The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

     directed by Rupert Julian

          starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, and Norman Kerry

Watching this was a really interesting experiment.  To the modern viewer, who generally is not a silent movie aficionado, the art form is somewhat difficult to digest.  There's no dialogue, of course, and the narration plates suddenly popping in here and there to clarify points can be a little bit distracting.  Additionally, the pace seems almost funereally slow to our action-movie acclimated sensibilities, and movements and reactions are so exaggerated as to seem almost ludicrous or laughable to us.  Of course, in an era in which film was grainy and unreliable at best, and there were no sound cues or dialogue to help express emotions, the wildly exaggerated gestures and responses are necessary to prevent the film from becoming either boring or confusing.  Besides, who doesn't love a dude who's so surprised that he falls backwards off his chair and makes the face from Munch's famous painting "The Scream"? 

 

It takes a little bit of patience, but a viewer who's willing to sit still long enough to acclimate themselves to the slower pace and excessive theatrics can see that the form allows for a lot of verisimilitude.

 

Firstly, I was amused to see that the first dialogue plates were sentence fragments, although the issue was never repeated later.  I would make some sort of joke about grammar being for chumps, but all the other plates are mostly correct, and it's really one of the few things that I can complain about even a tiny bit with the film, so I think I can find it in my little black heart to cut the guys some slack.  I mean, who knew people would still be watching this close to a century later?  And who knew those people would be grammar jerks?  Be nice, Anne.

 

As far as the technical merits of the film go, they're nearly innumerable.  Lon Chaney was one of the premiere actors of the silent film era, and this movie was made at the height of the medium's popularity; it boasts not only excellent music and beautiful sets, but also very thoughtful directing.  The film was made before the onset of the more instant gratification-oriented television culture to come, and uses protracted shots and wide angles to give us huge amounts of detail in a particular scene, as well as keep the story moving forward more smoothly; the shots of the opera house, in particular, are gorgeous and convey the sense of its size and grandeur quite effectively.  The sets are beautiful and evocative, the catacombs or cellars in particular, which despite being fairly low-budget and repetitive convey an impressive sense of Stygian depth that adds believability and helps the viewer to keep the underground world of the Phantom distinctly separate from the opera house above.  Use of shadow is frequent, creative, and amazingly effective; especially in a black-and-white forum, the use of sharp contrasts and shadows versus clear images heightens the mystery and suspense for the viewer.  In fact, the continued use of shadow contrasts underscores the overarching themes of light against darkness, beauty against ugliness, and good against evil that the Phantom story examines so closely.

 

The score of the film is unbroken, lovely classical music from start to finish, which helps set the correct time period for the adaptation of the novel, which used classical operas (Mozart, Gounod, Rossini, etc.) as a staple in describing its world. It is not, however, the original score of the movie; that soundtrack was lost, so only those precious few remaining people who were actually at the film's premiere ever heard it. All subsequent versions of this movie have alternative soundtracks based on what the distributor thought would sound good or sell well, so anyone feeling adventurous could do a safari through the Amazon listings for DVDs and probably come up with four or five completely different soundtracks upon watching them.

 

If we want to digress and discuss how that music is used in this version for a moment, that, too, seems jarring to the modern movie-watcher, but that's entirely a function of the time disparity.  The classical score is perfectly appropriate for an opera movie, but the timing often seems idiosyncratic; for example, as the film opens, the music is ominous, presaging the conflict to come, while cheerful ballerinas do a long dance number to enthusiastic applause.  Similarly, when the chandelier falls and kills a good portion of the audience, the music seems sprightly and completely unconnected to events onscreen.

 

The reasoning behind this could be anything, since this isn't the original soundtrack, but I'd hazard a guess that it's grounded in basic musical theory; Leroux's work was written when classical opera was in vogue, and Julian's film debuted not far behind (only 14 years).  This was before, or more accurately during, the extremely operatic movement known as verismo (meaning "truthful"), which originated with Italian composers such as Verdi, Mascagni and Puccini.

 

Classical opera was concerned with beauty and with technical perfection; a good example of emotion in classical opera would be the showpiece aria of the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, in which complicated and deadly difficult coloratura passages are used to indicate that the singer is in an advanced state of rage.  Most modern listeners find classical opera somewhat tedious or confusing because of its tendency to use movement and speed and its frequent reliance on major tonality. 

 

The verismo operas, on the other hand, began a trend toward "true to emotion" music; that is, the now-familiar conventions of using major keys to indicate happiness or positivity, minor keys to indicate sadness or lethargy, ominous bass instruments to indicate danger or anger, and so on.  This seems completely second nature to us now, but it was a very new concept, one that was most influential in the works of Verdi (from the mid-1800s to just before the turn of the century) and Puccini (from the late 1800s to the early quarter of the twentieth century).  Every modern movie score owes its formation to verismo; any time strings play a sweet melody to suggest sentimentality, or sudden notes shriek to indicate suspense, that's verismo at work in your life.

 

The height of the verismo movement was during the same time in which Leroux lived, but like any emerging movement, it had not yet permeated standard repertoire, especially not in France (where French opera was favored over Italian by quite a lot); while people were certainly very aware of it, the repertoire was still made up of the established, popular classics - the works of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Gounod, and their contemporaries.  Thus, the opera world of Leroux's novel and consequently Julian's film (released less than a year after Puccini's death, as verismo was beginning to be recognized as a force to be reckoned with) is mainly concerned with classical operas.  So it's not that the music doesn't make sense paired with the scenes; it's simply that the way we're used to making sense of music doesn't apply to the earlier classical forms.

