Originally published October 28th, 2013
The Phantom of the Opera is a seminal film in horror movie history, and rightfully so. A technological wunderkind at the time, the movie is a haunting, angelic experience one must witness in their life. Silent films aren’t my favorite, and the movie has dated itself quite a bit – particularly because a silent film viewing is so different today – but any true fan of movies has to take the time to watch this.
The Phantom of the Opera, as a story, has been adapted countless times over the years, and the basic plot remains the same. You still have the story of an obsessed composer and the female protege he wishes to have to himself. With that, the plot is on, and there’s various elements which are either enhanced or dumped depending on the version you’re watching. This earliest version contains almost all of original author Gaston Leroux’s book, including the “hand at the level of your eye” device which is missing from various adaptations (most notably the 2004 musical version, which includes the line but provides no explanation for it). With that being said, I enjoy the story as its’s laid out. The Phantom is a pitiable creature who cannot engage with the real world, and thus uses the universal tones of music to convey his loneliness and suffering. He believes he’s found a kindred spirit in Christine, only to have her reject him as society does.
Much of the movie’s appeal lies in its talent, which is hit or miss. Lon Chaney is spellbinding as the Phantom, dialogue be damned. The man truly has a thousand faces, and the revelation of his face packs a punch whether you’ve watched it isolated from the movie or included. The actor conveys all the necessary emotions through his face, and he does a better job collecting pity and sympathy from the audience than Christine or Raoul (Norman Kerry). Mary Philbin comes off as a poor man’s Mary Pickford, and her spacey looks into space kept me wondering if the Phantom was wafting some type of hallucinogen around the place. She’s okay in the role, but playing Christine relegates her to cuddling with men and being both romantic and motherly. The same one-note air surrounds Kerry who is simply the hero. Make no mistake, Chaney lords over this film and the other actors are pawns he moves around.
I have to praise the set design, as well. Film fans should be well-versed in the infamous Stage 28 of Universal Studios where this was filmed. The stage is rumored to be haunted and remains unchanged since filming on this project completed. It’s a dream of mine to see it in the flesh one day! The look is sumptuous, elegant, and grand on all levels. The masquerade sequence is beautifully rendered in early-era Technicolor which gives off a grotesque appearance even before the Phantom arrives as the Red Death; its bacchanalian qualities only turn the viewers into fearing for Red Death has come to pass judgement. The music is sweeping, and the title cards are beautifully written. There’s no screenwriter attached to this project, so I’m assuming the title cards are pulled directly from the book and it’s fine with me. Lines like “Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness” can’t be said today and it’s a shame. The silent feature of the movie works in its favor for several reasons, but one has to be the prose which blossoms on the screen.
The Phantom of the Opera isn’t my favorite of Universal’s monster films; that honor is a tie between Bride of Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon. However, the movie is a work of art with a phenomenal performance by Lon Chaney and truly gruesome make-up work. It’s a Halloween mainstay, and a must for film aficionados.
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