This screening was preceded by an early silent short film, which I’ve reviewed separately at the end.
I imagine a lot of people have at least a smattering of knowledge about this story based on its long-running stage musical incarnation or its soundtrack. And though I can’t pretend (like the snob I am) that I’ve entirely avoided Andrew Lloyd Webber in the course of my life, I had at least missed out on this particular creaky stage musical of his, so I can’t make any comparison between it and this (much earlier) film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s original. I can only assess it as it compares with other silent films I’ve seen of the era, and certainly the 1925 Phantom provides plenty of enjoyment on its own merits, including an iconic role for the all-too-brief silent film career of Lon Chaney (senior), as well as featuring some beautiful camerawork and use of colour and tinting.
The serialised novel by Leroux was originally published in 1909-10, but I’m guessing that even back then it was considered a bit clichéd. Whatever the strengths or limitations of the original, though, this adaptation has more than a whiff of the Victorian stage melodrama to its gothic horror stylings. Then again, of course, it’s set in a world of theatrical stylisation. In a sense, this is its coup du théâtre — there are few artistic forms so given to the grand gesture as opera, so it’s a brilliant match to the setting to have the acting be quite so flamboyantly over-the-top. Chaney as lost soul Erik (aka “the Phantom”) and the film’s female lead, the opera singer Christine (Mary Philbin), wring out every emotion, stretching their bodies and their gestures as if to convey their emotions to even those furthest up at the back of the gods. When Philbin (or one of the other female performers) is in peril, she holds herself in thrall to the lurking shadows, her hands flying up to protect herself from the danger, often unseen. When Chaney has been bested, he reaches out to grasp at the air above him with his fists, as if executing a particular flamboyant manoeuvre on the dancefloor of a goth club. None of it is in any way subtle, and that’s just fine.
At this point, I should probably at least sketch out the plot, not that it’s difficult to follow. The so-called “Phantom” (who is not so much a ghost, as a demented denizen lurking in the shadowy lower depths of the Paris opera house) is in love with opera singer Christine. He insists she perform in place of Carlotta, another singer, but when the latter disobeys his command, he takes terrible vengeance and abducts Christine away from her suitor, the Comte de Chagny (Norman Kerry, with a suitably rakish moustache). However, allowed by the Phantom to return to sing in a production of Faust (of course), she makes plans to escape with the Count, which spurs on the hectic denouement. Key to the plot is the idea that the opera house, the Palais Garnier, is built over many layers of historical torture chambers and underground rivers (it is not). Also — and I fully admit I may have misunderstood the specific references in the script — it seems that the “Phantom” has been in hiding since the revolution of 1848, although the Palais Garnier wasn’t completed until 1875. But these are pointless quibbles; historical accuracy is hardly at the forefront of the drama.
What’s probably more interesting is the production history, which was, in that classic understatement of Hollywood filmmaking, troubled. The film was released in 1925, after passing through a number of different cuts, adding and then removing comedy sideplots and changing the ending from a redemptive one to a more nakedly vigilante sequence that remains in all subsequent versions. Then, in 1929, it was recut again with some additional musical sequences (given sound in some cinemas, though silent elsewhere) which is what has been restored (albeit without the sound), first in 1996 with the Carl Davis score, and then again in 2013. With all these studio changes to the film in the 1920s, the credits are rather a mess, and there are all kinds of additional screenplay, directorial and cinematography credits (not to mention the extra actors for scenes which were subsequently removed). The original (and still the credited) director seems an interesting fellow, Rupert Julian (born Thomas Hayes), the first major New Zealand director to work in Hollywood, who made his name with an anti-German propaganda film in 1918, but who rather fell from grace following the debacle of this film’s production.
Given this production history, it’s pleasing to note that the film does not suffer greatly in terms of what’s seen on screen. The cinematography makes great use of shadows, and the set design for the basement is all suitably gothic and creepy. Best of all is a sequence towards the middle of the film which presents a Bal Masqué at the opera in an early form of Technicolor. The colours have in places faded towards pinks and greens, but it’s still a welcome surprise, and Chaney’s blood red costume as the Masque of the Red Death remains striking amongst the whirl and excitement of the dancing performers. Elsewhere there’s some good use of tinting (reminding one once again that early black-and-white silent films were in fact neither black-and-white nor silent, for the most part). Chaney’s creature effects are another visual highlight, and it’s for his pioneering make-up skills that Chaney is still largely remembered. Here he raises his nose, gets a nice sunken-eye make-up effect and wears some prosthetic teeth for a suitably monstrous appearance under the mask, revealed at length in one of those classic cinematic shock moments that still has much of its original power.
If one can move past the heavily stylised acting — which, as mentioned above, may be of a piece with stereotypes that exist regarding silent movie acting, but which is here matched nicely to the location and the genre — then this early film version of The Phantom of the Opera has a lot to commend it. It slowly builds tension through its shadowy sets and deployment of gothic horror archetypes, and nimbly uses intercutting to sustain it during the denouement. Best of all, there’s no Andrew Lloyd Webber on the soundtrack, but instead another wonderful piece of orchestral music from Carl Davis (known best for his Napoléon score). Still, to each their own: if you’re watching it at home, you can put whatever music you want on with it. Just don’t tell me.
Director Rupert Julian; Writers Elliott J. Clawson, Tom Reed and Raymond L. Schrock [all uncredited] (based on the novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux); Cinematographer Charles Van Enger; Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 20 January 2014.