Following up on the author’s previous Phantom piece, here he discusses Mary Philbin’s innocence, Lon Chaney’s dedication, and the larger implications of Norman Kerry’s “roving hands.”
Written by Philip J. Riley and first published in 1999, The Making of the Phantom of the Opera1 is a slightly oversized, 317-page paperback filled with a daunting amount of facts concerning Phantom’s checkered history, from its origins as a silent film in 1925 to its re-emergence as a partial talkie in 1929. It also reproduces important artifacts, such as the fifth revised shooting script and numerous vintage newspaper articles concerning the production. Illustrations abound and are especially valuable when they reproduce publicity stills from versions of the film that no longer exist.
In addition, Riley culled memories from a couple of key contributors to the film – lead actress Mary Philbin (1902-1993) and cinematographer Charles van Enger (1890-1980) – and it’s these memories that concern me here. When the film was in production, Philbin was very young (around 22 or 23), prim, proper, and religious. Although a steadily working film actress by then, she was reportedly always chaperoned on the sets by her mother, and this was true for the filming of Phantom as well. Publicity portraits from the era show (or promote the image of) a veritable child-woman with a fragile, virginal air, and Mary’s own memories of her young self, plus van Enger’s recollection of the star, appear to confirm her being unaffectedly wholesome and possibly innocent of the range of sexual shenanigans inevitably at play on any Hollywood set. It’s also clear from the photos and watching the film itself that she was extremely pretty. Not surprisingly, this all added up to her becoming a magnet for unwanted sexual attention from at least two men on the set: co-star Norman Kerry and director Rupert Julian. Perhaps Mother Philbin knew best.
At 5′ 2″, Philbin was truly a mere slip of a girl, and van Enger recalls her being so slight that, for Phantom, her body needed padding, which, also according to van Enger, director Rupert Julian liked to adjust at will – and quite often. As recorded by Riley, van Enger’s description of director Rupert Julian’s questionable behavior toward Philbin is fairly blunt:
“Mary Philbin was a real sweetheart … remember the scene where she takes the mask off Chaney, and falls down the steps, and her skirt goes up? Well, we take a shot of Mary laying there not doing a god damn thing on these steps, and Julian would go up and give a feel, you know, and fix her legs and fix this pad. We did this god damn thing about 32 times. And I said, ‘Rupert, what the hell are you doing?'”2
In the ’70s, Riley had met the aging Mary Philbin in Hollywood, and they became friends. Philbin’s detailed recollection of the filming of Phantom, tape-recorded by Riley, ended up compiled as an introduction to this book. It’s a fascinating read overall, but when Mary relates the filming of one scene in particular, synapses began leaping chasms in that part of my brain where I store moving images from the film.
The scene in question takes place on the roof of the opera house, the so-called Apollo’s Lyre scene, tagged thus because of the production’s spectacular, life-sized recreation of the Paris Opera House’s rooftop sculpture group, Apollo, Poetry, and Music, by Aimé Millet. The entire sequence is sumptuously conceived, beautifully shot, and, in the 1929 reissue, tinted blue, with the Phantom’s bal masque costume colored red by the Handschiegl process (recreated digitally for home video, as is the blue tint).
It’s a key scene in the film, made poignant not via the lovers’ tepid interactions but by the floridly projected anguish of Chaney’s Phantom as he reacts to Christine’s betrayal. The scene wraps up with Raoul and Christine falling into their first full embrace – an emotionally cataclysmic event for Erik, who lurks above them in the Apollo’s lyre sculpture – and here’s where something – something easily missed perhaps – goes in a direction that never fails to surprise me, if only for a moment. Every time I watch the film, I have to question if I really saw what I think I did. And I’ve seen this picture a number of times.
