Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stubs – The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Starring: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Mary Philbin. Directed by Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick Screenplay by Elliott J. Clawson, Raymond L. Schrock, Bernard McConville, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace, Walter Anthony, Tom Reed and Frank M. McCormack (all uncredited). Based on the novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Produced by Carl Laemmle Run Time: 107 minutes. U.S.  Black and White and Color, Silent, Horror.

'Tis the season to be frightened.

On the surface, the title and the media don’t seem to jive. A silent film about opera? Well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But the film is really less about the setting, the Paris Opera House, than it is about The Phantom that dwells there. Previously, Trophy Unlocked has reviewed Phantom of the Opera (1943), another version of the story. Sad to report that even with Claude Rains in the lead role, that film was not all that good.

But this is the first film interpretation and some say the definitive filmic version of the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. This film stars the Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, as the masked Phantom, which is already an improvement over Rains.

It is no surprise that Universal Studios would make horror films. This is after all the studio that brought us Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy(1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941),  not to mention all the sequels and associated films and crossovers. The studio has always been associated with the horror genre, going back to its very beginnings as the Independent Moving Pictures Company, which produced only one film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913). The studio’s first big success with the genre was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which inspired them to make The Phantom of the Opera. Both films starred Lon Chaney.

Chaney was one of the most versatile actors in early American cinema. Using make up he was able to transform his appearance, oftentimes into grotesque and tortured characters. Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Quasimodo in 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Chaney would appear in more than 150 films between 1912 and 1930. Included in his filmography is a stranger silent drama, He Who Gets Slapped (1924), which happened to be the first film in production by the then newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That film, directed by Victor Sjostrom, also starred Norma Shearer and John Gilbert.
Actor Lon Chaney.
Sadly, many of the films Chaney starred in have been lost in the annals of time. However, we are left with, arguably, his last great film, The Phantom of the Opera.
The film opens with the debut of the new season at the Paris Opera House, with a production of Gounod's Faust. (This piece is referred to later,)  But the new season also brings in new owners. The details are not spelled out, but you get the impression the new owners have not done very much due diligence. As the old owners depart, they inform the new ones about the Opera Ghost, a phantom who uses opera box #5, among other things. The new owners laugh it off as a joke, at least at first.
But during the performance, curiosity gets the better of the managers and they go to Box #5. They ask the woman who keeps the boxes who is in there. She tells them she doesn’t know and that she’s never seen his face. When they first enter Box #5, they see a man watching the opera. From the back, he looks like Dracula from behind with his high collar. The owners flee the box rather than speak to him. But outside the door, they regain their composure and go back to confront the man, only this time he’s not there.
After the performance, the ballet girls are disturbed by the sight of a mysterious man, whom they see passing behind a large set piece in the basement. (Honestly, I don’t know what they’re doing in the basement). Some of the ballerinas go upstairs to warn the others of the phantom’s return, while another group gathers around one of the stagehands Florine Papillion (Snits Edwards) and start describing the shadow they’ve seen.
A shadowy glimpse of the Phantom frightens the ballerinas.
They’re interrupted by the presence of a mysterious man in a fez (Arthur Edward Carewe) who continues down in to the cellar. They then scurry to seek out Joseph Buquet (Bernard Seigel), a stagehand who claims to have actually seen the ghost. Buquet, who is holding a life-like head of a man, describes a ghastly sight of a living skeleton to the girls. He takes them down to where he’d seen the phantom and the group is startled by a shadow cast on the wall. Florine is so frightened that he uses a trapdoor mechanism to escape. These antics of the stagehand do not amuse Joseph's brother, Simon (Gibson Gowland), another stagehand, who chases him off.
Meanwhile, Carlotta’s mother (Virginia Pearson) barges into the owners’ office enraged. She has received a letter from "The Phantom," demanding that Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) sing the role of Marguerite the following night, threatening dire consequences if his demands are not met.
The next evening, Carlotta is ill (we don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not) and Christine takes her place in the opera. Comte Philippe de Chagny (John St. Polis) and his brother, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) are in attendance. Christine is Raoul’s sweetheart.
Christine's performance draws a standing ovation.
Christine receives a standing ovation from the audience and afterward Raoul visits her in her dressing room. After clearing the room, he proposes to her saying, “At last you have realized your ambition, my darling, and now we shall be married.” But Christine turns him down, telling him that she can never leave the Opera. 
Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) proposes marriage, under his terms, to Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) 
