Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had providentially brought along a copy of The Phantom of the Opera — the 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin, turning in two of the most subtle and nuanced acting jobs in all the silent cinema. The copy I have is in the authentic color tints, and those were quite spectacular (and added to the mood of the film), but all those opening shots of operatic performances in progress are pretty dull without sound — but once Lon Chaney made his entrance the film got decidedly more interesting. It still holds up beautifully, with Chaney’s performance making the Phantom at once despicable and understandable. The fact that this old melodrama has retained its public appeal is a testament to its power. — 3/22/93


Anyway, last night Charles and I went to the Organ Pavilion for a screening of the 1925 classic film The Phantom of the Opera with Jim Riggs providing a live organ accompaniment. The setting could have been a lot better — the showing was interrupted by three incredibly noisy 15-minute tests of the alarm bell at the Japanese Tea Garden (each started at quarter past the hour — 6:15, 7:15 and 8:15 — and ended precisely 15 minutes later, obviously indicating that these were tests being carried out purposely by someone who hadn’t been made aware that there was a major event at the Organ Pavilion with which these tests would interfere) and the first part of the film was mistakenly shown at a 16:9 aspect ratio, which cut Lon Chaney down to James Cagney’s size and likewise shortened and stoutened Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry and the rest of the cast (I and another patron lobbied the young woman who was running the video projection machine — yes, it was projected video, not an actual film print — over the intermission break to change it) — but it was a delight to see the film again even if it seemed a bit of a comedown after our viewing of the Metropolis restoration in the morning.

Before the film screened I had a chance to talk to Jim Riggs, the organist, who said Metropolis was one of his all-time favorite films but he had no idea there was a longer version in circulation that restored at least some of the missing footage. He also mentioned, apropos of the more recent versions of Phantom, that he can’t stand Andrew Lloyd Webber; through clenched teeth he told me, “I hope nobody who comes here tonight is expecting to hear any of that music!,” and he added what he said was his all-time favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber joke: “You go to an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and you leave humming the scenery.”

The 1925 Phantom of the Opera remains unsurpassed and unsurpassable, one of the all-time great silent films even though Rupert Julian’s direction is virtually nonexistent. Fortunately, Universal president Carl Laemmle, put in the middle in the conflicts between Julian and star Lon Chaney, let Chaney basically direct most of his own big scenes (and I suspect Chaney’s hand as director is also apparent in some of the wonderfully Gothic scenes that are very much part of the Phantom’s realm even though he doesn’t actually appear in them — notably the marvelously touching sequence in which Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé, captured by the Phantom, explores the bedroom he has created for her, with its boat-like bed, lavish furnishings and hand mirror already decorated with her name in simple, elegant block letters: CHRISTINE). He also brought in Edward Sedgwick, best known as a comedy director (virtually the only Sedgwick films still shown today are the ones in which he directed Buster Keaton), to do a final chase scene which emerges as a prototype for all the villager scenes in Universal’s horror talkies — though with the intriguing difference that in Phantom the villagers actually kill the monster (they corner him on one of the bridges over the Seine, assault him and then hurl him into the river — “That’s because they weren’t planning to do a sequel!” joked Charles).

Phantom holds up as a great movie even though it’s melodramatic as all get-out (something Charles had found refreshing about Metropolis is that, precisely because the characters were intended as archetypes rather than real people, they did not do the stagy grimacing and hand-over-the-forehead gesturing that often passed for acting in silent films; nor did the story get them in the kinds of outrageous situations that Phantom is full of); it’s the only Phantom adaptation that comes remotely close to Gaston Leroux’ novel (the only one that includes any depiction of the Phantom’s torture chamber at the climax — Leroux lovingly described this and it would seem any remotely conscious filmmaker would have realized its cinematic possibilities, but all the subsequent Phantom films have ignored it!) and it’s by far the best cast — not only Chaney, who gets to play the kind of role he did so well (a realistic monster rather than a supernatural or science-fictional one; as implausible as the plot of Phantom is there’s nothing in it that violates ordinary notions of time, space, life, death or physics in general), but also Mary Philbin, touching and restrained in her rendition of the dilemma facing her character; and the heroes, Norman Kerry as her lover Raoul and Arthur Edwin Carewe as “The Persian,” a mysterious character who turns out to be an agent of the French secret police, are for once convincing in their action sequences (and in Kerry’s case good-looking enough that he’s actually a plausible rival to the Phantom for Christine’s affections).