Late in the scene, after resisting Raoul’s advances for over half the length of the film, the vulnerable Christine is now so reassured by his gallant devotion to her that she allows herself to be taken into a full body lock by her persistent suitor. We see the embrace in a medium shot, with Mary’s back at a three-quarter angle to the camera, while Kerry buries his face in her neck. From the start it appears a more passionate – or lustful – clutch than the “I’m here for you” kind of hug the rather delicate, if not desperate, situation calls for. After all, Christine, teetering on the edge of nervous collapse, is fearful for both their lives, but Raoul seems less concerned with his girlfriend’s terror and well-being than with having his way with her lithesome little body.
As Kerry’s right hand grips Mary toward her lower back, we see Mary reach behind to seize Kerry’s hand in her left, calmly lower it to her side and hold it in place, thereby taking action as if he is, in reality, about to cop a feel. In fact, Mary performs this maneuver so gracefully that we’re forced to consider, even as we question what we see, that this may not be the first time she’s had to resort to it. Yet, when the two of them gently break apart, smiling contently at each other to end the scene, a more reasonable interpretation of Mary’s action displaces the other less likely one. Christine – that is, Mary in character – is only cooling Raoul’s ardor a bit, not calling a halt to a hand that, out of character, Mary fears is moving south.
In Riley’s book, Philbin has little memory of Rupert Julian (much less his dedicated fondling of her), but she recalls Norman Kerry quite well: “He was very naughty on screen and off but he was a very handsome and charming man despite his roving hands (my italics).”3 And she remembers the filming of the Apollo’s lyre scene, and most particularly that fervent embrace from Kerry. “They did this scene several times,” says Mary, “and he always found a new place to hold me.”4 Not only does she remember the action we witness her taking on home video 88 years later, but, crucially, she remembers why she took it: “I finally had to take his hand and hold onto it to prevent it from wandering.”5
What’s remarkable here is not that Kerry went to take advantage of little Mary – there’s nothing like a virginal child-woman to whet the appetite of a self-satisfied actor like Kerry (who was married at the time) – but that the act was photographed and made it into the final cut of the film.
A flurry of questions arise. Where was the director when this was occurring? Wasn’t the appropriate action to yell, CUT, and yell at Kerry, like van Enger did at Julian, “Norman, what the hell are you doing?” Did the director simply not notice it, both as it happened and during rushes? Or, if did he see it, he decided to leave it in? You could argue that Raoul, as he’s depicted as something of a playboy, might, even at such a moment, try sneaking to second base with Christine, but this being a silent horror film from 1925 of gothic, romantic inclinations, sensual waywardness would need to be implied not shown. The two of them are not, after all, on a date. It’s also possible the actor kept spoiling take after take with his meandering hand until the filmmakers decided to call it a day and print the best they had. Whatever the case, Kerry’s itchy enswathe of Philbin – and her “not so fast, lover boy” stratagem – knocks the hell out of the fourth wall.
But then, who was directing? Philbin and others, including van Enger, recall that Chaney, who despised Julian and refused instructions from him, directed all his big scenes himself. The Apollo lyre sequence is certainly a big scene for Chaney, and Philbin seems to remember him directing all of it, including the shots that excluded him: “Mr. Chaney had to act while sitting at the top of it [the sculpture grouping] – he climbed up there without a stunt man. For our close-ups, Mr. Chaney would stand just out of camera range, unless Norman made a wise-crack and got him mad.6
Chaney apparently thought little of Kerry, who had told him he took up acting because “it was either that or go to work,”7 a cavalier attitude in stark contrast to Chaney’s devotion to acting as a craft. As he hotly makes time with Mary, Kerry’s indifference to the camera – and the film’s storyline – certainly falls into register with the revealing remark he threw at Chaney. And both his remark to Chaney and his on-camera harassment of his co-star answer the question of why his performance in Phantom appears so blurred and underpowered. Norman Kerry simply didn’t give a shit.
