Bright Lights Film Journal

Blu-ray Review: The BFI’s The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925, and silent film reissue, 1929)

“Erik, like Darth Vader, is much more interesting with as little backstory as possible.” — Mike Gebert, Nitrateville, site administrator1

When fairy tales, literature, and the movies hand us a story of a monster yearning desperately for his sweet captive — that is, a pretty young woman — aren’t we, along with the girl, most often led to pity the monster? And once pitied, or actually at long last loved by the girl, doesn’t the monster generally experience redemption, turn back into a prince, or at least die quietly?

Yet in the 1925 film, Lon Chaney’s Phantom, while operating fairly within this beauty/beast dialectic, is given an end that is shockingly violent and bleak. In the film’s climax, an enraged mob, once they’ve beaten the stuffing out of him, tosses the Phantom’s unconscious body into the Seine, where he drowns — disposed of like toxic garbage. Why do things go so terribly wrong for the Phantom? Why doesn’t Beauty redeem the suffering Beast?

The Gaston Leroux book

I’m not here to recommend that anyone read the source of the film, Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, but, still, it’s an interesting experience if you can stomach it. Reading the book in tandem with a viewing of BFI’s recent release of two extant versions of its first film adaptation becomes a glimpse into how the Hollywood industry might struggle to make successful entertainment out of convoluted, pulp nonsense like Leroux’s novel. Most importantly, the film, in whatever version or state we view it in, is a testament to the enduring power of Lon Chaney.

Originating as a newspaper serial, Leroux’s tale may have taken inspiration from the 19th-century novels of Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1834), The Man Who Laughs (1869)), but its essence derives from the ancient fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” in which the sins of the Beast are at last redeemed by the love of Beauty. As we reach the end of the novel, we discover Leroux had indeed designed a similar fate for his unhappy beast. Anyone having seen the musical adaptation by Andrew Lloyd Webber instead of the 1925 film would not be surprised at Leroux’s climax, since the musical, from what I gather, retains much of it.2

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin

In the novel, Christine’s key conflict as the Phantom’s captive is her acknowledgment of Erik’s depth of soul and greatness as a composer even as she’s repulsed by his physical deformity. Wanting desperately to escape his plans for her, she ultimately figures out what Erik really needs in order to set her free, and this turns out to be pretty much what a mother grants a child who falls off a swing set. While placing a kiss on the Phantom’s forehead (instead of a child’s bruised knee), Christine whispers “poor Erik,” and thus, the Phantom’s wounded psyche — an entire lifetime’s accumulation of self-loathing, yearning, and hate — is reduced to an emotional boo-boo that’s healed by a few seconds of mother-love. After the peck on his brow, Erik gives Christine and her lover their freedom, along with his best wishes, and crawls away to die of a broken heart.

Although Leroux’s novel was trounced critically for this abrupt, weak-kneed finale, Rupert Julian’s 1925 production had originally ended with a version of Leroux’s denouement, including along with it other elements from the novel that either slowed the story or unnecessarily complicated it, and showed this longer, 22-reel cut to a preview audience.3

Neither the preview audience nor Universal executives were happy about they saw. After further editing and the substitution of the new climax, a second cut, exhibited as the film’s world premiere, was also not well received. More cuts ensued — for example, gothic horror elements transferred from the book and characters referencing Leroux’s numbingly unpersuasive backgrounding of Erik, alias the Phantom.4 In the final general release version — declared in a single intertitle — Erik is a haphazard conglomerate of madman, master in the black arts, and self-educated musician, who has escaped from Devil’s Island.

Norman Kerry and Mary Philbin

Erik’s Svengali-like sway over his rather touched-in-the-head prima donna (Mary Philbin) loosens a bit during her first visit to the Phantom’s lair, but regains its hold when, awakening from a swoon of terror, she hears the Phantom play his musical manifesto, “Don Juan’s Triumph,” on the pipe organ. But after the unmasking, terror and revulsion displace Christine’s devotion to Erik, with pity never allowed to surface as it does in the novel and reportedly in the film’s early versions. Suddenly clearheaded, Christine sees Erik as nothing more than a manipulative and violent monster and wants her foppish boyfriend (Norman Kerry) to assert his manhood and get her out of this unpleasantness.

In the newly shot climax, Erik is far from redeemed but is instead, even as he’s trapped like a hapless rodent, feisty enough to pull a nasty practical joke on his last audience, the murderous vigilantes.

As the the mob closes in on him from both sides, Erik raises one clenched fist as if threatening them with a bomb; after causing all of them to recoil, he unclenches his empty fist with a showman’s flourish, laughing as they fall on him. It’s a classy way for Erik, as he faces and accepts death, to say “fuck you” to the world. It’s the Phantom’s last sleight of hand, his last laugh, but the gesture also goes to sum up his career as Opera ghost, during which he simultaneously terrorized with threats of murder (and accomplished ones) while playing the gullible for fools. Whether or not Chaney improvised this bit on the set — you’d like to think so — it allows us to feel something close to admiration for Erik’s inner resources.

