The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Posted on October 23, 2010
Filed Under silent films

The first of the great Universal horrors is one of the strongest, notable for atmospheric cinematography, bravura set design, a couple of splendid sequences in two-strip Technicolor and Lon Chaney in one his greatest performances. The lush, beautifully tinted restoration of the 1929 reissue print of The Phantom of the Opera is an excellent starter film for those interested in exploring silent cinema.

The most remarkable thing about Chaney was not that he was the greatest make-up artist of his time, or that he subjected himself to tortuous restraints and appliances to create his characters—it was that despite all that he could still act. He was a superb silent film actor, as gifted as Emil Jannings, (another player accustomed to working in heavy paint). Each time I watch this film I notice Chaney’s timing, his gracefulness, his lithe physicality, his use of his hands. It is commonly said that Chaney is remarkable for his ability to convey sensitive emotions in even the most grotesque make-ups, and this is certainly true; thankfully it doesn’t get in the way of his being freakishly frightening.

For three reels the Phantom is just a hat, a flitting shadow, a disembodied hand. We haven’t yet seen him when his looming shadow drops the chandelier on the audience at the climax of Faust, but just after that, in one of my favorite shots in the film, we glimpse him from afar, a black silhouette fleeing across a swaying catwalk high in the half-lit vastness of the Opera House. He stops midway and spins, looking for pursuers, then continues his flight. It is a vital, athletic, electric image—and still we have not really seen the Phantom. When Christine steps through the mirror, we see him as she does, a mysterious man in a broad-brimmed hat and a cloak, a man not without a certain bohemian elegance, his face concealed behind the upper half of a buskin mask. We’re halfway through the film when at last Christine snatches away the mask.

The film spends little time on the pallid love story between Christine and her fiancé, Vicomte de Chagny, stiffly played by Mary Philbin and poor Norman Kerry, presumably the hero, who might as well not be in the picture. Instead the focus stays on the glamour of the milieu, the backstage denizens of the Opera House and the mystery of the Phantom. Universal turned the construction of the huge sets for the Paris Opera House into a news story in its own right—remarkably enough, the stage still stands—and even built an eight-ton replica of the Opera House chandelier. The monumental sets and vast interior spaces never overwhelm the film, which holds together quite well for a work apparently directed by committee. There was tension between Chaney and credited director Rupert Julian, and it’s usually said that Chaney directed all his own scenes. Julian ultimately failed to satisfy the studio, and was replaced late in the production by Edward Sedgwick. Neither ranks high in the director’s pantheon, but someone deserves credit for stitching together this sprawling, eerie story.

The most memorable cinematography in Phantom is the color work, supervised by Technicolor specialist Edward Estabrook, which includes a spectacular masked ball at which Chaney appears as the Red Death. Charles Van Enger’s black-and-white photography throughout the film is also exceptional. The underground sequences—the ominous steep stairs, the Stygian canal, the Phantom’s ornate lair, the cells—are filled with moody shadows shot through with guttering subterranean light. The 1929 reissue retains the original tinting, which adds immeasurably to the film’s macabre sensibility.

Chaney’s lung cancer was diagnosed about four years after The Phantom of the Opera, and he died of a hemorrhage in 1930. Whenever I watch this film, I imagine the Dracula he would’ve made with Tod Browning had he lived. (Shiver.) Julian’s directorial career was not especially distinguished. He is chiefly remembered today for this film and for his resemblance to Wilhelm II, which led to multiple small film roles and a starring role in The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918). Van Enger started as a cameraman in 1920 and lasted long enough to shoot all 30 episodes of ABC’s My Mother The Car in 1965. Along the way he photographed Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and several other Lubitsch silent pictures, Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941), a dozen Abbott and Costello movies, 61 episodes of Lassie, the pilot for Gilligan’s Island (1964) and, sadly, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). Even sadder, in 1951 he shot Lon Chaney Jr., by then far gone in alcoholism, in Curt Siodmak’s half-baked Bride of the Gorilla.

The Phantom of the Opera will be exhibited Friday, October 29, at Grace Cathedral in Topeka as the featured film in the 13th annual Silents in the Cathedral program. Curtain is at 7:00 p.m.; the bill also includes Edison’s Frankenstein (1910) and Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus (1927).