When in 1924 Universal president Carl Laemmle Sr. brought before Picture Palace audiences of the American Jazz Age the original silent version of what turned out to be but one of many adaptations to come that would grace both stage and silver screen with their interpretations of former French journalist turned-popular mystery writer Gaston Leroux’s novel “Le Fantôme de l'Opéra”, the written source was, at that point, merely a little over a decade old, having been first published in book form in 1911 after its prior serialisation in a popular French daily between the years 1909 and 1910. Yet this feverishly baroque and, at the time, relatively new tale has gone on to weave its spell over the imaginations of successive generations of viewers, developing a reputation which has endured well into our present age through countless re-imaginings -- from Hammer Horror in the 60s to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 West End sell-out musical and its subsequent 2010 sequel.
Today, we tend to think about Leroux’s tale as though it must have been already on a par with the other great standards of 19th century Gothic Horror fiction at the time of the release of Universal’s movie (which was an instant smash), rather than the comparatively new phenomenon it in fact was. It somehow feels as though it must have already been as venerable then as the Gothic greats “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, or “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” … all of which were established as successful stage properties by the mid-‘20s and had been tackled at least once by filmmakers from various countries, with some, such as Stevenson’s famous Victorian tale, already having been essayed a number of times for the screen in various guises during the heyday of the silent era, by the time the Phantom was unleashed on movie-goers. Even so, it is actually “The Phantom of the Opera” which can truly be said to have instigated Universal’s long association with the horror genre, its runaway success guaranteeing Gothic romanticism as a subject fit for the modern movie era.
In fact, the story of “The Phantom of the Opera” as we know it today probably owes the lion’s share of its mystique to this first film adaptation, and in particular to actor Lon Chaney Sr. and his knack for expressing existential despair through bizarre roles that often required him to alter his appearance in physically challenging (and often grotesque) ways. Chaney, already by this stage in his career known to audiences as ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’, was one of the biggest cinematic names of his day; but his appeal was strange and complex. While Hollywood, during the boom years of the prosperous 1920s, minted its aura of glamour around attractive stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Chaney’s parade of the disfigured, the disabled and the deranged in films such as “The Unholy Three”, “The Penalty” and “The Unknown” seemed to act as a reminder, in days of extravagance and frivolity, of those who had not so long ago returned from the torments of the Great War forever bearing the life-long physical and mental scars of their horrific experiences. After teaming up with Hollywood’s outsider-maverick Tod Browning, Chaney embraced the downbeat world of carnival freaks, dope fiends and streetwalkers and incorporated their psychic landscape into his portrayal of a series of damaged characters representing both the crippled and the lovelorn.
But while the horror genre has its roots in avant-garde art movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism, which developed a cinematic component thanks to the advent of German Expressionism in the early 20s, Laemmle’s 1924 movie was in fact intended as another one of Universal City’s lavish crowd pleasing mega-buck ‘Super Jewel’ Production spectaculars, regularly tooled up, decked out and wheeled on displaying glamour to wow viewers with the magnificence of their large-scale sets and their massive casts of extras, etc. “The Phantom of the Opera” was produced as a follow-up to the company’s earlier blockbuster, which had cost it in excess of $1.25 million to make -- namely its version of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. This had starred Chaney in his most famous role up to that point as the congenitally mutilated hunchback Quasimodo. Despite its lavish, gargantuan sets and its large cast of costumed extras, a good part of the film’s appeal rested on Chaney’s interpretation of the character, which was tied to his reputation for an insistence on fashioning his own makeup for all of his pictures and the seriousness with which he approached each and every role, as well as the trials and rigours he was prepared to endure for the sake of his transformative art.
