception of the graveyard scene where Christine visits her father’s grave and Erik plays the “Resurrection of Lazarus” on his violin as a means of drawing her in.
This version is a mostly faithful adaptation of Leroux’s novel, although it does take some liberties with the characters and story elements, and also wraps up in a much more action-oriented fashion as well, with an angry mob beating up the maniacal Erik and tossing him into the Seine. Truthfully, I don’t really love that ending, although maybe it was a bit more satisfying for audiences back in 1925 to watch the Phantom get a violent comeuppance. Me? I prefer Leroux’s ending that leaves Erik dead “by love” and Christine gets to run off with Raoul for her very own “happily ever after.” But this change doesn’t do much to derail all that precedes it in this version of The Phantom of the Opera.
Additionally, the Persian character gets morphed into a detective with the Secret Police, and while he knows of Erik’s lair and his tricks, he doesn’t have any prior direct dealings with the Phantom in this film like he did in Leroux’s novel, and I miss having that character as the cornerstone of Erik’s existence.
Something else that I found very interesting about the 1925 Phantom is that there are two different versions, and I think both have their merits. The one most fans know, which clocks in at around 93 minutes, is a bit more straightforward and concise, but I feel like it lacks a bit of characterization that this fan of the novel really misses. The 107-minute version goes far deeper into the relationships between Christine and Erik and Christine and Raoul, which builds up the romantic tensions and also allows more of the supporting players a chance to shine in their respective roles.
The longer version of Phantom is also missing the colorization of the “Bal Masqué” scene, though, which is one of the film’s iconic show-stopping moments that really captures the pageantry and the stunning beauty of the Paris Opera House set, which existed at Universal Studios until 2014, when it was sadly dismantled. The shadow play at work through The Phantom of the Opera is top-notch, though, particularly in the early parts of the film when Erik just exists simply as shadows against the wall (there’s also a wonderful shadow shot of the ballerina troupe that’s absolutely a visual delight), and the scene in which one of Erik’s victims has been hung, and we only see his body swinging in the shadows, is still a haunting image. But between the film’s often oversized production design and cinematography, Phantom effectively proves that the devil is truly in the details.
Probably the film’s most emblematic aspect has to be Lon Chaney, Sr.’s makeup for The Phantom, which was a marvel back then, and still remains a wondrous sight to behold even now. So many contemporary adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera are afraid to “ugly up” Erik because they want to romanticize his existence to a certain degree, but the “Man of a Thousand Faces” gave us one of the most accurate depictions of Erik’s visage that we’ve ever seen, and it still remains a high point for practical makeup effects after all this time.
The RLJE Films Blu-ray for The Phantom of the Opera has several presentations of the film, including the version with the Alloy Orchestra score (which is my favorite of the trio of scores), a version with the Gabriel Thibaudeau score (which has hints of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s music in it), and then there’s the version with Frederick Hodges’ score, which was accompanied by the longer version of Phantom. I had a bit of a chuckle in the beginning, as there’s a nod to the iconic music from Alfred Hitchcock Presents in there, and while I think it’s missing some ominous undertones, there’s something to be said for Hodges’ beautiful orchestrations here.
Before I wrap this whole thing up, there are just a few things that I found rather striking upon revisiting this version of The Phantom of the Opera that I wanted to make sure I made mention of:
As a whole, this production of The Phantom of the Opera became a standard-bearer when it comes to classic Gothic cinema for good reason—its ambition is only rivaled by its strong visual and technical achievements that are still impressive in comparison to modern filmmaking techniques. An eerie and enchanting adaptation that became one of the most famous horror movies of all time, Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera ushered in a new era of genre storytelling that would forever change the landscape of cinema, and also gave Lon Chaney, Sr. the opportunity to showcase his immeasurable talents as both an actor and as a makeup artist to boot.