The Phantom of the Opera – USA, 1925 – reviews

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The Phantom of the Opera is a 1925 American silent horror feature  film adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel of the same title directed by Rupert Julian. The film features Lon Chaney in the title role as the deformed Phantom, Erik, who haunts the Paris Opera House, causing murder and mayhem in an attempt to force the management to make the woman he loves a star. It is most famous for Lon Chaney’s intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film’s premiere.

The film also features Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, and Snitz Edwards. It was adapted by Elliott J. Clawson, Frank M. McCormack (uncredited), Tom Reed (titles) and Raymond L. Schrock. It was directed by Rupert Julian, with supplemental direction by Lon Chaney, Edward Sedgwick and Ernst Laemmle.

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The first filmed version of Gaston Leroux’s novel sticks relatively close to it’s source, though nit-pickers will find several rather subtle changes and a fairly significant one in regards to the ending. Regardless, the story is simple and effective; a shunned, disfigured outcast is driven to even greater madness in pursuit of his beloved, only to bring the wrath of Paris upon him in the sumptuous setting of the Paris Opera House and its environs. Chaney was already a huge star and more than a little savvy in spotting a sure-fire hit when it reared its head. Unattached to any studio, he swapped from MGM to Universal, having already worked for them successfully in 1923’s Hunchback Of Notre Dame.

The production was beset by problems from the start, to the extent that it would have been easy to give up on the project at a very early stage. Director, Rupert Julian, came with some history – he was previously an actor, having worked with Chaney in The Small Town Girl and The Kaiser, The Beast Of Berlin, playing villains with more than a little delight. He was notorious in how he humiliated and bullied actors on-set, very much the Klaus Kinski of his day.

The film suffered endless re-writes, getting further and further away from the source, though never to detrimental effect. Julian’s on-set rantings meant that both Chaney and comedy director Edward Sedgwick, found themselves directing several scenes in his absence. Universal sank a staggering amount of money into the production of the film, $632,357, including $50,000 on re-shoots alone, when studio head, Carl Laemmle, ordered that several light-hearted scenes be scrapped and the original ending, seeing the Phantom dying of a broken heart, slumped on his beloved church organ, be rather more ‘exciting’. The resulting beating of The Phantom to death is something of an alarming surprise to the audience.

Image The sets used, both above ground and in the Phantom’s lair in the catacombs of Paris, still look staggering. In the final sequence, showing Erik fleeing the Paris mob, the cathedral built for his own Hunchback of Notre Dame, can be seen. Sections of the film were shot using expensive early colour processes, few of which are still in existence. The most famous are those at the extravagant ball, the “Bal Masqué”, where the Phantom appears skull-masked, and the most famous shot of all with Erik atop the opera house, red robes flowing around him – this shot was re-coloured by computer in 1996.

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The most famous aspect of the film is Chaney make-up, created, as always, by himself. The description discussed by characters, before he is unmasked in the film, is as follows: “His face is like leprous parchment, yellow skin, strung tight over protruding bones. The nose…there is no nose!” Ever the showman, Chaney went to great lengths to explain how he achieved the effect and then couldn’t stop himself from adding to it. By his own description, he inserted painful discs which clamped into his mouth, raising his cheekbones – this is unlikely, and is almost certainly an effect created by the use of mortician’s wax and collodion.

What is confirmed are the methods in creating his skull-like visage and nose. Though some scenes utilise wire and tape, the more ingenious shots are brought to life by attaching translucent strips of fish skin to his nostrils and dragging them towards his forehead with spirit gum and firmly strapping the other end of the skin under his bald cap. Chaney inserted fish membrane into his eyes to give them a misty, deathly appearance. Chaney suffered, inevitably, with frequent nose bleeds but combined with make-up and accentuated gestures, the effect caused many early audience members to faint.

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Cinematographer, Charles Van Enger, recalled Chaney’s unveiling of his make-up causing him to stumble backwards in fright, a laughing Chaney accepting it as the only feedback he needed. The money Universal spent was repaid in spades – estimated takings were in the region of $2,000,000, with profits of well over $500,000. It was this film that convinced Universal of the enormous market for horror material and to invest the funds that eventually brought us Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman and so on.

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The legacy of the film cannot be overstated. There have since been five remakes (1943, 1962, 1983, 1989, and 1990), numerous paeans, including British comedy The League of Gentlemen who adopted Chaney’s nose effects, a stage show and much more, all of which, ironically, draw far more from the film than from the original novel. It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1998 as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Despite this, the films exists as a hybrid, a mash-up of various prints, the original long lost (Universal’s official print is believed to be derived from a silent European version). The final twist is that Universal allowed their copyright of the film to slip in 1953, meaning that the film can be bought in many different unofficial versions under public domain guidelines.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA

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