Silent Essentials: The Phantom of the Opera

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It’s week three of my spotlight on essential silent films. I’ve talked about the science fiction classic Metropolis, the comedy classic The General, and this week I’m bringing you my take on a silent horror classic. My pick this week is The Phantom of the Opera. Now, this is the 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney, not the musical version or one of the other countless remakes of the classic tale. While I did greatly enjoy the musical version when I saw it in New York City a few years ago, the silent version remains the gold standard.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux. It’s about a disfigured genius, forbidden romance, and haunted opera house.

The phantom of the title is a disfigured former composer who haunts the Paris Opera House. Several people have seen him. Sitting atop the opera house stage he sees and falls in love with the young understudy Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), who is standing in for the company’s principal, Carlotta (Virginia Pearson). The masked phantom lures Christine into the subterranean world below Paris where he lives and professes his love. When she unmasks him, she is horrified by his grotesque appearance and begs for him to let her go. The phantom agrees. But there’s a catch. She must stay away from her lover, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). Terrified, Christine turns to Raoul for protection. The outraged phantom, whom the police have determined is an insane criminal and an escapee from Devil’s Island, kidnaps Christine off the stage during a performance of Faust. Assisted by Ledoux of the secret police (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Raoul proceeds to enter the phantom’s underground lair to rescue her.–IMDB

The Phantom of the Opera is a great gothic love story. It’s no surprise that it has endured since it was first published in 1909. It’s part horror, mystery, and romance. All of those elements work well together in the book and in the classic film version from 1925.

There are many reasons I consider this silent film an essential. First there’s the magnificent performance of Lon Chaney as the phantom. Dubbed the man of 1,000 faces, Chaney was the original film chameleon. He was able to play anything he was asked to. In The Phantom of the Opera he delivers one of the greatest performances of the silent film era. He makes us scared of the masked phantom but also feel empathy for his predicament. The phantom is one of the classic horror film outsiders, along with the monster in Frankenstein. Chaney’s performance works not just because of his terrifying makeup, but because of Chaney’s ability to tell a whole story with his body language. Nowhere is that more evident than in the classic unmasking scene. His face equally coneys pain and his disfigurement being revealed and anger at the situation. Not many actors can do that all at once. Chaney was a genius. And here’s a fun little tidbit about him showing off his phantom makeup for the first time

According to Charles Van Enger, the film’s cameraman, he himself had a very strong reaction as Lon Chaney’s unsuspecting “guinea pig”. Chaney had summoned Van Enger to his dressing room, but without telling him why. When he got there and was standing about a foot behind the actor, Chaney suddenly spun around in full Phantom makeup! “I almost wet my pants. I fell back over a stool and landed flat on my back!” Chaney laughed so hard and Van Enger, who by then was “mad as hell” yelled, “Are you NUTS?” Unable to clearly talk with his fake teeth in, he spit them out: “Never mind Charlie, you already told me what I wanted to know.”–IMDB

Another reason The Phantom of the Opera is an essential is the incredible production design. As a viewer we really feel like we are in a haunted opera house. Credit Ben Carre for the production design and art directors Charles D. Hall and Elmer Sheeley. This is one of the most moody and atmospheric films ever made. Fun fact: par of the opera house still stands to this day.

Inside Sound Stage 28, part of the opera house still stands to the side where it was filmed some eight decades ago, making it the oldest standing interior film set in the world. Though it remains impressive, time has taken its toll and it is very rarely used. Urban legends claim the set remains because when workers have attempted to take it down in the past there have been fatal accidents, said to be caused by the ghost of Lon Chaney.–IMDB
 Talk about life imitating art!
I also want to mention Mary Philbin’s performance as a reason to see it. While Lon Chaney gets most of the film’s praise, Philbin deserves credit too. She’s very convincing as the doomed leading lady. Like Chaney, she tells the whole store with her physicality. Her terror in the unmasking scene is one of the things that completely sells the movie. Her contribution to the film cannot be overstated.
The Phantom of the Opera has been told in countless movie and stage version through the years. But, for my money, the best version of the classic tale is the silent film version from 1925. I hope you’ll take the time to check it out. It’s a great way to start your love of silent cinema.
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