Disappointed, Raoul stands outside her door, after the others have left. He hears the voice within the room. The Phantom (whom the audience sees as a shadow on a wall behind the dressing room) tells her, "Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and will demand your love!" She responds with “Call for me when you will. I shall be waiting.” Raoul, of course, hears this exchange.
Christine listens to her muse.
Carlotta receives another discordant note from the Phantom. Once again, it demands that she take ill and let Christine have her part. The owners also get a separate note from the Phantom, telling them that if Christine does not sing, they will present "Faust" in a house with a curse on it.
The following evening, despite the Phantom's warnings, a defiant Carlotta (Mary Fabian) appears as Marguerite. At first, the performance goes well, but soon the Phantom's curse takes its effect. The house lights flicker and the shadowy Phantom causes the great, crystal chandelier to fall down onto the audience. Mayhem ensues and the Phantom gets away.
The crystal chandelier falls onto the audience.
Raoul breaks into Christine’s dressing room and hides. Later Christine enters and is entranced by the mysterious voice through a secret door, who says “Christine, I have come for you.” And she willingly goes. She goes through the mirror which has a hidden passage. Raoul is too late to stop her. Behind the mirror, the phantom makes contact. Even wearing a mask, she is somewhat frightened by his appearance. He tells her “Look not upon my mask – think rather of my devotion which has brought you the gift of song.” He takes her descending, in a dream-like sequence, semi-conscious on horseback down a winding staircase into the lower depths of the Opera House.
First contact between the Phantom (Lon Chaney) and Christine.
She is then taken by the Phantom into a gondola which they use to transverse a subterranean black lake to his hidden lair, five cellars underground. The Phantom declares his love for her. Christine looks for some way out, but there really isn’t one. He introduces himself as Erik and Christine faints. Erik carries her to a lavish suite fabricated for her comfort and lays her down in a gondola shaped bed.
Under the Paris Opera House is a lake which
is only a short gondola ride to the Phantom's lair.
The papers report the news that an opera singer has mysteriously disappeared following the chandelier disaster.
The next day, when she awakens, after a night of tortured dreams, Christine finds there are clothes and shoes and other accessories for her to use and wear. She then finds a note from Erik telling her that she is free to come and go as she pleases, but that she must never look behind his mask. “You will be free as long as your love for the spirit of Erik overcomes your fear.”
The Phantom, wearing a mask, introduces himself as Erik to Christine.
In the next room, the Phantom is playing his own composition, "Don Juan Triumphant" on the organ. Christine, drawn by the music, enters. Her curiosity gets the better of her, and she sneaks up behind the Phantom and tears off his mask, revealing his hideously deformed face. Christine screams in horror.
Christine can't resist seeing what is under the Phantom's mask.
Enraged, the Phantom tells Christine “Feast your eyes – glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!” He asks her why she couldn’t heed his warnings and she begs him to let her go. To prove his love for her, he allows her to go back to her world one last time to sing in the opera with the condition that she never sees her lover again. “If you do, it is death to you both!”
Released from the underground dungeon, Christine sends a note to Raoul, saying that she wants to meet with him the next night at the Bal Masque de l’Opera, but that she won’t be alone. “Beware!”
The Bal Masque is a yearly party where all of Paris mingles together regardless of their class. This part of the movie is shot in color to show the bright costumes. The Phantom attends in the guise of the 'Red Death' from the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, wearing a skull mask. He warns the party that The Red Death rebukes their merriment. When he leaves, the party picks up where it left off.
Raoul finds Christine and they flee to the roof of the Opera House, where she tells him everything that followed the chandelier crash. But despite their caution, they are not alone. Perched on the statute of Apollo, the Phantom overhears Christine call him a beast and Raoul plans to whisk Christine safely away to England following her next performance.
The Phantom, astride the statue of Apollo, hears Raoul and Christine's plans.
As they leave the roof, the mysterious man with the fez approaches them. Aware that the Phantom is waiting downstairs, he leads Christine and Raoul to another exit.
In the next scene we’re given some background on the Phantom. Someone, the film never says who, shows one of the owners a card about “Erik”. Born during the Boulevard Massacre, he is a self-educated musician and master of Black Art. Exiled to Devil’s Island for the criminally insane, he has escaped and is still at large. This is your man, the man tells Monsieur le Prefect – “The Phantom of the Opera!”
The following evening, Raoul brings a barouche to the Opera house and goes to meet Christine in her dressing room. She has heard the voice of the Phantom, who has revealed that he knows their plans. Raoul has arranged for a carriage and reassures her nothing will go wrong.
Meanwhile, backstage, Simon finds his brother Joseph’s body, strangled because he knew too much about the Phantom. Simon vows vengeance.
During the performance, despite security, the Phantom kidnaps Christine off the stage during a blackout. Raoul rushes to Christine's dressing room, and meets the man in the fez, who reveals himself that he is Inspector Ledoux, of the secret police. He has been studying Erik's moves as the Phantom since he escaped as a prisoner from Devil's Island. Ledoux reveals the secret door in Christine's room and the two men enter the catacombs of the Opera House, looking for Christine. Ledoux warns Raoul to keep his arm up to avoid the Phantom’s noose.