It’s interesting to note that three of the actors in this film — Kerry, Philbin and Gibson Gowland (as the stagehand at the Opera who leads the lynch mob at the end after the Phantom murders his brother) — were discovered by Erich von Stroheim. And despite the rivalries from other noises in the park and some rather arbitrary choices on his part (like refusing to play any music from Gounod’s Faust even though that is the opera the on-screen characters are shown performing), Jim Riggs accompanied the film superbly (he said he’s played for it many times before, and it showed) with music that projected the story’s doomed romanticism as well as its excitement. — 11/1/02


On Hallowe’en night Charles and I celebrated by running the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera, and while none of the adaptations have really done justice to Gaston Leroux’ novel (which I picked up in paperback and read avidly after the success of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical rekindled interest in the story) this remains the best by a considerable margin. Alas, there has never been a concerted effort to restore the 1925 Phantom in the comprehensive fashion attempted by the 2002 and 2010 versions of Metropolis, and so viewers coming to this film either “fresh” or anxious to see the version truest to the filmmakers’ original intentions are going to have a real problem.

The problems with Phantom from a textual point of view actually started when the film was new: Universal assigned Lon Chaney to the title role (using up their last outstanding commitment to him; Chaney had signed with the Goldwyn company in 1922 while he still owed Universal two films under a previous contract, commitments Universal used to make the 1923 Hunchback of Notre-Dame and the 1925 Phantom; in between Hunchback and Phantom Goldwyn merged with Metro and Mayer to form MGM and Chaney made all his subsequent films for MGM, though he was scheduled to return to Universal, along with his favorite director Tod Browning, to make Dracula when he died of throat cancer in 1930) and Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, the star team of Erich von Stroheim’s World War I melodrama The Merry-Go-Round, to play the ingénues. (Kerry had previously worked with Chaney on the 1923 Hunchback.)

As a director they hired Rupert Julian, described by horror-film historian Carlos Clarens as having all Stroheim’s affectations but none of his talents, mainly (apparently) because Julian had replaced Stroheim on The Merry-Go-Round and seemed to have got along with Kerry and Philbin. Scenarists Elliot Clawson and Raymond Schrock (along with several other uncredited writers) squeezed a script out of Leroux’ 1911 novel that pretty closely followed it (certainly more so than any of the subsequent film versions or the Lloyd Webber musical) and Julian antagonized so many of the people associated with the film that at one point Kerry threatened to punch him out and Chaney took over the direction of most of his own scenes. (They indicate that had Chaney lived to direct an entire movie, he would have been quite good at it: the famous scene in which the heroine unmasks the Phantom and reveals the skull-like face underneath is a masterpiece of angling and cutting and is far more imaginative than anything in the movie that can definitely be attributed to Julian.)

Some “trivia” posters on imdb.com claim that Julian was fired from the film before it was even finished, but earlier sources (including Michael Druxman’s book on much-remade movies, Make It Again, Sam) suggest that he did do a director’s cut, it was previewed — and audiences were bored by the ending, in which the Phantom died in his subterranean lake under the Paris Opera House. So Universal hired yet another director, Edward Sedgwick, to film the ending the film has now, in which the Phantom is chased outside the opera house and ultimately drowns to death in the Seine River. Sedgwick was best known as a comedy director — he made most of Buster Keaton’s MGM films from 1928 to 1933 — but perhaps Universal thought he would do well with this assignment because most silent comedies turned, sooner or later, into chases and therefore chases were something they knew he would do. (Still, the ending has always seemed to me to be a major letdown compared to the rest of the film.)

The New York Times review in 1925 called it “a well-dressed thriller, with a capable acting by the villain, a stiff and stilted hero and an insipid heroine. So far as the story is concerned, it looks as if too many cooks had rather spoiled the broth, which was served up in novel form by Gaston Leroux.” The original 1925 release also contained a two-strip Technicolor sequence in which Chaney appears at the opera’s Bal Masque ball dressed as the Red Death from Edgar Allan Poe’s story of that name — it’s the only color footage of Chaney extant, though the heavy mask and cape he’s wearing hides his figures even more than most of his movie get-ups do — and oddly it cuts from Technicolor during the scenes taking place inside the opera house to stencil color when Chaney appears in his Red Death get-up on the roof of the opera house and spies on his protégée, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), and Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), the lover the Phantom is insisting she break up with to devote herself entirely to him and her career, then back to Technicolor when the scene cuts back to the Opera House interior. The Opera House interior, by the way, still stands on Stage 28 on the Universal lot, though years of neglect have sent it into a state of disrepair and now it’s hardly ever used; for years, however, Universal employed it to represent any large theatre they needed for a film, and occasionally even other companies sent units to Universal to film on it (Irene Dunne’s last concert in the 1934 RKO film Stingaree was shot on the Opera House set from Phantom).