Laemmle bought the rights for “The Phantom of the Opera” from Leroux (who died three years after the release of the film) with the intention of making this the next big vehicle at Universal to bring Chaney, who had in the meantime decamped to MGM, back to the company and give him another high profile chance to practice his apparently masochistic craft. The story once again combined a large-scale period Parisian setting with the need for an immensely elaborate makeup job from Chaney; and a major part of the subsequent publicity drive for the movie was founded both on keeping its star’s makeup regime top secret -- with no publicity stills released beforehand, and no shots of the now famous image of Chaney in his guise as the unmasked and hideously malformed Erik, the lurking Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House – and torrid (and no doubt exaggerated) behind-the-scenes reports on the suffering the actor willingly endured in order to create the Phantom’s hideous deformity, principally with a wire-frame contraption, concealed by mortician’s putty, which was designed to pull back and flare out his nostrils artificially while stretching his facial skin taut, in order to create the horrific Phantom rictus that is now one of the most instantly recognisable images in the whole of the horror genre.
The lavishness of the production, and the smash hit status it was rewarded with almost instantaneously, conceals an equally torturous series of transformations and reconfigurations “The Phantom of the Opera” has to cope with before it eventually earned Universal its hefty-for-its-day reward of a $2 million profit. Rupert Julian was signed up as director for saving Erich von Stroheim’s “The Merry-Go-Round” after the Austrian-born director had been fired by that film’s executive producer Irving Thalberg. He brought that film’s two stars, Norman Kerry and Mary Philbin, across with him. However, Julian’s apparent inflexibility resulted in a poor working relationship between himself and the rest of his cast, and in particular with Chaney, who, some reports claim, ended up directing portions of the film himself. As it turned out, he wouldn’t be the last one to have a crack: after an initial test screening in Los Angeles was received poorly, Julian walked off the picture when Universal demanded an extensive re-shoot of material amounting to almost half of the picture being dumped in order to tone down the Gothic melodrama aspects of the movie, and to introduce more romantic and comedic elements to it with comedy actor Chester Conklin and romantic lead Ward Crane being added to the mix by replacement director Edward Sedgwick, who was employed to carry out the remounts after Julian had refused and left the production.
However, after another test screening in San Francisco resulted in Sedgwick’s new cut being booed off the screen, most of Julian’s original material was reinstated, and it was the newly shot scenes which this time hit the cutting room floor … apart from Sedgwick’s re-vamped finale in which the Phantom is hunted down by a torch-bearing mob and tossed into the River Seine, which was retained over Julian’s more lofty finish where Erik simply dies of a broken heart (as in the novel) while seated at his organ, after allowing Christine to leave his lair with her rescued lover. This version wowed New York audiences in 1924, but the tale of “The Phantom of the Opera’s painful metamorphosis does not end there. After the film proved to be a huge hit, Universal obtained the rights from Gaston Leroux’s estate to make a sequel, which this time would be a sound picture and shot in colour. This soon fell through, though, since Chaney was now signed to MGM and would not be available to reprise the role. Instead, in 1929, Universal opted to re-issue the original, but convert it into one of the talkie pictures that were lately all the rage, re-shooting the opera scenes and filming brand new dialogue scenes with (slightly older) stars Norman Kerry and Mary Philbin. Other actors, either because they were unavailable or because their speaking voices proved unsuitable, were recast, including the heroine’s prima donna rival Carlotta, who was played by Mary Fabian in the sound version, replacing Virginia Pearson, who, nevertheless, still appears in the silent version of the reissue in scenes originally attributed to Carlotta, but which in the new version are given a caption card stating that she is in fact Carlotta’s mother!
A lot of the footage for the original silent version was reused with dubbed voices and an incidental score added, but Chaney’s unavailability and a contractual restriction on his voice being dubbed with that of another actor’s required an otherwise extraneous servant character to also be introduced in order to provide the Phantom’s communications with Christine through her dressing room mirror. This sound reissue is in fact now lost, but the silent version which doesn’t include any of the newly shot sequences apart for the opera scenes, and which retains the reissue’s rejigged chronology, was released at the same time, to run in territories abroad that might not be as advanced in converting their theatres for the new sound medium as American theatres had been.
