The second film version of The Phantom of the Opera is rightly one of the most famous silent films, even among folks who haven’t seen nearly as many silents as I have to date (951). It’s also one of the classics of horror cinema, and one of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s most famous roles. Indeed, the image of Lon as the Phantom most closely matches the description given in Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel. The film made over two million dollars during its original 1925 theatrical run.
Lon was working for Universal Pictures at the time, and the studio’s president, Carl Laemmle, met Gaston Leroux during a Parisian holiday in 1922. When Laemmle mentioned how much he admired the Paris Opera House, Leroux gave him a copy of the novel. Laemmle read it in a single night, and bought the film rights for Lon. Production commenced in late 1924, with Rupert Julian directing.
The cast and crew didn’t get along very well with Mr. Julian, and the previews of January 1925 didn’t go over very well. As a result, Mr. Julian quit, and Edward Sedgwick was called in to redirect and rework the majority of the film. New scenes were also written. In the film’s second incarnation, it became more of a romantic comedy with action sequences, no longer a dramatic thriller. Several subplots were also added.
The second preview, in April 1925, also didn’t go over very well. The audience reportedly booed it off the screen, and reviewers felt it were too long and boring.
The third and final attempt at making the film came from Lois Weber and Maurice Pivar, who had their work cut out for them with editing. (FYI: I now realize the above hyperlinked post about Lois Weber has certain spots which are rather strongly, obnoxiously POV, and sound kind of unprofessional. I’m glad my writing style has since evolved past that, though to be fair, that post was edited down from an even more POV post on my old Angelfire page.)
Anyway, most of Sedgwick’s material was redacted, though the ending was retained. Much of Mr. Julian’s original material was then edited back in. However, some important characters and scenes were still missing. This final version débuted by Broadway’s Astor Theatre on 6 September 1925, the première was 17 October in Hollywood, and the general release was 25 November. After all that hard work, it was a huge success with audiences, though some critics still felt it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.
Lon did his own makeup as always, and kept it a secret all during filming. Audiences also didn’t know what was coming, as there were no pictures of him as the Phantom released. Many audiences reportedly screamed or fainted when they saw the unmasking, magnified on a huge screen. If you have the opportunity, there’s nothing quite like seeing a silent film as it was intended, on the big screen, with a great soundtrack.
Lon first appears as a shadow against a wall, and the next two times he appears, we only see his hand, until finally we meet the masked Phantom. It’s worth paying attention to how he uses his hands when he acts, since he knew how to talk with his hands before he could speak. His parents were both Deaf-mutes, so his first language was ASL. It was little wonder expressing such a wide variety of emotions through just body language came so naturally to him.
The differences between the 1925 original, the 1929 silent reissue, and the 1930 sound reissue (of which only the soundtrack discs survive, and on which Lon’s voice doesn’t appear) are too long and detailed to get into here. Suffice it to say, until recently, many people have been more familiar with the 1929 version than the 1925 original, though the original is the one I prefer. However, only the later version retains any of the Technicolor sequences. The only surviving Technicolor sequence is the masked ball. The Phantom’s red cape in the roof scene was also hand-colored with the Handschiegl color process.