This silent film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel is one of the classics in the history of the horror genre, although it actually predates the widespread use of the term “horror film.” With its static camera style and sometimes slow pace, this old-fashioned gothic-mystery-romance about a deformed madman-musician, who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, is from perfect; the film’s chief strengths lay in the elaborate, atmospheric production design and the catacombs of the Phantom’s lair that reside underneath, and in Lon Chaney’s makeup and performance for the title role. Combined, these are more than enough to ensure the classic status, in spite of dated storytelling and rather stagy cinematic technique.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA tells the tale of Christine, a young understudy in the Paris Opera house, who receives musical instruction from a mysterious, unseen voice, whom she believes to be the “Spirit of Music.” The Opera House is reputed to be haunted by a Phantom with a skull-like face, but it never occurs to Christine that her “Spirit” and the “Phantom” may be one and the same. Tired of dealing with the troublesome Opera Ghost, the owners sell the building to some new proprietors, who –thinking the whole thing a hoax — refuse to acknowledge the Phantom’s existence or bow to his demands, inviting disaster. One of these demands regards the opera diva Carlotta, whom the Phantom wants replaced by Christine. When both the new owners and Carlotta refuse, the Phantom drops a chandelier on the audience during Carlotta’s latest performance in FAUST. Soon thereafter, the masked Phantom appears in Christine’s dressing room and escorts her through a secret passage to his lair, an elaborate underground labyrinth beneath the opera. Bedeviled by curiosity, Christine dares to sneak up behind the Phantom while he is playing an organ; pulling back his mask, she reveals his hideously ugly face. The Phantom, of course, is no ghost but an ingenious, deformed man named Erik who has kept himself hidden from the outside world, but now he demands Christine’s love in return for the musical instruction he has given her.
Eventually, Christine’s young lover Raoul descends to the Phantom’s lair, guided by a mysterious man known only as the Persian, who seems to know the Phantom’s secrets. He and Raoul become ensnared in one of the Phantom’s lethal traps, but Erik relents and rescues them when Christine offers to stay with him. Much later, a dying Erik appears at the Persian’s door and tells him that he has allowed Christine to run away with Raoul. Christine was finally able to look past Erik’s ugly countenance and show him some measure of the love he sought; this, in turn, transformed his own obsessive possessiveness regarding her into a true love, and he realized that he no longer wished to hold her against her will. The novel ends with a newspaper announcement of Erik’s death, followed by a chapter that details his history and explains how he managed to achieve his many apparently supernatural effects.
This 1911 novel is squarely a part of the Gothic tradition, which often featured breathless virginal heroines being pursed by dark twisted madmen in ancient, crumbling edifices. Although there are exceptions (such as 1897’s DRACULA), the Gothic novel frequently presented apparently supernatural phenomena, only to explain it all away at the conclusion. In the case of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, readers familiar with the film versions will be surprised at the extent to which Leroux keeps his title character off-screen and presents him in terms that do indeed make him appear to be some kind of supernatural, even demonic being, until near the ending.
The book is generally regarded as something of a sub-classic — a novel remembered only because it has been the source of numerous films and plays. There is some truth to this assessment: the text is frequently thin on characterization; some of the plotting is hokey and overly sentimental; there are dubious interludes of comic relief that interrupt the drama of the main narrative; and Leroux shows absolutely no guilt about trotting out whatever writer’s device he needs to make a scene or a chapter work. (Besides the Phantom, and a rat catcher, there is also another mysterious figure lurking beneath the Opera House, but Leroux simply tells us that circumstances prevent him from revealing the identity of this character, who disappears almost as promptly as he shows up.)
What makes the book worth reading is that, in spite of its sloppy storytelling and simple characters, it generates considerable power thanks to its setting and to the conception of the titular character. There is a lyrical quality to the novel’s finer passages, which take on the aura of a dark fairy tale. Leroux may not have been able to refine his writing process to create high-quality literature, but he struck upon a story whose basic elements worked well even without a sophisticated elaboration. Christine and Raoul are little more than archetypal young lovers, with little to distinguish them, yet their plight is indeed moving when they are menaced by an apparently all-seeing demon, who lurks in the shadows, overhearing their every word.
Erik himself is a monster in the classic mold, like the nameless creation in Mary Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN: a man despised for his ugliness, and thus doomed to a life of sexual frustration, who years for love and acceptance, even while he vents his anger in lethal displays of destruction. He is a compelling, fascinating character — all the more so for being kept off screen for so much of the story.
