The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera ★★★

Hoop tober No. 5 #17

Watched this on the Kino Classics Blu-ray, with the soundtrack by Alloy Orchestra. This is the 1929 theatrical version (i.e. the closest we can come to seeing the version seen by audiences in 1925). That means it has shots (like the very cryptic first shot of a man with a lantern speaking to the audience) that were probably filmed with sound, though the sound no longer exists, and it has a more action-packed ending (directed by Buster Keaton collaborator Edward Sedgwick) where the Phantom has a brief standoff with the kind of angry torch-bearing mob that often comes after the monster in a Universal Studios horror film.

About that 1925 version: it's gone because Universal deliberately discarded it. On this day when part of what's on my mind is Disney's folly in mishandling the 20th Century Fox back catalog, I want to take a moment to remember another time that the art of business failed the art of cinema: the original silver nitrate 35mm of Phantom of the Opera was melted down by Universal Studios executives for its silver content in 1948... along with most of the rest of its archive of silent films. Lost forever, along with a huge chunk of Lon Chaney's career. (The topic of the lost cultural heritage of silent films is a harrowing one; you can read more about it from the Library of Congress here.)

This movie is a particularly poignant occasion for musing on shit like that, because it's a very entertaining silent film.

The Phantom cuts an unusual archetype: a highly temperamental and volatile patron of the arts whose feelings about the Opera are so vehement that he hatches elaborate plots that include kidnapping and murder. Like Louis Feuillade's Judex, he favors manipulating people from behind the scenes with mysterious, threatening letters; like Lang's Dr. Mabuse, he's on a kind of power trip, and fond of appearing and disappearing at will. All the same, with the Phantom, we're edging closer to what, by the 1930s, will become the more typical movie monster. It's about the syntax: the way he fits into the movie that houses him. At first, he's just a shadow in the wonderful cellars of the Paris Opera House (full of castoff sets from earlier operas, sometimes this means a dragon's face big enough to put a door in the back of his throat). The dancers search for the Phantom, half hoping they find him, half afraid to. They talk to old hand Joseph Buquet about the Phantom; marvelously, he is sitting on a giant mock skull and playing with a startlingly-realistic puppet head as he describes him:

His eyes are ghastly beads in which there is no light — like holes in a grinning skull! His face is like leprous parchment, yellow skin strung tight over protruding bones! His nose — there is no nose!

Now that is how you sell a monster! I also love the way we're given our first glimpse of the Phantom: through the perspective of the new Opera House owners, who are checking out Box Five to make sure it's not really haunted like the previous owners said. They step into the Box and see a figure seated from the back. He's utterly still. He's just watching the show. But he's sitting in the box that is supposed to be empty. They're so spooked that they step out again to regroup. But when they step back in, the seat is empty again. Then they're even more spooked!

We're half an hour in before we get a look at the Phantom for ourselves, but then he's masked. Finally, at 45 minutes in, comes the unmasking scene. What's amazing, an achievement for the ages, is that even after all that careful buildup within the movie, and all our experiences as 21st-century horror fans which have left us jaded, Lon Chaney's work still carries a charge of the uncanny and terrifying.

As for the melodrama that gives this prototype of the monster movie its supporting structure, well, it's somewhat entertaining. There's plenty of spectacle and action to keep you occupied, but of course if you think about it too much it gets pretty dissatisfying. The love triangle that could pull it all together never comes into focus. Something about the chaos of how this movie was made really left Christine in an unformed state as a character. Mary Philbin is engaging, but there's no throughline to this lady. You can never be sure if she could or should or does love either of her two dudes. (Not that it's easy to root for either of them! "Raoul and Phantom, two guys who need work on how relationships work," as Gail wrote.)

Andrew liked these reviews