The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
“A masterpiece of horror that shocked cinema for decades!”
Director: Rupert Julian
Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry
Synopsis: A mad, disfigured composer seeks love with a lovely young opera singer.
Of all of the movie versions of Phantom of the Opera, it’s probably Rupert Julian’s 1925 version that remains the most memorable thanks to the iconic make-up worn by Lon Chaney as the eponymous character. His eyes glare from within deeply sunken sockets, his nose is upturned so that when he faces the camera it’s as if he has no nose at all, and his mouth is a jagged tear filled with sharpened teeth. The moment when his mask — which is eerie enough — is unexpectedly ripped from his ruined face remains one of cinema’s most memorable moments. Sadly, the film itself hasn’t stood the test of time as well as Chaney’s make-up; it’s a plodding, melodramatic affair which descends into cheap serial-movie antics by the time it reaches its final reel.
Mary Philbin plays Christine Daae, the budding opera singer who falls under the spell of the mysterious Phantom (Chaney), who dwells within the deep stone passageways beneath the Paris Opera House. He has quite the bachelor pad down there, complete with a full-size organ which must have been a real nightmare to drag down all those narrow flights of stairs and across the narrow black lake which he traverses on a barge each time he wants to go home. When the film opens, Christine has never met the Phantom and is unaware that he is the mysterious benefactor who has apparently been tutoring her from behind the walls of her suite. In fact, it’s only when she discovers that the Phantom — or Erik, to give him his real, somehow less menacing, name — isn’t exactly what you’d call good looking that she goes a bit cold on the whole deal, which tends to dilute our sympathy for her just a tad.
The Phantom is a mythical figure amongst the dancers and crew of the Opera House. Some insist he has no nose, others that he has an enormous one, and we don’t even get to see him until half an hour into the movie. Even then his disfigured features are concealed behind a mask. He has competition for Christine’s affections in the rather impotent form of the impressively-named Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) who, in any other film, could be mistaken for the villain thanks to his lounge-lizard appearance. However, as soon as Christine gets a whiff of stardom, poor old Raoul is quickly sent on his way.
When the company’s resident Diva refuses to yield for Christine following a number of threatening letters from the Phantom, he helps her to change her mind by bringing a chandelier crashing down upon the heads of her audience, thus leaving the way free for Christine to step into her shoes. It’s after her first performance that the masked Phantom spirits her away to his dungeon pad, and things don’t go well. Suddenly wondering whether perhaps stardom isn’t such a sweet deal after all, Christine spends the night below the Opera House after passing out. While she sleeps, the Phantom does what every hot-blooded male would do and spends the night playing on his organ. It’s when Christine awakens, and pulls the mask from the Phantom’s face that things really take a turn for the worse.
Now, the Phantom imposed only one condition — don’t touch the mask — on the feckless Christine in return for which he was prepared to lavish undying love while ensuring international stardom. So what does she do? You guessed it. She immediately breaks that condition and then gets all teary when the Phantom gets a little ticked off about it. See what I mean about her lacking the sympathetic qualities needed for the audience to share her fear? In fact, I found myself feeling more sympathy for poor old Erik than I did for Christine.
While she’s going through all this, Raoul and his new mate Inspector Ledoux (Arthur Edmond Carewe), after eyeing each other suspiciously for a couple of scenes, team up to try and find the missing girl, but end up floundering around in a couple of the Phantom’s torture chambers, and it’s around this mark that The Phantom of the Opera becomes just a little too cartoonish for my liking.
While The Phantom of the Opera is strong on Gothic atmosphere — it’s full of stone corridors, darkened secret passageways and shadows creeping across walls — it’s surprisingly tame in most other departments. Chaney looks terrific, and is unrecognisable beneath the Phantom’s make-up, but that means he has to rely on his body to transmit his emotions which inevitably leads to a tendency to exaggerate his gestures. Despite her character’s vaguely distasteful preoccupation with stardom, Mary Philbin makes an alluring and graceful heroine. Rupert Julian’s direction, however, is decidedly pedestrian, with few flourishes, other than a Bal Masque scene shot in primitive two-strip Technicolor (Red, mostly) and the scene atop the roof of the Opera House that follows it. Apparently, the set was not a happy one, and Julian was not popular, particularly with his leading man, which resulted in Chaney shooting and re-shooting scenes in Julian’s absence.
(Reviewed 29th July 2013)