One of the many beautiful things about The Phantom of the Opera is the fact that it takes its time to tell this story visually. Being a silent film, Phantom required stunning visuals to succeed. It has them... in spades. Director (well, one of them) Rupert Julian allowed the camera to suck in its subjects over time, interrupting the beauty with Title Cards only sparingly.
Of course, it's hard to say just how much credit Julian gets for this. Julian is the credited director out of four actual helmsmen of this Carl Laemmle Presentation! Two of the others are Ernst Laemmle and Edward Sedgwick. The last of the Four Horsemen of the Director's Chair is none other than star Lon Chaney, a visual stunner in and of himself.
Regardless of whose name is, or ought to be, on the canvass chair's back, Lon Chaney most certainly makes this movie. His acting here is phenomenal. Interestingly, though he made only one talkie, Chaney is said to have had a wonderful voice. This, no doubt, was helped by his years in the theatre. In spite of this, the man was perfect for Silent Films, and is one of the greatest pantomime artists ever captured on a movie screen. This, no doubt, was helped by the fact that both Chaney's parents were completely deaf. Pantomime was part of the game.
Chaney is simply astounding here, and his silent menace, coupled with the sensitive and sympathetic Man Behind the Mask (even at his most evil) is one of the great screen performances of all time. The rest of the movie... is also great. Having four directors didn't spoil this stew, nor, apparently, did having eight writers working on the script.
The Gaston Leroux inspired story is a familiar one by now. Christine Daae (the incredibly beautiful Mary Philbin) is a young Diva in the Paris Opera House, who is sadly outshined by the Primadonna leading lady Carlotta (Virginia Pearson or Mary Fabian, depending on which edit you're watching). However, Christine has an Ace in the Hole, an unseen benefactor who has fallen in love with her. What she does not yet know is that this secret friend is actually Le Fantôme de l'Opera, the Opera Ghost (Lon Chaney, of course).
The Phantom of the Opera has his way with, and about his theatre, enjoying control via threats and intimidation through letters. His black-suited and white masked appearance (when seen) has led to many varying accounts of who, or what, he might be. Those who do not obey him (especially when it comes to promoting Christine) pay the ultimate price.
Sadly for this Phantom, there is another Rooster in the Opera House! Norman Kerry plays Vicomte Raoul de Chagny! Raoul is Christine's real-life love interest and a powerful man besides. Naturally, this sends the Phantom into pained hysterics and poetic histrionics. Soon, Christine is taken down into his dungeons and torture chambers that lie deep within the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. In his palace, the Phantom professes his love. Telling her that he is Erik, an outcast among men, forced to live this way, and to play his beautiful music. This leads to a now-familiar game of love, loss and retribution, which spins into high gear when Christine initiates one of the greatest (and best known) reveals of Movie History.
The unmasked face of the Phantom is now one of film's best known images, but I won't be placing an image of that great, great scene here on this page. Why? On the off, off, off chance that someone out there hasn't seen it, or hasn't seen it lately, or hasn't seen it in context, it's quite a sight, and should be seen for all its shocking glory. The grim visage of Erik still stands as one of the best make-up jobs ever done. In its initial run, this reveal caused audiences to scream at the sight of this monster.
This is, of course, a credit to Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, who did indeed do his own makeup. Rumors abound concerning the painful lengths he would go to for his craft, and many of these are more terrifying than the actual makeup jobs themselves. However, looking at this face, it's stunning to see how changed the, actually pretty handsome, actor became by this. The nose (or lack thereof), the forehead, those cheeks, the teeth and lips! And the most beautiful part of this is that Chaney, as Erik, is still fully able to express incredible emotion through this mask of pain.
Express it he does. To flip the coin of a phrase, Erik is more than just an ugly face. Chaney is absolutely hypnotic in his portrayal of the Phantom. The emotions he brings forth are striking, and well chosen. The most frightening look (the one that still chills viewers) is also laced with a pain that only a great, great actor can pull off. Further, his conflicted love and anguish show an impressive range, often in the same shot. One face he shows to Christine, one, only the audience sees.
This also works when the Phantom is masked. Instead of the now ubiquitous eyeless mask, which we might see on a poster for the Broadway show, here, Erik wears a white mask with ears, eyes and a veil. In a way, it's almost comical, which adds to the chilling affect. Even without use of his eyes, Chaney pulls this off.
In fact, he even succeeds without direct visibility of his body. The experimentation with light and shadow here is best exemplified by the Silhouetted conversations Erik has with Christine. So often the image of THE PHANTOM appears on a wall as a shadow. It's both frightening and enchanting to watch. "Opera Ghost" indeed!
There are many versions of this film out there (somehow, though one of Universal's most classic and appreciated films, The Phantom of the Opera, it has fallen into the public domain). Sadly, like many of this era, some versions have been lost. Preservation wasn't always a serious consideration. After all, who then could imagine that this film would still be viewed in 2006 and beyond? The most common and available version comes from the 1929 re-edit, which features some differences, but primarily the same actors. One exception is Carlotta, who was played in the 1925 cut by Pearson, but by Fabian in the 1929 "Special Edition" (as we call might such re-cuts now). Many of Pearson's scenes remain, but she's credited as "Carlotta's Mother" in the later versions.
There are also meticulously computer-colorized versions out there. However, when and if you watch this all the way through (and you need to), please note that The Phantom of the Opera actually featured an early Technicolor process that gave us the red coloring in the Masqued Ball and Faust scenes. This is astounding to watch, not just because of when this was done, but because of how great it looks, even today. Don't freak out and wonder if you've accidentally come across a colorized version, this is as it was, red, black, white, superb.
A special mention should be made about the lavish sets by Russell A. Gausman and the art direction of Charles D. Hall and Elmer Sheeley. Although filmed entirely on the Universal Lot (and, in fact, mostly on a sound stage), this really looks far too huge to be contained by such conventions. It's a set that could still stand up to some of the best work today (especially when the Phantom reveals some of his best tricks and traps). Actually, the set, quite literally, still stands up today... at least quite a bit of it. Urban Legends abound concerning why the Opera House set still occupies that one Universal Studios Sound Stage. Many say that it's haunted by the ghost of Lon Chaney. If so, you could do a lot worse for company. If I could pick a ghost to haunt me, I can see no reason why it wouldn't be The Phantom of the Opera.
No, it'd be Christine. Yeah, Christine. Sexy ghost.
The Phantom of the Opera is still a triumph and still stands up as one of the best films ever made. Thus, I have no choice but to give it the full Five Stars out of Five. This is a magnificent picture, and one of the best ever to come out of the Horror Genre. But aside from Horror, this is one excellent Drama, filled with action, suspense, comedy and romance. This is no one-note keyboard. The Phantom of the Opera lets you see the music. And that is something well worth your Box Seat Tickets.
Come to the Angel
(by Clicking Here)
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