But what about Mary? I’ve never warmed to Philbin’s contribution to the film any more than I have to Kerry’s, but Mary’s recollections have deepened my experience of her performance, which she took a lot more seriously than Norman. Kerry and Philbin were both veterans of Erich von Stroheim’s ill-fated film The Merry-Go-Round (1923), from which Stroheim had been fired mid-production and replaced by none other than Rupert Julian. For Riley’s tape recorder, Philbin had strong memories of Stroheim carefully guiding the untrained actress through her scenes on The Merry-Go-Round before he was wrenched from directing it. According to Mary, Chaney did the same for her during her scenes with him in Phantom, handling her with much paternal forbearance: “He would say [in the scene where Christine first meets the Phantom] … now Mary, do not look at me … I am going to reach out and touch you on the shoulder … you are thrilled … yet you are afraid at the same time … you are confused … now you pull back a little and CUT.”8
Unlike Kerry, Chaney cared a great deal about his performance and the film itself. Mary’s recollection of filming the unmasking scene reveals as much about Chaney’s dedication as it does about Philbin and her lack of training. Philbin remembers the scene being shot early on, before she had seen Chaney’s Phantom makeup and before she even had much contact with the actor. She was justifiably nervous. “By the time Mary rips the mask off,” recalled van Enger, “I thought she was going to faint … she almost did.”9 With his back still to Philbin, the exposed, disfigured Chaney let out an “inhuman” cry of rage, unsettling her, perhaps purposely, in advance of what she was about to see. When Chaney turned around, it wasn’t a question of acting: “All you have to do is look at the picture and you can see my reaction when I first saw what he had done to his face!”10
After the unmasking, the reaction shot of Christine cowering on the floor with her hand in front of her face came, according to van Enger, from Chaney unleashing a flood of profanity-laced anger on the actress, to the point that she felt he was going to hit her. Once Philbin’s real-life terror was in the can (left), Chaney halted the abuse and explained what he was up to, and from then on, according to van Enger, “she opened up to him and listened. Out of respect, not fear.”11
Movie lore is filled with directors getting low and mean with their actresses in order to force tears and so forth, but Chaney’s initial manipulation of the relatively inexperienced Mary, followed by his patient and supportive direction, is more unique and in the end more humane than the stories we usually hear. The collusion of memories from Philbin and van Enger yield a glimpse into how much Phantom really was Lon Chaney’s show. Underneath his influence and direction were the disaffected, self-involved Lothario, Norman Kerry, and an earnest, petite actress, Mary Philbin, who lacked thespian chops. Where Kerry’s “wandering” hand incited Philbin to a real response at odds with the film, Chaney’s fierce barrage of pretended rage forced a real reaction from her for the good of the film.
Philbin today is still considered a liability for the film – scholar Kevin Brownlow says simply that she should’ve been replaced – and while I agree with him, I have to admit, after taking in what Riley’s book has to offer, I’ve begun to like her. For one thing, I admire her grace under fire (Norman Kerry’s fire, that is). I’m also moved by her trusting submission to Lon Chaney’s advice and guidance – a trust she gave in spite of, or perhaps because of, the actor’s initial rough handling of her. Chaney offered her his professionalism and his kindness, free of the kind of sexual high jinx forced on her by Kerry and Rupert Julian.
Before her career tanked in 1929 with the advent of the talkies, Philbin landed a supporting role in another memorable silent film, Paul Leni’s 1928 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. Various bios in Wikipedia and Imdb.com tell of her aborted engagement around this time to Universal producer Paul Kohner, who was Jewish and therefore judged an unfavorable match by Mary’s Roman Catholic parents. In spite of her strong feelings for Kohner, Philbin sided with her parents, broke the engagement, and subsequently never married. Reportedly, once she retired from films, a celibate Mary spent years caring for her aging parents in the house she’d bought with her Hollywood earnings.
- A tip o’ the hat goes out to Bright Lights responder Volker Stieber for pointing me in the direction of this publication, which I had not been aware of. [↩]
- Riley, James J. MagicImage Filmbooks presents The Making of the Phantom of the Opera. Abescon, NJ : MagicImage Filmbooks, 1999. p.185. [↩]
- Riley. p.15. [↩]
- Riley. p.16. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Riley, p. 52 [↩]
- Riley, p. 16. [↩]
- Riley, p. 188. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]