Written by Elliot J. Clawson, Raymond L. Schrock and Bernard McConville
Directed by Rupert Julian (uncredited: Edward Sedgwick)
The following review is based on the silent version from 1925, not the 1930 version that included some dialogue. The version viewed for the purposes the present review also featured colour-tinted scenes and the infamous opening scene in which a man with a lamp walks through a dark tunnel, which is reportedly footage shot later for the 1930 sound version, but has somehow made it into all existing cuts of the original 1925 film.
The 1920s represent a defining decade for film, both in the United States and worldwide. Many of the earliest great pictures we produced during this time, with several film auteurs getting their start, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir and F. W. Murnau but to name a few. For Hollywood, which was growing in popularity and cache with the increasingly efficient studio system, the time was ripe to push cinema to the limits in order to amaze audiences with lavish, jaw dropping productions. One such example was born out of a vacation taken by Universal Pictures exec Carl Laemmle in France, where he met with crime author Gaston Leroux. When Leroux presented the movie-minded man with his novel, The Phantom of the Opera, it was immediately apparent that its story had to be translated to screen. Throughout the decades since, many have cinematically translated Leroux’s sad, horrifying story, sometimes successfully, others times less so. It seems only right to begin an exploration of the many film versions with the one that started it all.
The story is set in Paris, predominantly at the Paris Opera House. Playing to packed crowds, the performers and musicians are among the very best France has to offer, among them the angelic Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin). She, however, is not the star of Faust, the show currently playing, but rather fellow diva Carlota. Not everyone believes Carlota should earn all the accolades. A peculiar being, a shadow that some of the backstage employees claimed to have spotted briefly, whispers to Christine through the walls of her dressing room every night, its soft voice encouraging her, telling her that she is the best. Who exactly is this strange visitor, no one knows for sure, but some claim that it may be the ghost that haunts the opera house. Christine does not know who speaks to her at night, but her lover, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), believes it to be nothing more than a childish trick. Even though it all sounds rather preposterous, the fact of the matter is that Christine is married to the music and the stage, and is intrigued by this odd voice that comes to her at night after her shows, showering her with praise. Even the establishment’s owners begin receiving threatening notes, demanding that Christine, rather than Carlota, be treated like the star. Before anyone can do anything about it, the Phantom (Lon Chaney), begins to make his move.
Watching a silent film from the 1920s is a completely different experience than watching a film from any other era. Even when compared to old films from the 1940s and 1930s, one significant difference lingers: there are no talking parts. All dialogue is communicated to the viewer via a series of title cards. The music, sets, costumes and acting thus work all the harder to tell a story. On the topic of the acting, since no voices can be heard, the performances are exceptionally physical, with body language and facial expressions taking centre stage. For some, taking in a silent film is absolutely out of the question, as the product bears little resemblance to what they know. For others, it is a complex but wholly satisfying experience, as emphasis is put on a number of different things than is the case in modern cinema.
What is impressive and enlightening to witness when taking in Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera is how, from the very earliest days of the Hollywood studio system, filmmakers strove to make big, lavish productions. Old, tired film stock de damned, the visuals are on full display in this early horror-drama romance. The opera house itself looks humungous from certain angles, and in several instances entire opera sets are installed on the fake stage in order to shoot a number of scenes from Faust. The cellars underneath the stage loom large over the people that walk to and from them, and the titular antagonist’s quarters have a beautifully gothic, castle-like quality about them. There is little denying that producer Carl Laemmle and director Rupert Julian (the two of which reportedly did not get along very well), aimed for the stars as far as the look of the picture was concerned and it is easy to see a lot of the money on the screen. The film definitely earns high marks for its craftsmanship. Depending on what version one stumbles on (on the topic of multiple versions, Kino Lorber is releasing a two-disc blu-ray with no less than three distinct cuts on October 13th), there is one sequence in particular, the masked ball, that features in full colour, achieved through a Process 2 technicolor process. It is wondrous to behold and brings forth the richness and verve of a classic costumed ball where everyone is at their most fancy and ostentatious.
Of course, all would be for naught if the actual story was not as rich as the sets and costumes on display. In this regard, The Phantom of the Opera is a solid, if never wholly engaging tale of an ill placed romance that was doomed from the start. What is presented to the viewer is the tale of young, ambitious singer that is swayed away from her lover to the dungeon levels of the opera house by a mysterious being that keeps professing his love for her talents and beauty. The manner in which dramatic beats are presented to the audience suggests that the latter must simply accept the strangeness of the tale. There are certain leaps in logic that defy reason, such as the ease with which Christine alludes to the fact that the dashing Raoul must forget about her because she can never leave the opera. Just as Christine is being put under a spell of sorts, so too do the filmmakers hope that the audience shall as well, entranced by the mystery of the setting. Again, the visuals go a long way to carry the story, such as when the phantom, captured as a silhouette against a cavernous wall, can be seen speaking his words of worship to Christine. It is eventually revealed that the Phantom has found a passage that leads directly behind Christine dressing room mirror, thus explaining how she could be hearing a voice at night, yet how she could fall for the trick of rejecting Raoul so as to remain under the guise of her new master suggests that she might not be the brightest bulb on the shelf.
The simplicity of how Christine is seduced by the alluring powers of her master (the Phantom describes himself as such throughout the picture) continues throughout the subsequent scenes. Her sleepwalk downwards into the caverns under the opera house goes without much of an explanation. As with a lot of what goes on in the movie, from a visual and audio level, depending on what orchestration one listens to of course, it works for its visceral quality. From a storytelling point of view, it’s all a little bit easy and pleads the audience to merely accept what it happening. Once in the Phantom’s domain, he tries to reassure her that she will be loved and unharmed, provided she not touch the mask that hide his disfigurement. What is the very first thing Christine does when her host has his back turned while playing the organ? Remove his mask. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the moment is amazing for how it looks, but, on the flip side, happens seemingly because the story has to get to the next point.
On the topic of the Phantom’s mask being removed, no review of this 1925 interpretation is complete without reference to Lon Chaney’s performance and self-made and self-applied makeup. One of the great film performers of his era with films such as London After Midnight and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Chaney was an obvious choice to play the iconic Phantom. He was a physically and artistically gifted actor that could transform into just about anything, giving breathtaking performances that were incredibly easy to believe in. His work in Rupert Julian’s film has understandably stood the test of time, as has his makeup (which shall not be spoiled in case anyone reading this has not seen the film). Most of the actors do a fine job, but Chaney is the one that owns the show, balancing sorrow, madness and creepiness all into one, sometimes seamlessly. His phantom is a crazed murderer that could never have Christine all to his own, yet has deluded himself into believing that he just might. For all intents and purposes, he ends up being his own worst enemy, injecting the character with a hint of tragedy that the film sadly stamps on when the authorities discovers his true identity and reveal that he nothing more than a psychotic killer.
The 1925 Phantom of the Opera is a beautifully produced film, replete with stunning set, costume and makeup design. The visuals and the score do a marvellous job at carrying the picture through the high and lows of the dramatic beats. This is of considerable importance seeing as the script, while adequate, has trouble reconciling with some of the story’s inherent tragedy. It isn’t a perfect film, but its many qualities go a long way to explaining why historian and film aficionados still cite it as one of the great horror movies ever made.