The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera ★★★½

Unmasked - Hooptober 6.0 - 10/33
Universal Classic Monster Movie Marathon #2

The success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame led to The Phantom of the Opera being immediately put into development. The two films certainly feel like they are cut from the same cloth: impressive sets, costuming, scenes packed full of extras and an extraordinary performance by Lon Chaney at the centre of it.

Just as in Hunchback, Chaney was given free reign over developing the look of the character and again Chaney enveloped himself in the source material. To develop the ghastly look of the Phantom, Chaney painted his eye sockets black, giving the skull-like impression. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth. The result... iconic and certainly the most faithful to the novel. The film retains the Phantom being disfigured from birth and in a way that feels far more tragic than the later embellishments of fire or acid.

I talk a lot about perfect cinematic moments... The unmasking of the Phantom is up there. It's that split moment of indecision as Christine (Mary Philbin) reaches for the mask, having been warned never to look beneath, that fills the scene with dread and palpable tension. The reveal of the horrific makeup of the enraged Phantom caused audiences to scream and faint. It's hard not to try and pinpoint this as the moment that the Universal horror movies were born.

The highly problematic production has been well documented. Chaney wouldn't talk to director Rupert Julian and everything was communicated via a go-between. Chaney effectively directed himself for most of the film. Julian was told to reshoot the bulk of the film as Lamellae feared it would be too gothic to recoup it's money. Julian walked and Edward Sedgwick undertook the reshooting to make the film more of a romantic comedy. This version was previewed in San Francisco on April 26, 1925, and did not do well at all, with the audience booing it off of the screen. Ultimately the bulk of Julian's work was edited back in and most of Sedgwick's removed. The one remaining Sedgwick scene the ending and that ending is not for me...

I was bought a copy of Gaston Leroux's slender page turner whilst I was about ten and read it several times in my teens. The film is a largely faithful adaptation. The ending of the book is so simple, so pure, so effecting. The angry mob chase feels like it belongs in a different movie and when you consider the film's production that's not way off the mark.

It's interesting watching both Hunchback and Phantom in close succession. Controversially I think Hunchback is the better movie. Phantom however has more iconic moments; the chandelier fall, the unmasking, the technicolour masked ball, that's allowed it to have more exposure and prominence on various best of lists. Ultimately I've rated the same, both are far from perfect and yet both highly accessible silent films for modern audiences, thanks in part to the familiar stories but also the expansiveness of the film making.

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