Sunday, May 5, 2013

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)


Sorry, we're going to have to do some prefacing.  PHANTOM was filmed and released as a silent in 1925, but in 1929, Universal added a soundtrack to it, but was unable to get Lon Chaney to record any dialogue.  So they made do with no direct Phantom dialogue, but with some other actor speaking whenever his shadow was on screen.  Apparently, there were other cosmetic (and casting!) changes, which you can research in detail at IMDB.  I'm not entirely sure which version I watched, but it had no dialogue (1925?), although it had tons and tons of orchestral and opera recordings (1929?).  IDK, I'm just a guy with a blog, scholars can sort out these controversies.  Let's go.


Phantom, for a "classic monster", is less familiar than Dracula or Frankenstein('s monster) and I presume that the LeRoux novel still gets less attention than the Stoker or Shelley books.  If most people know about him, it's based on the Broadway adaptation in which he is a hunk with rosacea or something instead of a real monster.  So the abbreviated story: opera understudy Christina finds her career helped along with the legendary phantom of the opera, who speaks to her through her dressing room mirror and walls, promising her a storied career if she'll accept his favors.  Despite being in a relationship with the moustached Raoul, she eagerly agrees.  The masked Phantom keeps his end of the bargain, screwing with the opera lighting and unscrewing a giant chandelier until Christina gets to sing the lead in Faust, then brings her to his home five damp cellars beneath the opera house.  But oh no!


He's not cute, so it's just not working out!  Christina's probably the least likable heroine until Bella Swan.  She's all about the phantom helping her career, even though he's clearly committing acts of terrorism and sabotage and getting her to ditch her boyfriend.  But then he has some facial issues and she's all like, "EWWW NOOO!!!"  Maybe a better actress could make this character more appealing, but this PHANTOM is pretty much the Lon Chaney Show.  The rest of the cast is okay, certainly better than the more torturous performers in WOLF BLOOD, but they get outperformed by Chaney's movements and expressions.  And the sets.


PHANTOM seems pretty connected to the expressionist cinema that Germany was pumping out in the early part of the 1900s.  The actors are frequently swallowed by these huge, ornate sets and split screen time with weird props.  


Even the pre-reveal Phantom mask has an oddly blank, expressionist look, maybe presaging the mask horrors of the 80s in ways that the romantic eyemask Phantoms do not.


The music is also a highlight here, alternately stormy and saccharine all the way through, but always very memorable.  This is an accident of circumstance, but I loved the way that the opera vocals did not match up at all to the actress's lip movements.  It gave PHANTOM an even more dense sense of surreal distance.  But, as I said, this film is all about Lon Chaney.


The Phantom is one of the most human and sympathetic monsters ever, and it's mostly due to Chaney being able to emote through layers of makeup.  I don't know if you could get a performance like this today, as few actors would be able to mix the kind of "big" acting that theatrical and silent work mandated with really subtle shifts in look.  It all comes together here.  It helps that the Phantom is really a tragic figure, someone who clearly loves beauty (he stocks his grotto with statuary and violins), but who is divorced from the world of beauty by his looks.  For a monster, he sure cries a lot.


And Chaney brings the drama in those scenes, but he's equally great when the Phantom is being really pissy.


As you can tell, there is a lot of unmasked Phantom in this, which surprised me.  I figured an early horror film would keep the monster mostly in the shadows, but no sir.  I was also taken aback by the COLOR SCENES in this 1925 film!


Holy wow, man!  There were apparently many more color scenes shot, but stuff happens.  What's here, the masked ball scenes, looks great!  

PHANTOM, to be honest, felt like a mixed bag to me.  One incredible performance made the others seem even more average and acceptable, and, though there were tons of inventive visuals and  cool scenes, there were also moments that dragged on forever.  I enjoyed this, a lot, but I would be hesitant to pin it at the very top of the horror classic list.  Still, it's mandatory viewing for the countless strengths that it can claim.

RATING: 8/10

TOP 10 OF THE 1920s:
1.  Phantom of the Opera (1925)
2.  The Unknown (1927)
3.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
4.  Wolf Blood (1925)

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