Lovely and Haunting, The Phantom of the Opera
By Kristin Battestella
I don’t expect modern audiences who delight in the gore, sex, and screams of today’s horror pictures to appreciate the 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera. Nonetheless, I can’t help myself! Every attempt should be made to see this wonderfully resorted tale of music and mayhem.
The Show must go on at the Paris Opera House, but the new owners casually ignore the stories of a ghostly phantom who roams the vast cellars at the opera. The famed Carlotta (Virginia Peterson) receives threatening letters from The Phantom (Lon Chaney), informing her that the lovely understudy Christine (Mary Philbin, Merry Go Round) shall perform instead. Masked and unseen by her, the Phantom has been mentoring Christine and encouraging her to end her engagement to Raoul (Norman Kerry, The Unknown). When he abducts Christine and takes her to his dungeons below, The Phantom sets about a deadly chain of love, revenge, music, and unmasking.
It's ironic that in a film about opera we fail to realize we never actually hear anything operatic! The wonderful classic score carries the
Old World charm and pacing of The Phantom of the Opera. Humorous notes accentuate the wit onscreen, and booming crescendos set off the horror. If you want to get technical, maybe silent pictures aren’t really silent. If that’s the case, then The Phantom of the Opera is also the perfect mix of sound and screen as well as stage. The ballets and opera showcases, the onscreen behind the scenes, and underground of the opera house give us the feeling we are in good ole at the Opera, as in the turn of the century before film. The freaky Phantom makeup designed by Chaney, the costumes, gothic styles, and scares put us in a delightfully old school spooky mood. Paris
Yes we can laugh at the early actors’ hyper looking styles, but The Phantom of the Opera is not as over the top as other skittery silent films. The restored color plates of red, gold, and purple hues between the title cards add another level of subdued ambiance to Lon Chaney’s (The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
After Midnight) possessive and tragic portrayal. At first, we fear the Phantom, his scares about the house, and his deadly orchestrating for the affections of Christine. No, he isn’t a stalker who wants to take over her career, beauty, body, and voice-no, not at all! But then again, we feel for the Phantom, this glorified and maniacal kidnapper. He’s tragically in love-haunted by what he can’t have just as much as the upstairs opera feel haunted by him. We fear the mask and weep for it at the same time. Who’s wrong-the Phantom or his pursuers? Who’s right? London
Naturally, the ladies enthralled with the bizarre yet touching romance can find it in the source novel by Gaston Leroux. Modern fans can take in the long running Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway show, see Gerard Butler’s 2004 film adaptation of Webber, or observe any of the *numerous* other adaptations. I personally adore the 1943 version with Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, and all its musical costume spectacles. Here, however, Mary Philbin is delightful as the beauty conflicted by the beast. We can’t hear her sing, but her song and beauty is powerful enough to stir the heart of our masked man. Some early leading ladies don’t look pretty bobbed and be-Charlestoned, I have to admit; but Philbin’s Christine looks the lovely Parisian part.
In truth, there isn’t anything ugly about this Phantom of the Opera. Even the famous revelation of the Phantom’s disfigurement is still shocking, frightening, horrifying, and tragic. And having recently watched my favorite Poe adaptation The Masque of The Red Death, I was delighted to see the Phantom’s mocking of the Opera parties above, dressed as the skeletal Red Death itself. Ah, the appreciation of horror, the macabre, and the irony it represents. This is damn good stuff!
As is such with silent and public domain pictures, there are a several versions and restorations available for The Phantom of the Opera. Scene ordering, scoring alterations, narrations, cast changes-even early sound work began as early as 1930 reissues and have continued with DVD releases today. Film historians and Phantom obsessors no doubt enjoy the mysteries and technicalities here-or are driven crazy by them! Numerous DVDs, collector sets, and purported definitive versions are available-so pick up your copy, rent experiment, or watch online this October.