But can we feel even a grain of sympathy for Chaney’s Phantom? With the final edits eliminating all that might be noble or pitiable in the character, the streamlined Erik is a very bad boy. The film’s plot — until its climax — unfurls with some fidelity to that of the novel, most specifically as it presents Erik’s murderous deeds, which cast him far from the noble beast of the fairy tale. And unlike the fairy tale beast, too, the Phantom, once unmasked by Christine, shows no patience toward his captive, nor curries her favor with good manners. And the singing lessons? Having eliminated his greatness of soul, the film downsizes Erik’s vocal tutelage of Christine to a ruse, a trick to make Christine think he has that spiritual largesse.

After the unmasking, in one of Chaney’s most violent, yet somehow elegant, theatrical gestures, Erik grabs the terrified Christine by the hair, forcing her to look up at his face so that her eyes may “feast on its accursed ugliness.” With the mask off, Erik makes it clear that his plan for Christine is not to install her as leading prima donna at the Paris Opera, but rather to marry her and lead a normal life, which he feels entitled to. “If I am to be saved,” the Phantom says to the still cowering Christine, “it will be because your love has redeemed me.” Here the film seems to be setting itself up for the redemptive ending it will photograph, preview, but then excise. It’s when Erik, in the same scene, declares “now you will see the evil spirit that makes my evil face” that we see the true colors of the revised Phantom. Erik is implacably nasty and bullying toward Christine for the rest of the film.

Had the ’25 film retained Leroux’s redemptive self-sacrificing finish for the Phantom, the character would’ve stayed more strictly in line with others in Chaney’s resume. In a 1925 issue of the magazine Movie, Chaney said, “the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice . . . most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.”

Lon Chaney

It’s accurate enough to assign the qualities of self-sacrifice to Quasimodo and to the clown in He Who Gets Slapped, but here Chaney seems to have forgotten the revised climax to The Phantom of the Opera.5 The Phantom’s sacrificial, broken-hearted death at the organ has been eliminated. At the mob’s approach, Erik flees his lair — grabbing Christine almost as an afterthought — and carjacks a cabriolet. When he loses control of the carriage and it overturns, Christine lands unconscious in the street. She could be hurt, but the Phantom’s only concern, as the mob closes in, is for his own neck, until Erik accepts his doom and goes out with a nihilistic flourish. That’s a kind of renunciation, for sure, but not the sort Chaney, or the Universal publicity department, is talking about.

The final version of The Phantom of the Opera is a prime example of Hollywood aggressively editing — or even in a sense remaking — a film to meet audience approval. Since footage of the original climax no longer exists, there’s no way to assess whether its replacement actually makes for a better film. In adapting the property, the production’s initial instinct, and follow-through, was to remain as faithful as possible to the novel, as if the audience’s devotion to Leroux’s potboiler demanded it. But in attempting its close-fitting adaptation of the novel, the filmmakers seemed to have run into the same problems as did the author, who, in his defense, had originally concocted a disposable newspaper serial, not a deathless work of art, for which he was likely paid by the word. Overwritten, mawkish, and plotted like a web woven by a spider on LSD, Leroux’s story likely played best when its installments ended up as birdcage lining, and much less so when assembled between hard covers or, apparently, translated to the screen. But with all the trims, and the new ending, designed to improve the film’s general release version, you can sense the jerry-rigging needed to bring the narrative back around to something intelligible, and the troubleshooting is only modestly successful.

But, because it cast Lon Chaney in the part of the Phantom, it nevertheless retains in its final release something of Leroux’s Erik, a sensitive soul locked in repulsive flesh, worthy of some pity in spite of a penchant for terror and murder. After all, sensitive-within-repulsive is the Chaney specialty; it’s what he does. Although wisely not belabored, Erik’s reconstructed identity as a madman/magician/prison escapee is only a misdirection from that of the tortured yearning creature we see projected from Chaney’s eyes. In the end it’s really this simple anguish, so strongly inhabited by the actor, that makes the persona of the Phantom, along with the dramatic arc of the picture, cohere.

The unmasking

Like other of his creations, Chaney’s unmasked Phantom is not just a matter of makeup but of intense physical manipulation, including wires pulling skin and eyelids back to what you’d think would be painful extremes. The effect in 2014, and in high-definition, remains authentically horrific to a viewer, in spite of the Phantom’s face being an image as familiar as Munch’s Scream. And, assuming Chaney designed it, too, Erik’s concealing mask has its own morbidity. In its attempt to look blandly human, the mask has a cold soullessness about it that crosses the line into something scary and loathsome with the addition of a lower cloth border that covers his mouth. When Erik speaks, the cloth flutters with his breath, and the effect is neither kindly, reassuring, nor anything close to normal.