The Phantom of the Opera was an enormous hit, and in 1929 Universal reissued it, still as a silent but with a synchronized music and effects track added. Unfortunately, the 1929 reissue was about 20 minutes shorter than the 1925 release (major surgery like that was easier to do in the silent era because one could cut a film to one’s heart’s content without worrying about any audible gaps or rough edits in a soundtrack) — though to make it even more confusing, a few added scenes were filmed by director Ernst Laemmle, a relative of Universal’s founder and owner Carl Laemmle — and that was used as the basis for yet another reissue in 1930. This time dialogue was dubbed in; Universal reunited the members of the original cast, except for Chaney — though it’s unclear whether Chaney was already dead by then or was still alive but unavailable to dub his part because he was still under exclusive contract to MGM. Though the ads for the 1930 dialogue version said, “Everybody Talks but the Phantom,” apparently there are a few snatches of what’s supposed to be the Phantom’s voice, added by actor Phillips Smalley.

The film survived in various bits and pieces and fragmentary versions, ultimately achieving legendary status at least in part because it leached into the public domain and was by the 1960’s and 1970’s probably the most readily accessible of Chaney’s films. It also got remade twice, in 1943 with Claude Rains and Nelson Eddy, and in 1962 in England with Herbert Lom, but with a more heroic origin story for the Phantom: in the novel he’s a freak who taught himself music while working in carnivals, got hired on the crew that built the Paris Opera in the first place and built his own subterranean lair in the evenings while working as a normal construction worker during the day; in Chaney’s film he’s a criminally insane escapee from Devil’s Island who hid out under the Opera House; in the subsequent versions he was a former Opera musician, disfigured in an accident, helping Christine become an opera star for beneficent instead of romantically obsessed reasons.

The version we had access to was a two-DVD set from Image Entertainment, part of the Milestone Film and Video collection, which was billed as “the ultimate edition” but really wasn’t: disc one was a full-scale restoration, produced in 1999 for Channel Four TV in Britain, and including authentic tints and the Bal Masque sequence in color, but based on the shorter 1929 version. It also offered a choice of scores between a new one composed and recorded by Carl Davis and one assembled from the surviving soundtrack recordings from 1929 and 1930 — though, to make it even more confusing, one of the special features on the DVD was advertised as “selections of dialogue sequences from the 1930 version not found in the restored version.” Disc two was advertised as the original 1925 release, and so it was textually — but it was totally unrestored, in scratchy black-and-white, and the only accompaniment was an organ score by Jon Mirsalis.

We watched the 1929 restored version with the Carl Davis score, and it remains a stunning movie — though it does rather peter out towards the ending — visually imaginative, full of marvelously Gothic touches (like the long scarf Mary Philbin is wearing, which trails in the water as the boat by which the Phantom is taking her to his underground lair traverses the underground streams leading to it) and refreshingly understated in the acting. Chaney is unsurpassable as the Phantom — not only as actor but as makeup artist as well; he designed and applied his own makeup, including sticking wires around his eyes and up his nose to give his face the skeleton-like features he wanted. (This was the makeup that inspired someone to ask Chaney why he put himself through so much pain for the sake of his movies — to which he replied, “Unless I suffer, how can I get the audience to believe me?”) And his performance is seconded by Philbin, who despite a rather bothersome expression in some scenes that seems designed to convey winsomeness but comes off more as a smirk, is quite delicate and economical in her gestures, especially in the sequence — anticipating Rebecca by 15 years and conveying much the same sort of emotional discomfort — in which she’s borne to the Phantom’s bedchamber for her, complete with a boat-shaped bed and a hand mirror already emblazoned with her name, “Christine.” (This scene seemed photographically inferior to the rest of the film — as if the restorers hadn’t been able to find as good a source for it as they had for the remainder.)

Phantom deserves its classic status even though much of the cinematic potential of Leroux’ novel remains unrealized despite the multiple filmizations; at least this one contains one of the torture rooms the Phantom rigs up to entrap any unwelcome people who try to visit him; Raoul and Inspector Ledoux of the Surété (played by Arthur Edmund Carewe — the character is called “The Persian” in the novel and isn’t an official police officer but an informant anxious to work with the police to trap the Phantom because the Phantom previously was responsible for the death of one of his relatives; the sole concession to his original identity in the movie is the fez he otherwise inexplicably wears) get trapped in a room lined with mirrors that quickly fills up with intolerable heat. (In the book there’s a whole series of these torture chambers, all illusions the Phantom literally creates with mirrors. None of the subsequent filmmakers who’ve tackled this story have done any of the chambers, even though they seem like marvelously cinematic material.)

The new score by Carl Davis wisely supplies themes from Gounod’s Faust, the opera the company is performing, whenever scenes actually showing opera performances appear, and is generally appropriate and well recorded — but frankly if I were supervising a two-DVD edition of this movie I would have put the original 1925 version on one disc, including the color sequence and tints and restored to the best possible photographic quality, while on the other disc I would have included as much as possible of the 1930 sound version, filled in with gaps from the 1929 synchronization in cases where some of the dialogue was missing. That would have deserved the “ultimate edition” title! — 11/2/10