The Phantom of the Opera is one of those tales that perennially lends itself to new adaptations, new re-imaginings — and yet, in spite of having read Gaston Leroux’s novel a number of years ago and having spent several sessions studying Phantom in a middle school music class, I’ve never actually seen either the stage musical or any film version of the story in its entirety*. While I know that we watched clips from some production or another in that music class, I can’t pin them down at this point — except one. At some point, our teacher showed us the scene from the 1925 Rupert Julian-directed silent adaptation in which the Phantom’s face is revealed, a sight that we were told had shocked and terrified moviegoers at the time; we, sophisticated thirteen-year-olds that we were, found it hilarious, a view encouraged by the teacher. This was the same class in which we (or the vast majority of us, myself included) first encountered West Side Story, another classic that we regarded as a object of mockery (though it, at least, wasn’t presented to us as such). Having grown to love West Side Story in the intervening years, it only seemed fair that I should give the 1925 Phantom of the Opera another chance, to put that unmasking in its proper context and re-evaluate its impact, and The Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon struck me as the perfect opportunity to do just that.
(I should mention that the 78-minute version I watched, streaming on FilmStruck with a Kino Classics logo at the beginning, is actually the 1929 re-release.)
The oft-told story: An alleged ghost, the so-called Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney), is haunting the Paris Opera House. Via handwritten notes, he demands that prima donna Carlotta (Mary Fabian) “fall ill” and cede her role in Faust to a singer named Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), threatening Carlotta’s career and the opera house itself with grave consequences if she disobeys. Christine, it appears, is the Phantom’s protegee; after making her debut as Marguerite, she hears “a melodious voice, like the voice of an angel,” through the walls of her dressing room: “Christine, tonight I placed the world at her feet! To you I have imparted the full measure of my art. You will triumph — all Paris will worship you! But I warn you, you must forget all worldly things and think only of your career — and your Master! Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and command your love!” For his sake — or, perhaps, as if under hypnosis or some kind of spell — she rejects her would-be fiance, Raoul (Norman Kerry), urging him to forget his love for her because she can never leave the opera. However, as she quickly discovers, her mysterious admirer and mentor is not as angelic as he sounds.
I enjoyed this film a great deal, particularly its visual elements. Shadows are used to striking effect, and so is color — not just the two-strip Technicolor of the Bal Masque de l’Opera or the multi-hued shots in which the Phantom uses “HEAT — intolerable heat!” as a weapon, but also the tinting that occurs throughout. After the eerie green of the opening credits, the film switches over to a lurid red, well-suited to the Phantom’s first appearance as a shadowy silhouette and to the ominous intertitle that follows: “Sanctuary of song lovers, The Paris Opera House, rising nobly over medieval torture chambers, hidden dungeons, long forgotten.” The idea of high art and high society coexisting in the same space with torture chambers and dungeons — albeit with the latter hidden from sight — is powerful, and both sides are elaborately rendered on a grand scale. There’s even some interesting crossover between the two worlds, like when a group of ballerinas spots the Phantom backstage through the open mouth of a dragon constructed for a show. Something else that stood out to me: the Christine/Phantom/Raoul triangle brought to mind the Vicky/Lermontov/Julian triangle in The Red Shoes, considering how art is integral to the Christine/Phantom and the Vicky/Lermontov relationships — although the latter seems to be purely artistic, whereas the Phantom is interested in Christine for more than her singing.
And that famous unmasking? By this point, I’ve seen too many images of this Phantom’s face for it to have anything like the impact it would have had on the original audience, yet it still retained a certain measure of potency — nothing to laugh at, anyway. What did surprise me was the fact that it happened midway through movie; it’s been so long since I read the novel that I was a bit fuzzy on the details, and I assumed that that moment was saved for somewhere near the end, possibly as the climax. Clearly, I had quite a few misconceptions going into The Phantom of the Opera, and I’m glad that I finally got around to correcting them.
*Unless you count the Disney Channel Original Movie Phantom of the Megaplex (2000), but I wouldn’t; at any rate, I don’t remember anything about it beyond the fact that it exists.
This post is part of The Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.