This silent 1929 version does survive, along with numerous 16mm prints of the 1925 original, made available by Universal in the 1930s for home movie viewing. Of the two, the 1929 copy, known as the George Eastman House version, was in the best condition for striking a master, which was created by Kevin Brownlow, David Gill and Patrick Stanbury in 1996. This means that it is the 1929 silent version which was ’ locked in’ when it came to making the new restoration in HD with a 2K scan for this Blu-ray release, which retains its lustrous-looking tinting and toning, as well as the original two-strip Technicolor sequences which occur during the middle ‘Masque Ball’ section of the movie. A HD scan of the original 1924 silent version (which runs about 12 minutes longer than the paired down and re-ordered reissue) is also available on the BFI’s new dual-disc BD/DVD release -- although its 16mm print source means that it is barely recognisable as such, despite extensive digital compensation for scratches, missing frames and other print damage. In contrast to the beautifully sharp and colourful-looking 1929 version, this print looks blurry, scratched and jittery. Its inclusion does allow one to note the differences in how the narrative proceeds though, with romantic scenes between the two leads being completely cut for the 1929 version in many instances, and a murder scene, which occurs early on in the 1924 issue, delayed until the final act in the reissue -- causing some confusion as to who exactly is supposed to have died and why on first viewing.
Neither version of the film is perfect: the 1924 cut is indeed far too long and sometimes laboriously stilted in its execution, although its narrative construction does feel far more natural in comparison to the faster-paced and choppier 1929 silent cousin to the sound version, in which some plot points come across as being less clear in certain regards, although the Phantom Erik’s relationship with his protégé Christine Daaé feels much more interestingly ambivalent. Both, of course, impress with the grandeur and opulence of their art direction and set design, though. The Paris Opera House set was huge: an elaborate spectacle built on sound stage 28 and erected with steel girders set in concrete. Portions of it still exist today at Universal, most recently cropping up in the 2011 movie “The Muppets”. The film occasionally falls into a complacent sort of grandstanding, presenting us with a succession of static wide shots tailored to show off the vast sets crowded with bustling extras in all their finery. The huge curtained proscenium, with its glittering crystal chandelier setting the scene for the movie’s turn into disaster movie territory come the moment the Phantom takes his revenge on those who have stood in the way of his plans by causing it to plummet into the audience during a performance of Charles-François Gouno’s opera “Faust”, and the grand ascending entranceway staircase, teeming with glamorous theatre-goers, speak to the popular cinema’s concern at this stage with spectacular images of wealth and prosperity; but in this story, of course, such splendour is offset by the important plot point which emphasises how the opulent upper floors of the opera house has been built up from stacked levels of increasing mystery and darkness, which descend to a lower network of waterlogged cellars, once used as torture chambers and dungeons during the days of the Paris Commune.
Rupert Julian incorporates Expressionist tendencies into his images of these shadowy recesses – now used to store scenery flats or as changing rooms for the fluttery chorus girls -- and thereby seeds the classic Gothic ‘return of the repressed’ metaphor on which the film’s magic rests, in which a shadowy Phantom from the country’s tortured, violent past returns to wreak havoc up above, amongst the escapist attempts at gaiety and frivolity which now take precedence there. Cinematographer Charles van Enger’s use of silhouette to represent the Phantom’s backstage presence in the early part of the film, is brought alive thanks to Chaney’s expressive use of mime (particularly in the delicate hand movements he uses when talking with the mesmerised Christine Daaé), and the dream-like underworld imagery which predominates when Erik eventually steals her away through her dressing room mirror to take her on a dark journey into the madness of his psyche, leading far below the ground through echoing escarpments that skirt underground canals traversed on horseback against a background of catacombs, and a punt along a black lake by gondola, which Jonathan Rigby, in his overview “American Gothic”, likens to ‘Charon crossing the River Styx’. In the novel, Erik was one of the original architects of the Opera House, but here he’s an exiled and disfigured criminal, driven insane by torture. He has escaped his confinement on Devil’s Island and is now using his musical prowess to construct a romanticised fantasy world and his ‘Black Arts’ of mesmerism to fixate on the figure of the young soprano girl Daaé, seeing to it that she rises through the ranks to become understudy to the House’s prima donna Carlotta.
