Time now to enter the Kurtodrome Vault again. This time we’ve taken two films out, both movies on men madly in love with women. They’d do anything for her. Because they are… in love.
PART 1. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera is a classic and probably doesn’t need much introduction: even if you haven’t seen this version, you’ve probably seen another version, read the book by Gaston Leroux or just heard about it. The Phantom is so famous they even made an action doll of him, even though it’s good they were nice enough to tell us who the doll was supposed to represent. Note the stunning resemblance with Lon Chaney‘s character.
Perfect twins, no?
Given that the story is so known, I won’t bother about the usual synopsis. (If you don’t know the story however, you can read it from scene 1 till The End here.)
Which leaves me with a few anecdotes on the film.
Now widely regarded as an all-time classic, the film was almost never released. The filming was painful, the assigned director Rupert Julian was an unbearable dictator who even bullied Lon Chaney, without a doubt the star of this production.
Yes, if even after a pack of remakes (not to forget the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical version) this version is seen as the best version, this is mostly because of Chaney’s fantastic performance. Chaney was an excellent actor, but still it’s this movie that he’s mostly remembered for. Like Lugosi will always be Dracula and Karloff always Frankenstein’s Monster (and, to a lesser extent, the Mummy), Chaney is most of all Erik, Phantom of the Opera.
Chaney liked the part (and the opportunity) so much he wanted to star in the film, even though he wasn’t too fond of Universal and producer Carl Laemmle.
The Laemle shuffle
Laemmle wasn’t happy with Julian’s work after seeing the preview and asked for additional shots (directed by comedy director Edward Sedgwick). The ending was altered – originally the mob found Erik lying dead on top of his organ -, Mary Philbin got more romantic scenes and intertitles were written for the new scenes.
In April 1925, three months after the first version was finished, this second version was previewed in San Francisco, where the audience’s reception was lukewarm at best and Laemmle demanded another version.
Most of the new scenes (except for the climax) were thrown out and in came scenes with comedian Chester Conklin and new intertitles. When shown to Laemmle, he luckily hated the comedy scenes. They were thrown out, but the rest of this new version was good enough and this is how the movie finally premiered on September 6, 1925. It became a tremendous success (which makes it all the weirder that Universal let the copyright lapse in 1953. The timeless classic became public domain and the studio lost a fortune in royalties.)
In 1929 Universal wanted to reissue the film, but decided talking sequences had to be added along with a new soundtrack and sound effects. Chaney was under contract at MGM by this time, so someone else dubbed him.
Thousands of feet of footage were cut out to get the new version, other scenes were compressed or combined with other scenes. Virginia Pearson, who played diva Carlotta in 1925, became Carlotta’s mother in 1929, thereby making her one of the fastest-aging women in the movie history.
Okay, so it’s a classic, but is it good?
Yes, it is (as I’ve mentioned before) even though Mary Philbin occasionally slips into overacting mode and Rupert Julian clearly isn’t a great director. One of the best scenes in the film wasn’t directed by him, but by Lon Chaney (while Julian was, alledgedly, venting his rage somewhere else). This scene, the Ball scene, was shot in colour. It’s not the only scene shot in colour, but the only one that made it to the final version.
Lon Chaney was also responsible for his own (fabulous) make-up. He never wanted to reveal how he did it, so we’ll just admire it.
The dramatic unmasking scene was so unusual for those days that distributors reported it had made people in the audience faint. (But that may just be promotional peptalk, one never knows.)
Judge for yourself. Here are six minutes of the film, all surrounding that mythical moment:
Please do not faint when Erik unmasks himself, that way we can meet again for the second part of our “Men Who’d Do Anything For The Woman They Love” double bill, where I’ll tell you more about The Human Vapor. Part two will go online in two days.
For now, why don’t you watch The Phantom of the Opera for yourself? Here are some links (all of them legal, of course):
1. Watch (or download) the 1925 version at the Archive: link
2. Watch (or download) the 1929 version at the Archive: link
3. Or if you prefer, you can also watch it on YouTube: link