Rupert Julian, 1925
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe
Based on French novelist Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name, The Phantom of the Opera relates the tale of Erik, a hideously deformed man who lives in the catacombs under the Opera and haunts the denizens above. He falls in love with a young chorus singer, Christine (Mary Philbin), and goes to any length - including murder - to make her into the Opera’s star. The Opera House is currently performing Charles Gounod’s Faust. Christine has recently been promoted to understudy because of secret training she has been getting from the Phantom. Her success causes her to decline a marriage proposal from her love Raoul, though he continues to pursue her. The Phantom, meanwhile, has begun secretly demanding that Christine be given the female lead in Faust.
He haunts the theater and sends threatening letters to Carlotta, the Opera’s outraged prima donna. When Christine is temporarily given the part, she gets a standing ovation. Carlotta takes the role back, but tragedy strikes when a massive chandelier falls on the audience. Christine is lured down a hidden staircase into the depth of the Opera house and is ferried across a lake into the Phantom’s lair. The masked Phantom introduces himself as Erik and tells Christine that he loves her. She faints and doesn’t awaken till the the next day, when she discovers a note from the Phantom saying she is free to do what she likes, as long as she does not disturb his mask. Curiosity overwhelms her and she tears off his mask. He vows to keep her as his prisoner, but she convinces him to let her go above ground one last time, so that she can secretly meet with Raoul at a masked ball. What they don’t realize is that the Phantom has followed them and overheard all their plans. He kidnaps Christine during a performance and Raoul is forced to brave his underground lair to save her.
Though it is one of the most famous and influential early horror films, part of the problem with Phantom for some viewers will be its uncontrollable theatricality, which is partly due to the time period and partly to following Leroux's source material so closely. This version is certainly more faithful than any other film adaptation. For anyone who has never seen a silent film, it might be difficult to take Erik seriously as a threatening figure and much of the acting will seem absurd and overblown. The mediocre direction from the disagreeable Rupert Julian doesn’t do the film any favors. He was replaced during post-production and may have been replaced on some scenes by Chaney, who occasionally directed. The two men certainly clashed during filming. But if you can ignore Julian's directing and adjust to the style of acting, you will lose yourself in Chaney’s macabre world.
Like the earlier Chaney vehicle, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Universal spared no expense on the set, going so far as to recreate the Paris Opera House (this set still survives today), the catacombs beneath, and some truly impressive costumes. This ultimately paid off, because it was one of their most profitable films of the ‘20s, despite the production difficulties, and paved the way for their many classic horror films of the early ‘30s.
Though there are elements of the film that are more melodrama than horror, Erik will appeal to many horror fans. He created an underground, labyrinthine house of horrors, sleeps in a coffin, and a dons a Red Death costume inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Masque of the Red Death.” Indeed Erik, and Chaney’s portrayal of him, is the primary reason to see this film. Chaney’s facial acting is incredible, particularly considering that he had a fair amount of make up on, including elaborate cheek padding, all of which was self-designed and inspired directly by Leroux’s descriptions of the Phantom’s skull-like visage. The scene where Christine unmasks the Phantom still holds power, though back in the ‘20s it was so shocking that a number of theater patrons actually fainted. Erik is similar to many of Chaney’s other characters; he is a deformed and mad, yet sympathetic character who lives on the outskirts/underbelly of society and is gripped by an all consuming, unrequited love.
Some of the controversy with Phantom is that there are actually multiple editions of the film. There are primarily two versions: a 1925 sound version and a 1929 version with some audio. The 1925 version is somewhat complicated, because after the original premier in January of 1925, Universal panicked at the audience reaction and had much of the film reshot and re-edited, lessening the intensity and adding comic relief. This version was hated by audiences, so Universal had a third version made that was much closer to the original print, but included the ending from the second version. In the novel, Erik dies of a broken heart when he realizes that Christine truly loves Raoul. This was the original ending of the first version of the film, but Universal changed the ending so that Erik is swarmed by a mob and drowned in the river. Almost all the original prints of the 1925 version were destroyed, but fortunately one, single nitrate print was recovered.
Image released a double-disc DVD, the Ultimate Edition of Phantom, which includes both versions of the film. The restored 1929 version comes with a new score from Carl Davis or with the original score. This release reinstates the Technicolor during the masked ball scene, as well as another scene with additional coloring. The somewhat massacred but surviving print of the 1925 version is also included, as well as a number of extras and a great commentary track from film historian Scott MacQueen. If you want to know about the other releases of this film, Silent Era has a great comparison page and the film is in public domain, so it is available online. There is also a Blu-ray and both the 1925 and 1929 versions are available for free online. Though there are numerous remakes (six, including the musical film from 2004) and rip offs, as well as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s famous musical, this is really the only version worth watching, due to Chaney’s immense talent and powerful charisma. You can also read the script and learn more about the film here.