Chaney

You’d think such extreme manipulations enacted on his face — and on his teeth and under his cheeks — would create another immovable mask, which, once freed from the concealing mask, would limit the actor’s ability to make Erik into anything other than an unmitigated monster who needs to terrorize and kill. Chaney’s performance is far from nuanced — you wouldn’t want to play Hamlet with a face like this — yet the florid theatrical style the actor resorts to, perhaps out of necessity, delivers all the pathos the character and the film need.

“theatrical and large in gesture”

Erik himself and his deeds — foul, fair, or merely devious — are nothing if not theatrical and large in gesture. He brings down the chandelier, he sleeps in a coffin, and after Christine follows his lead through the mirror, he gently places the mesmerized singer on a horse to carry her to the fifth cellar, traveling down through a set that looks as it were designed (and lit) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. At the Bal Masque, he feels no need to lurk unnoticed but instead appears in the event’s most stupendously outrageous costume. His physical gestures — the aforementioned hair-pulling, the declamatory manner in which he points at Christine when he threatens her — have the broadness of antiquated stage acting, but they seem just right for the demented yet grandiloquent Erik.

In one of the film’s most spectacular sequences, in which Christine and Raoul retreat to the opera house’s roof while the Phantom — still wearing his Masque of the Red Death outfit minus the skull mask — hangs from the Apollo’s Lyre sculpture and listens to their pledge of love. The scene is a triumph of art direction, with the rooftop and sculpture group as good as, or better than, the real thing; even a bunch of pigeons flutter around what must be a soundstage set, the birds disturbed, we then realize, by the Phantom skulking about the sculpture. As the Phantom’s cloak, tinted bright red, billows in the wind, Chaney’s grief-stricken face, accompanied by his arms flung outward in a singer’s gesture of cadential finality, is a perfected image of despair.

It’s what the film accomplishes in spite of itself: a succession of visual set pieces that allows Chaney’s Phantom the correct ambient space in which to operate as an insane archfiend — insane, but in Chaney’s hands, coherently and elegantly so. Refusing to listen to Julian’s directives, the actor followed his own instincts in bringing Erik to life, and it’s his image-making that imprints itself over and above the shaky storytelling (and the less than stellar acting from its romantic leads).

The Phantom’s “phantasmic playground”

Whatever Rupert Julian’s inabilities as a director of Chaney’s unique talents — Tod Browning was reportedly the actor’s best match, creatively — he gave the Phantom the best in imaginative set design. The multiple cellars underground, the black lake, the backstage environs (with all the bizarre opera props lying about), and the immense opera house auditorium make up Erik’s phantasmic playground. If there’s genius in Chaney’s performance, there’s some kind of greatness in the film’s art direction, which seem to have based its sets on blueprints furnished by the Phantom’s unchanneled id.

It’s a good thing, for all sorts of reasons, that The Phantom of the Opera is a silent film, but evidently no one in the Universal front office thought that way in 1929, when the studio went to re-engineer its 1925 silent into a partial talkie, a fate of more than one late-era silent but unusual for a four-year-old picture like The Phantom. The idea may have germinated because plans for a talking sequel to the silent had been frustrated by Chaney’s unavailability at the time — but this also meant that he could not be recalled for newly shot dialog sequences for the revamp, as were Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry.

No prints survive of the talkie reissue, so we can judge its effectiveness only from a surviving reel (no.5) that’s been discovered at the Library of Congress and, for the first time in any video release, included in BFI’s set as an extra. Although the reel contains footage of Philbin and Kerry shot in 1929, the only spoken dialog comes from the newly conceived and photographed sequence replacing one in which, in 1925, we saw the Phantom’s shadow commanding Christine to step through her dressing room mirror; in 1929’s fifth reel, we now see an actor, playing an underling to the Phantom, standing awkwardly to the side of the Phantom’s shadow, voicing his commands in his place. Whatever may have come before or after it, this lamely executed sequence, troubleshooting Chaney’s absence, would necessarily have punched a large hole in any of the mystery and visual wonder remaining from the surrounding 1925 footage. All scenes with Chaney’s full presence necessitated the talkie to fall back onto intertitles, a further harmful confusion, it would seem to me.

Fortunately or not, what does survive from the 1929 reissue is a silent version apparently intended for theaters that had not yet upgraded to sound. This version, which has been seen in previous home video releases, contains little of the footage shot in ’29, and is really just a revamp of silent elements that had survived in acceptable shape from 1925, which made for a release containing sizable cuts, some rearranging of events, and much use of outtakes and second-camera shots.