Curiously, the most compelling relationship in the book is not the one between Christine and Raoul (or even between Christine and Erik) but the one between Erik and the Persian. This unnamed character is to some extent a plot device (Leroux needs someone who can help the hapless Raoul), but his awareness of the Phantom’s true identity, combined with a service he rendered in the past that saved Erik’s life, creates a bond between the two that sparks interest. Each knows and is aware of the other, but their shared past prevents them from taking decisive action against each other, so they are caught in a sort of dysfunctional two-step, crossing paths and tripping each other up on several occasions.
In the end, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA may not be a genuine literary masterpiece, but it is an entertain classic whose best passages more than compensate for the occasional lapse. It is a book that still deserves to be read for its own sake, not just as a source for moving adaptations. Unlike Victor Hugo’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (which seems to have been a major influence on Leroux, with its ugly title character living in a famous French edifice), PHANTOM OF THE OPERA lacks the sort of literary richness, depth and texture that elude filmic translations. If anything, its simple, vivid story seems tailor made for the movie screen.
THE 1925 PRODUCTION
Despite the inherent difficult in making a silent movie with an opera setting, this 1925 film version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the source material. The screenplay retains many of the highlights from the book, such as the chandelier scene and the unmasking, plus an elaborate masquerade ball where the Phantom appears in the guise of the Red death (an homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Masque of the Red Death”). The main differences, besides the inevitable excisions to fit the story into a 90-minute running time, are that, in the film, it is clear from the beginning that the Phantom is a man, not a ghost, and the film dispenses with Leroux’s low-key tragic ending in favor a slam-bang Hollywood climax, including a chase scene: the backstage crew at the opera, up in arms over the murder of a stagehand who knew the Phantom’s secret, descend on the Erik’s lair, but he escapes to the streets above and leads them on a wild chase past Notre Dame (the setting for a previous Lon Chaney film) before they finally corner him at a river and kill him, tossing his body into the black waters.
Although a bit hokey, the story has a fairy tale quality that is endearing as well as frightening, and Erick is a compelling screen villain — an evil genius who years from love and acceptance from a beautiful woman, an ambiguous character who incites both repugnance and pathos. In the lead role, Lon Chaney excels in a way that makes the film captivating decades after its original release. Throughout much of the running time, his face his masked, so he relies on body language and mime to convey the character’s moods to the audience. Chaney also devised the makeup for Erik’s hideous countenance and the mask that veils it from view. There were actually several different masks, each subtly different from the other, so that Chaney could use them to suggest Erik’s different emotional states even when his face wad hidden. The makeup itself is justifiably famous, although much of what is “known” about it is actually studio propaganda. Chaney claimed he created the impression of skull-like cheekbones by pushing cotton up between his gums and cheeks. As Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker pointed out in a lecture in the 1990s, this would not work unless you used a scalpel to slice away some tissue, allowing the cotton to be pushed higher than it would normally go. More likely, Chaney built up his cheeks with putty. Wires were used to make his eyes wide and to pull back his nostrils, giving the impression that the character had a fleshless nub of a nose. And of course, greasepaint created the lines and shading that gave the impression of a skeletal pallor.
Unfortunately, for an acknowledged classic, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is often lacking in visual style. Director Rupert Julian seems to have taken the opera setting to heart, staging the majority of action in static long shots that show off the sets but leave the audience feeling curiously removed from the action. For instance, when the Phantom takes Christine to his lair, the camera watches from a distance as Erick leads horse carrying Christine down a series of ramps. We get no close-ups from Christine’s point of view and no close-ups of her reacting to her predicament. In effect, we are not along for the ride with her; we are just passive observers.
The camera does come alive during some key sequences. The unmasking is brilliantly done and cleverly staged in a way that doubles the shock. When Christine first removes the mask, we see the Phantom’s face but she does not, because his back is to her; as he slowly turns away from the camera, we feel an extra twinge of dread, because we know the horrible sight that is about to greet her eyes. When she does finally see him, we get a nice montage of close-ups intercutting between her and Erik, including some slightly out-of-focus shots that imply she is light-headed with fear.
Later, during the climactic chase scene, the camera again comes to life, with a variety of angles that put the viewer into the action as the Phantom’s carriage races down cobblestone streets and wheels around corners, pursued by a mad mob that nearly tramples Christine when she falls out. The sequence has an energy, lacking in the rest of the film, which comes not just from the action but from knowing how to capture it in a way that plays out well on screen.