They descend into the catacombs, where they are greeted by the Ratcatcher (William Tracy), who is serving as a messenger for the Phantom. He warns them to turn back or perish. Despite the warning they continue down into the depths.
Meanwhile the Phantom lets Christine know how upset he is with her. He calls her an ungrateful fool who has spurned the love that made her great. And warns her that she will now see the evil spirit that makes his evil face.
Ledoux and Raoul meanwhile fall through yet another trap door and find themselves in a torture chamber the Phantom has designed.
Philippe has also found his way into the catacombs looking for his brother, and a clanging alarm alerts the Phantom to his presence in the gondola on the lake. The Phantom leaves and swims out and overturns the boat and drowns Philippe. The Phantom returns to his lair and finds the two men in his torture chamber. Turning a switch, the Phantom subjects the two prisoners to intense heat.
Up on the streets of Paris, a mob is gathering and is marching towards the Opera House.
Ledoux finds another trap door and the two men escape the heat, but find themselves in a cellar with barrels of gunpowder and no way out.
The Phantom gives Christine a choice of two levers: one shaped like a scorpion and the other like a grasshopper. One of them will save Raoul's life, but at the cost of Christine marrying Erik, while the other will blow up the Opera House. After much internal debate, Christine picks the scorpion, but it is a trick by the Phantom to "save" Raoul and Ledoux from being killed by heat — by drowning them, filling the cellar they’re in from water from the black lake.
Christine begs the Phantom to save Raoul, promising him anything in return, even becoming his wife. At the last second, the Phantom opens a trapdoor in his floor through which Raoul and Ledoux are saved.
A mob, led by Simon, infiltrates the Phantom's lair. As the clanging alarm sounds and the mob approaches, the Phantom attempts to flee with Christine by hijacking the carriage Raoul had brought to whisk away Christine.
Raoul, who recovers his strength, takes chase, followed by Ledoux leading Simon’s mob. They spill out on to the streets and give chase after the carriage. During the frightening chase, Christine jumps from the carriage and when the Phantom tries to stop it too quickly, the carriage itself falls over.
While Raoul saves Christine, the Phantom is pursued to the banks of the Seine, where the mob kills him and throws his body into the River.
The production of the film was not without issues. Director Rupert Julian did not get along with Chaney or the rest of the cast. The first screening of the film occurred in January 1925, with a score by Joseph Carl Breil, the same man who had composed music for Birth of a Nation (1915). However, there is nothing left of that score. But the initial reception was poor and Julian was ordered to reshoot much of the film. Instead, Julian walked.
Edward Sedgwick, who would later direct Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), was brought in to do the reshoots. But his version which, of all things, made the story more of a romantic comedy was also scrapped.
A third and final version of the film was made by reediting the existing footage, with most of Sedgwick’s work eliminated. This was the version of the film that was released in September, 1925 with a score of French airs and Faust cues.
The film, despite all the problems, was a huge success, grossing over $2 million. The film would be re-issued as a sound version in 1930 and gross another million, despite the fact that Chaney could not participate in the sound recording, due to his being under contract to MGM by then. The success of Phantom would encourage Universal to continue making horror films, such as Dracula and Frankenstein.
It is interesting that the film uses different colors throughout with yellow, blue and purple tints added over the black and white and color is used during the Masked Ball sequence of the film. As was common practice at the time, the black and white footage was tinted various colors to provide mood. Amber was used for interiors, blue for nighttime exteriors, green for mysterious moods, red for fire and yellow for daylight exteriors. While I was aware that the tints were being used, I can’t say I was consciously affected by them nor was really aware what they were trying to convey when they were used. I did notice the blue tint was a sort of day for night effect, but that’s about it. My indifference may be due to my previous viewing experience and the tinting may have been quite effective when the film was released.
The crown jewel as it were of the film is the makeup by Lon Chaney. A master of disappearing into his characters, the reveal of Chaney in full Phantom make up had been a very well kept secret until the premiere of the film. And it was widely reported that people screamed when they first saw the hideous face of the phantom.
The film itself is very melodramatic and Mary Philbin’s acting can be very over the top in reacting in horror. The choice she is given, to turn a scorpion or a grasshopper figurine, just seems odd, why not just a yes or no, but perhaps that was in the original book. And it doesn’t make any sense to me why Raoul and Christine would wait to make their escape. Why not leave for England right away, why go back one more time to the haunted Opera House? I mean the show must go on, but that’s just seems like a very stupid choice to make.
While this version is much better than the 1943 version we reviewed last year, it doesn’t really hold up as well as I would have hoped. I can’t imagine viewers of the 1920’s weren’t thinking the same things I was thinking while watching it.
However, the film should be seen if only for the reveal scene, which I had to imagine at the time was very powerful. Sadly, we’ve all seen at least that part of the film by now, so that power has been reduced to curiosity.

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