The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera ★★★½

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Letterboxd Season Challenge 2015-16
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Week 8: October 25th-31st
Halloween Special: Old School Horror Week

This is the type of film that's great to study as part of a cinema history class. There's just so much going on, and so much to consider, that it would probably make for a great thesis topic, starting with Lon Chaney and his incredible Phantom make-up. I read he did it all himself and surprised various actors with it to "test" its effect in getting a reaction. The studio also made a big deal out of not showing any shots of the Phantom's face in pre-release photos and trailers to help build interest and anticipation. What a great marketing ploy.

The story upon which this film is based, of course, is a piece of classic French literature by novelist Gaston Leroux, first serialized in Le Gaulois in 1909~10. Eight uncredited writers had a hand in the screen adaptation, and Rupert Julian, whose name appears as the director, had three other filmmakers contribute to the directing effort, including Chaney. There were also three cinematographers and three film editors involved, and the movie's sole producer, Carl Laemmle, went uncredited -- a true labor of love.

I had access to the Milestone Collection version of the film, which included three different cuts: the 1925 original, the 1929 silent re-release and the 1929 synchronous sound edition. I watched the newer silent one first, sampled the sound version and skimmed through the original to note differences, of which there were many, not the least being the "honeymoon" ending deleted in the 1929 cuts.

What I liked here, apart from Chaney's indelible role, was the Paris Opera House set full of twists, turns, hidden passageways, an underground lake, torture chambers, lavishly furnished rooms, wide staircases, private balcony seating, trap doors, candlelit cellars and that wonderful rooftop spire where the Phantom aka Erik overhears his love object Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) plot against him with boyfriend Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). I enjoyed the musical score, too.

What I liked less were the frequent and lengthy intertitles. For a silent film, this certainly had an awful lot of words to transmit, many of them unnecessary IMHO. I was not as impressed by any of the actors as I was by Chaney. And although I was surprised by the application of color to the 1929 footage, especially the "Red Death" outfit worn by Erik in the Bal Masque sequence, I thought the 1925 B&W print worked just as well.

A lot can probably be said about the stories within the story, such as the Faust saga portrayed on stage and Erik's reported back story including torture during the Second Revolution as well as his interment and escape from Devil's Island. But at its core is the tale of unrequited love, a kind of Beauty and the Beast fable with a dollop of man's inhumanity to man thrown in. Again, it's great stuff for a dissertation, but I'm just happy to have seen this at long last, and it is easy to see why it has been remade so many times on stage, on screen and for TV.

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