Monday, March 27, 2023

The NFR Project: 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925): Chaney's finest hour


The Phantom of the Opera

Dir: Rupert Julian; (Uncred: Lon Chaney, Ernst Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick)

Scr: (Uncred: Walter Anthony, Elliott J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace)

Pho: Charles van Enger; (Uncred: Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller)

Ed: Edward Curtiss, Maurice Pivar, Gilmore Walker, Lois Weber

Premiere: Nov. 15, 1925

93 min.

Lon Chaney was the chameleon of silent film, the master performer known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” His incredible make-up work and acting versatility made him a legend, and his work in this, the first film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, represents the pinnacle of his career.

Chaney’s adept transformations made him a favorite for horror-movie parts. His first big hit, as Quasimodo The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), made him a household word, and a fortune for Universal Studios.

When studio head Carl Laemmle went to Paris on vacation, he ran across the French author Gaston Leroux, who gave him a copy of his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle immediately optioned it as a vehicle for Chaney.

The now-familiar story is that of a disfigured, psychotically wounded man who dwells beneath the Paris Opera House, a would-be composer who fixates on a young soprano, Christine. Lurking in the background, he mentors her and blackmails the opera’s management into letting her perform. When his instructions are defied, he drops n immense chandelier onto the listening audience.

Christine finds a secret passage and confronts the masked Phantom, who takes her to his underground lair. He instructs her never to take off his mask, which she promptly does – exposing the iconic and still truly terrifying visage of the Phantom, a skull-like face with hollow eyes, distended cheeks, and a nose seemingly eaten away.

This look consumed all of Chaney’s attention and skill. He kept the make-up a secret from the cast and crew, forbid press photographs, and kept pictures of the Phantom out of promotional materials. The result was a shock that still resonates. The girl creeps up behind the Phantom, absorbed in playing his organ in the depths of the theater. He gasps – he gapes – he whirls around – she screams.

Chaney’s Phantom is pitiable, but clearly and diabolically mad. Eventually, Christine’s lover Raoul explores the hidden corridors and arrives to save her in the nick of time, while the Phantom is torn to pieces by an angry mob.

No expense was spared to recreate the Palais Garnier, with a massive set of steel girders and concrete built to hold the weight of hundreds of extras. (This set stood for nearly a century, so strongly was it constructed.) Early “two-strip” Technicolor was used in the masked ball sequence in the film. It was a prestige production all round.

All this added up to a huge investment of time and money, and the producers got nervous. The titular director, Rupert Julian, feuded with everyone and eventually left the production. A quick check of the credits above show that the film was scrapped and remounted multiple times, shown over and over to test audiences to try to find a salable product.

Screenwriters came and went. Endings were changed. Sixty per cent of the original footage was reshot, after which much of it was edited back into the final film. Finally, it was released and proved to be a big hit.

The combination of rich and lavish detail, and Chaney’s horror at the heart of it, make this still a compelling film. Notably, it sparked two remakes, one in 1943 and one in1962. Most memorably, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 theatrical adaptation has dominated Broadway and world theater for decades.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Theodore Case Sound Test: Gus Visser and His Singing Duck.