The Phantom of the Opera, Part II (Behind the Scenes)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Phantom of the Opera, Part I (General overview)

As promised, I’ve saved the very best for last!

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The Phantom of the Opera, released 25 November 1925, is perhaps the best-known of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s films, and the reason he’s largely (but incorrectly) thought of as a horror actor in the modern era. This was the second film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of the same name. The first film adaptation was a 1916 German film which is now lost.

Unless you live under a rock, I’m assuming you’ve read the book, seen at least one film adaptation, and/or seen at least one stage adaptation. However, it’s always nice to recap the general storyline, particularly since the 1925 version differs from the 1930 reissue with some synchronized sound, as well as a 1929 silent reissue.

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The Paris Opera House has just begun its new season, and young hopeful Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) is singing in Faust. Her sweetheart, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), attends with his brother in the hopes of hearing Christine sing. Christine has quickly risen to become the understudy of Madame Carlotta, the opera’s star. During the performance, Raoul visits Christine in her dressing room and asks her when she’s going to marry him. Christine says not yet, since she’s compelled by a strange force to remain in the opera.

This is the opera’s most prosperous season, but the management inexplicably resigns midway through. They tell the new managers of the opera ghost, and provide a few details about this mysterious creature. The new managers have a good laugh, and don’t take the warnings seriously. Meanwhile, mysterious things start happening in the cellars, and Carlotta receives a note signed by “The Phantom,” demanding Christine replace Carlotta in the show. If this request isn’t met, bad things will happen.

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Raoul meets Christine in the gardens and begs her to reconsider, and she admits what we just saw, that she’s being mentored by a strange voice who promises to advance her career. Raoul refuses to believe this is on the level, and Christine angrily stalks off.

Carlotta falls ill, and Christine indeed takes her place. During the show, the managers go into Box #5 and see a shadowy figure, just as they were told. The show is otherwise a success, and Raoul tries to convince Christine again when it’s over. She pretends not to know him because her unseen mentor is present, and Raoul leaves and lurks outside the door. Raoul hears this strange voice talking to her and even making romantic overtures, but when he enters the room again, Christine is gone.

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The next evening, Carlotta defies the Phantom’s orders and appears in the show. This was a fatal mistake, as the great chandelier falls onto the audience. Christine escapes to her dressing room, and is transported to the Phantom’s lair through her mirror. Her mentor declares his love, says his name is Erik, and gives her instructions to never remove his mask. Of course, Christine can’t help herself, and unmasks him not long afterwards.

The unmasking is one of the all-time greatest moments of horror cinema, and Mary Philbin’s shock and horror aren’t all acting. Lon kept his Phantom makeup a secret all during filming, so she had no idea what she was about to see when she pulled off that mask.

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Erik has pity on Christine, and lets her visit the other world one more time before returning to be his eternal prisoner, on condition she not see Raoul. Christine attends a masked ball, which Erik attends as Red Death, from the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Masque of the Red Death.” Christine defies orders by finding Raoul, and they go to the roof, where she tells him what’s happened. A mysterious man in a fez shows them to another exit, so Erik can’t find them. Unbeknownst to them, Erik was up there spying on them and already knows everything.

Erik’s voice returns to Christine in her dressing room the next evening, informing her he knows all about her secret plans. Raoul has a carriage waiting to take Christine away after the show, but Erik beats him to it and abducts her during a blackout.

Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, 1925.

Raoul goes to rescue Christine, with the help of the mysterious man in the fez, who finally reveals himself as Ledoux, an undercover cop who’s been investigating Erik for a long time. But it’s not going to be easy to find Christine, rescue her, and escape Erik’s underworld lair, as obstacles are encountered every step of the way.