No doubt, much of the inconsistent visual style is due to the fact that Universal Pictures, the company that produced the movie, was unhappy with Rupert Julian’s original cut. After the film’s preview, several sequences were trimmed or deleted, and new footage was added, including the new ending (the original had stuck closer to the book, with the Phantom perishing underground — literally from heart failure but, figuratively speaking, from a broken heart).
One post-production change (made by altering the subtitles in post-production) creates an unanswered mystery in the film. The character known in the book as "the Persian" (who knew Erik in the Middle East and helped him escape a death sentence) is here named Ledoux — supposedly a member of the secret Parisian police who has figured out the Phantom’s identify. No explanation is given for why this alleged Parisian wears a fez and makeup intended to suggest a Middle Eastern appearance. (One should perhaps note that the name seems to be an intentional nod to the author of the book.)
After the "preview," the film had a “premier” engagement that was equally ill received. The new cut added much tedious romantic comedy nonsense that took place away from the Opera House, slowing down the story and destroying the mood and atmosphere. These new sequences were then deleted; the chase scene was the only major addition that survived when the film was finally officially released. But that was not the last time studio scissors would cleave THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to pieces.
1929 SOUND RE-ISSUE
In 1929, Universal was considering the possibility of a sequel, which never came to pass. Instead, with the emergence of new technology that allowed for synchronized soundtracks, the studio opted to re-release the 1925 film in a “sound” version. The film was edited to speed up the pace; several sequences had dialogue overdubbed onto them (but subtitles were retained); and there were a handful of new scenes shot with synchronous sound, including dialogue and a couple of arias delivered by Carlotta.
These revisions had some strange results. The footage of Carlotta on stage was shot with opera singer Mary Fabian doing the vocal chores, but the old silent footage of Virginia Pearson as Carlotta was retained for scenes of the character arguing with the owners backstage. New subtitles glossed over this discrepancy by depicting Pearson as Carlotta’s mother.
Other weirdness included the odd combination of sound and subtitles, often on screen simultaneously. Usually, this occurs during group scenes where several frightened characters are chattering at once, making it easy for the dubbing to get away without precise lip-synch. The voices tend to be slow and ponderous, as if striving for recording clarity were more important than dramatic intonation. Particularly egregious is the voice overdubbed when the shadow of the unseen Phantom is lurking nearby – the attempt to sound ominous is woefully inadequate. (Technically, contractual obligations prevented Universal from dubbing a voice for Chaney, so “officially” this voice is supposed to belong to some unknown assistant of the Phantom — although a viewer would be hard-pressed to figure this out from watching the film.)
In a bizarre twist of fate, this sound re-edit of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA became the de-facto official cut of the film for decades. Long after the soundtrack had been forgotten, whenever revival theatres or film schools requested a print of the film, inevitably it was the 1929 cut that was sent (minus the audio track, of course). This shorter version may be faster-paced, but it omits some crucial elements that diminish the characters. For example, Christine no longer has a scene in which she expresses her belief that the mysterious voice tutoring her is the “Spirit of Music.” This belief helped explain why she would overcome her fear and remove the Phantom’s mask in his underground lair: she had reason to expect that she would be revealing the face of an angel, not a monster. This truncated cut of the film was immortalized on DVD, thanks to Kino Entertainment; fortunately, Image Entertainment’s 2003 DVD presents both cuts of the film.)
Despite its painful gestation, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA ultimately emerged as a huge success for Universal Pictures and went on to become regarded as a classic; in fact, the film can be seen as a sort of missing link between the old-fashioned silent thrillers of the 1920s and the horror films that would emerge in the early years of sound filmmaking. Seen today, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has lost much of its power to terrorize, but it remains a classic, thanks to Chaney’s innovative makeup and impressive performance. There have been many subsequent films based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, but none has surpassed this silent classic. Even with the passage of time, the loose story structure and the unremarkable directing are not enough to diminish luster of the atmospheric black-and-white photography, and Lon Chaney – as an actor and a makeup artist – still towers over the cinematic shortcomings. His silent movie gestures and expressions of despair win us over, even when his makeup makes us cringe, and the unmasking of his memorably monstrous countenance remains one of the great moments of cinematic horror ever recorded on film.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925, sound re-issue 1929). Directed by Rupert Julian (and Ernst Laemmle and Edward Sedgwick, uncredited). Screenplay by Frank M. McCormack, adaptation by Elliot J. Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards, Virginia Pearson, Mary Fabian (1929 re-edited version only).