Because the prints of the 1929 silent reissue are largely in such great shape, “special” editions of The Phantom in recent years have made it their main feature, as if this hastily misassembled afterthought from the early talkie era is now the film’s definitive version, a mistaken notion, of course, that’s only given implicit legitimacy when the 1925 release is shoved aside as an extra. BFI goes this route, too, but redeems itself by providing high-definition transfers of not only the ’29 version but the 1925 as well, which has survived only in badly scarred 16mm reduction prints.

The hi-def treatment of the compromised print of the complete 1925 general-release version provides a more satisfying viewing experience than any previous release, and now, relaxing into it instead of resisting the print’s limitations, it’s easy to see that The Phantom had been a much better movie before it was manhandled in 1929. Yet it also makes clear that The Phantom was never a classic of silent cinema in the way that Nosferatu (1922) survives to this day as possibly the best horror film ever made. Additionally, Nosferatu transcends its genre by being a product of a true auteur, F. W. Murnau, who had as his source Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a superior example of pulp to that of Leroux’s Fantôme. Partially from a need to escape copyright dilemmas (which in the end he didn’t), Murnau distanced his adaptation from his source, transforming the material into an art film that was at once personally and culturally resonant.

Within Nosferatu, Max Schreck, as the vampire, gives a performance that’s as iconic as Lon Chaney’s, but where Murnau’s film enfolds Schreck’s vampire within a larger vision, Rupert Julian’s production is subsumed by Chaney’s Phantom and offers little else except some excellent sets in which its star absconds with the picture.

“Rupert Julian’s production is subsumed by Chaney’s Phantom and offers little else except some excellent sets in which its star absconds with the picture.”

There are lessons to be gained from watching everything gathered in BFI’s release; if I taught a film history class, I’d use the set to illustrate what a desperately messy business Hollywood filmmaking has always been, especially when it’s faced with new technologies that it must learn to use, then sell to the public, and that this process of selling to the public is a rigid priority riding far above any creative integrity held by the film itself. A finished film is rarely finished like a painting taken from the easel to be framed; instead, it’s merely a mass of content to be shaped, or misshaped, by the demands of commerce. It was a lesson that Murnau himself learned the hard way, by having more than one of his Fox films taken out of his hands after he thought they were completed works under his control.

The final lesson is that we watch The Phantom of the Opera only to watch Lon Chaney. If we can’t consider Chaney as the film’s auteur, he’s certainly its creative axis. As an actor, a shape-shifter, a contortionist medium channeling Erik’s loveless identity trapped in grotesque flesh, Chaney delivers something terrifyingly personal to a product largely bereft of any quality that would ensure it to be revisited, as we insist upon doing, generation after generation.

In 2011, Image Entertainment released a similar Phantom package to BFI’s, with an HD upgrade for the 1929 version only, leaving the 16mm reduction print of the 1925 general release transferred in standard definition. I’ve not seen Image’s Region A set, but judging from earlier DVD releases of the 1925 version that I have seen, I can say that the BFI’s high-definition transfer of that lousy print is a noticeable improvement, which, along with its inclusion of reel no.5 of the 1929 sound version, gives BFI edition a distinct edge. Another plus is the addition of Brownlow’s documentary, Lon Chaney: a Thousand Faces, which makes you want to see all of Chaney’s existing films and then mourn the lost ones. A downside to this release is the tinting of the 1929 version, which appears way too saturated and causes some darker scenes to lose detail.

BFI’s DVD/Blu-ray edition of The Phantom of the Opera

USA/1929/91 min./tinted and toned, B&W, and color/silent with musical score by Carl Davis; USA/1925/103 min./B&W/silent with musical score composed and played by Ed Bussey. Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (UK/2000/86 min./color and B&W/sound; documentary by Kevin Brownlow. DVD only). Reel 5 from lost 1929 sound reissue (12 min.). “Man with the lantern” sequence (2 min.). Released by BFI in a dual format set (Blu-ray, Region B, and DVD, Region 2) in 2013.

  1. http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=16343&p=122345#p122345 []
  2. I’ve seen neither play nor film and don’t plan on it either. []
  3. BFI’s booklet and PDF rather broadly survey some of this film’s checkered history – which turns out to be very complex – but a blogger at nerdlypleasures.blogspot.com does a remarkably thorough job at detailing it. For the purposes of this review, I relied on his scholarship, which I find very credible. []
  4. One of these characters was not dropped but merely renamed and assigned a different role. In the 1925 general release cut, the Persian — who nonetheless still sports the Astrakhan hat he wears in the novel and is given the sultry look of an exotic “other” in the film — becomes Ledoux, an agent of the secret police. Was the naming of the character Ledoux inspired by Leroux? []
  5. It’s possible Chaney’s statement occurred before the film was revised. []