It’s interesting how the two different versions, whether by accident or not, transform the role that Mary Philbin’s heroine has in what transpires. The original 1925 version follows the novel more closely -- despite cutting a large part of the backstory in which Christine works her way up from chorus girl to understudy -- by emphasising the psychology of her belief in ‘the spirit of music’. Even without this underpinning and foreshadowing, it’s slightly more understandable in the original cut how she comes to be charmed and mesmerised by the soothing words of Erik when she hears them drifting through the wall-length mirror of her dressing room; for she is hearing them as an embodiment of her own belief in the spiritually healing nature of her musical art, without connecting them with the malevolent Phantom supposedly stalking the lower levels and commandeering Box 5 during her performances.
In the 1925 version there are early scenes to illustrate her romantic involvement with Norman Kerry’s Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, and that set up the conflict Christine faces later between her romantic feelings for him and her desire to pursue her musical career to the exclusion of personal matters. There is a conservative subtext at work which associates a female’s devotion to her art and her career as being akin to a disease of the mind in which she is being driven away from her ‘natural’ role in life as a homemaker and object of male desire. When the Phantom goes from being the alluring silhouette behind the mirror to revealing himself as a psychologically warped madman, desperately trying to play the role of impresario, which he imagines allows him to also assume the role of tender lover by obscuring his physical deformity (which is never explained but which appears to be congenital) behind a bland but creepy-looking mask with a fan-like mouthpiece that flutters bizarrely as he speaks, his attempt to mould such an identity is quickly revealed to be the delusional scheming of an insane man who sleeps in a coffin behind a curtain in an underground vault where he is composing his musical masterpieces for Christine, while expecting her to live out the rest of her days with him there in isolation and joint pursuit of artistic perfection. The famous scene in which she finally removes the mask and is terrified by Chaney’s contorted, hollow-eyed visage of ‘leprous parchment-yellow skin stretched drum-tight over protruding bones’, is representative of her finally becoming aware of the impossible artistic fantasy she has been hoodwinked into indulging, and which sends her back willingly into the arms of Raoul, without displaying any further qualms about his role in her future or the secondary place of her career as a singer.
One of the weaknesses of the picture, in both its iterations, is the ineffectual feebleness of Raoul as a romantic hero, who is inert throughout and proves hopeless as a rescuer at the end. But in the 1929 version, all those initial establishing scenes of Christine and Raoul together as a couple have been cut anyway in order to speed up the narrative, and this has the effect not only of making Raoul feel even more unnecessary to requirements, but of causing Christine to seem like she was never really interested in him in the first place, as if she was only truly concerned with advancing her singing career through the patronage, encouragement and conniving of the insubstantial Phantom lurking behind the looking glass. She actually comes across as rather unsympathetic and selfish in this later re-edit: less misguided and misled than self-obsessed and single-mindedly ambitious, and thus probably more like the prima donna she aspires to replace. When she reacts with disgust and horror at the sight of Chaney’s grotesque, deathly physiognomy and immediately starts pining for the nice-but-dull bastion of conventional society she’d previously spurned without apparent care, we come to sympathise much more with the forsaken Erik than we do with her in her kidnapped plight; and Chaney’s subsequent revenge-fuelled descent into operatic, cape-twirling villainy comes to seem more like it’s a role Erik has been driven to by madness induced by despair and his unrequited love, than it is a reflection of his true nature … all of which is completely opposite to the idea being conveyed in the 1925 version!
Chaney’s performance in the latter part of the movie is sometimes criticised for its over-dramatic theatricality, but one could equally well read it as Erik playing up to the role he now feels himself to have been cornered into enacting – that of black-hearted scoundrel – by Christine’s cruel rejection of him as a suitor. In point of fact, this idea of the Phantom as a sympathetic presence rather than the villainous insane criminal mastermind he’s initially portrayed as, would become the basis of most future adaptations of the story, which is usually buttressed with a completely invented backstory that was never part of the novel, in which Erik has earlier been cheated of his own place in the musical pantheon through having his work plagiarised by a rival, who is also responsible for his disfigurement by acid during an attempt to have him murdered. It is Erik’s assumed role as monstrous villain which emerges before the Parisian public at the top of the Grand Opera House staircase in the middle of the Bal Masque: a show-stopping scene shot in two-colour Technicolor, which plunders Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” for its horror inspiration (thus bringing some 19th century pedigree to an otherwise recent tale) when Erik appears there dressed in a flowing scarlet robe and a grinning skull mask, topped off with a plumed wide-brimmed hat, to terrorise the patrons and punish Christine for her betrayal after he later catches her in the arms of Raoul on the rooftop of the opera house, where the two are spied plotting to abscond to England the next day, unaware that the Phantom is following their every word, gesticulating his displeasure in terms that are floridly melodramatic from the arms of the statue of Apollo. The final act -- in which Christina is abducted again and made to watch as her lover and Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe), the head of the French Secret Police who’s been tracking Erik all this time, are tortured in a series of elaborate underground traps -- falls into imitating a Louis Feuillade “Fantômas” serial; but with its shadowy underground lair, dark-cloaked villain, and a finale involving a chase through the streets of Paris and a torch-bearing mob, “The Phantom of the Opera” undoubtedly set the visual style and formula of the Universal Horror cycle Carl Laemmle was soon to set in motion with the production of “Dracula” -- a film which would undoubtedly have starred Chaney had his MGM contract not precluded it.
This new Blu-ray edition from BFI presents the surviving 1929 silent version, re-mastered in HD from a combination of the preserved George Eastman House print, a 35mm colour dupe negative of the first part of the Masked Ball sequence, and the rest from a 35mm dupe negative with sections blown up from the original 16mm Show-At-Home print. After an extensive program of colour grading, repair work and splice removal, the results have come out looking superb, with vivid toning and tinting complementing the early example of Technicolor film that comes in the middle of the movie. Carl Davis’s score, recorded by the City of Prague Philharmonic, provides an appropriately romantic and barnstorming accompaniment. The 1925 version is also here as an extra, obviously looking a lot less sharp and very scratchy in its 16mm Show-At-Home incarnation, and with no tinting effects added to bring greater contrast to the various sets and interiors. The longer running time of this version results in the movie sometimes suffering from unfortunate longueurs.
The original black and white trailer and a sound reissue trailer from 1929 are included as extras, along with the remaining 12 minutes of footage from the lost 1929 sound version, which are all that are known to still be in existence. Also included is a mysterious deleted scene known as ‘the man with the lantern’ sequence, which was originally found in the George Eastman House print, but is not believed to have been part of the original silent version and so was not included in the main restoration. Downloadable PDFs can also be accessed from a DVD-ROM drive on your computer.
The 3 disc set includes a Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and its extras, plus a third bonus DVD on which is included the 2000 documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces”. Produced for Turner Classic Movies and partially financed by Hugh Hefner, this Kenneth Branagh narrated biography of the famous horror actor has never been seen on British Television and, at 86 minutes, is an absolutely delightful examination of Chaney’s life and career in the company of film scholars and horror authorities such as Forest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury. A nice touch is provided by the inclusion of some surviving 1920s film-goers who remember seeing the films, including the now lost “London after Midnight”, at the time of their original theatrical release, and recall the effect they had upon them as young cinema attendees of the day. There are archive clips of the likes of Lon Chaney Jr. and Orson Welles talking about the great man, and clips of many of his films (including both versions of “The Unholy Three”) accompanied by detailed analysis. This is a masterful piece of documentary work which would be worth owning for itself, so it is a particularly welcome feature to have included as a bonus to this definitive release of one of the most important pictures in the history of the development of the Horror genre. A comprehensive booklet of reviews and writings by restorers Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury is also included, rounding of a fabulous package.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!