 

Watch me flex my music history muscles.

 

Notes are less copious here, but several amusing things were to be noted in the way that the story was changed for movie adaptation.  For one thing, it is apparently a requirement for anyone seeking to be the manager of an opera house to have truly ostentatious facial hair; all four of them, in four separate yet equally fantastic ways, had facial hair that could have detached itself and competed in a dog show.  I think it was a combination of facial hair being in vogue in that particular time period, and a desire on the part of the director to make them somewhat comedic for their later role as some of the Phantom's favorite victims to fool.  And speaking of the managers, completely at odds with their behavior in the novel, they look into Box 5 early on and see the Phantom watching the opera.  While I originally wondered at this choice, a few moments later they looked back in and he was gone, and I applauded; by adding him for a moment, the director simultaneously confirmed that there really was a Phantom and also reinforced his supernatural nature, a feat that wouldn't have been accomplished as well by either having no one in the box or by having a flesh-and-blood exit. (Since the film does not include the scene from the novel in which Erik comes to dinner and terrifies the managers with his physical presence, it handily covers some of the same ground, as well.)

 

In discussing the Phantom, several of the ballerinas and Buquet argue over whether or not he has a nose.  As one of the novel's repeated assertions of horror is Erik's noseless, skull-like face, I enjoyed this nod toward him; later, when we actually see Erik's face, he does prove to have a nose, but Chaney's ingenious makeup makes it look deformed and flattened, and from some angles it appears to almost be gone altogether.  It's a nice nod toward faithfulness in an era when convincing plaster casts, makeup teams and CGI were not available to mess with appearance; there's a reason that Chaney was so famous for his makeup artistry that he is still studied and emulated by modern artists even now.

 

I noticed a strange preponderance of headlessness in this movie.  For example, when the ballerinas are talking to Buquet about the Phantom, he is carrying around a severed head; it belongs to a dummy or stage corpse or something, of course, but it looks rather gruesome nevertheless.  Several statues seen in the background of the film are headless, and I wonder whether this is intended to be seen as foreshadowing toward Erik's murders - wherein he strangles people, though not actually removing their heads so much as separating them from their air supply - or as a nod to Erik himself, who when wearing a mask for much of the movie can be said to be "faceless".

 

A character has been added for the film: Carlotta's mother.  I'm not entirely sure why, but I wonder if it's an unconscious response to the motherlessness of the original novel as well as a nod toward comic relief.  For one thing, allowing Carlotta's mother to be the antagonist rather than Carlotta herself means that the film can have two hapless damsels, rather than only Christine; for another, Christine is not at all the potential mother figure in this film that she is in the novel, being terrified and opposed to Erik almost the entire time.  Additionally, Meg Giry does not appear in the film, thus removing Madame Giry as mother figure from the equation.

 

The opera scenes have been rearranged slightly; Christine's debut in the book is singing Faust, of course, but the climactic scene where she sings the aria begging the angels to take her to heaven is ultimately the scene of her final kidnapping.  For the film, she sings that scene in her debut, so we can watch her rise into "heaven" via cables and enforce our view of her as an angelic, pure being.  It is evocative, and a good placement considering the directions in which Julian will take the film later.

 

It's interesting to note that Raoul and Christine appear to have had a much longer relationship and a dating history with one another at the start of this film; while it doesn't follow the novel, I can see the change for realism's sake.  It certainly makes a little more sense than their sudden burning love for one another after having not seen each other since they were children over a decade ago.  Additionally, this also gives Raoul more of an "entitlement" to Christine (at least, from the perspective of a moviegoer in the 1920s), as if they have been involved for quite some time, he can be much more justified in fighting for her honor and release. (Garbage, of course, since no one is "entitled" to anyone else ever, but probably the intent here.)

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The novel specifies that Erik's handwriting is nearly as frightening as himself: always in blood-red ink, in vertical slashes and scratches such as those a very disturbed child might use to write.  The notes in the film are in perfectly nice, normal cursive, but from a silent film perspective they wouldn't have been very useful if the audience had been unable to figure out what they said.  Still, I would have preferred something in the handwriting to hint at Erik's disturbed condition, even if full accuracy must have been sacrificed for ease of viewing.

 

The character of Christine, as I mentioned above, is very different from the novel; while she does seem like a fresh-faced damsel in distress most of the time, she barely evinces the most basic of human compassion toward Erik.  From the second she sees him - not even bare-faced, but masked! - she finds him hideous and terrifying.  No real evidence of pity or fondness ever works its way past the horror, and the "angel of music" angle is left completely out, making her immediately realize that he is the Phantom rather than a possibly benevolent force.  While this does make her very believable in her terror and extremity and generates an appropriate amount of sympathy for her, it completely axes the final point of the novel: Erik's salvation at her hands is nonexistent.  She never has any compassion for him and constantly entreats anyone and everyone to "save [her] from this monster!"; consequently, Erik becomes only a monster for purposes of the film.  It robs the story of much of its significance.

 

Without the theme of the redemption of evil through love and compassion, it's only a horror story - a well-done and interesting horror story, but nothing more. Since Leroux's Christine was a pillar of emotional strength who saved an intensely dangerous and damaged person with her compassion and in so doing also rescued everyone else who had arrived in order to save her, the reversal is more than a little grating. It's a shame that, in seeking to showcase Erik's monstrousness for the audience, Christine's power to defeat that monster was largely taken away from her in order to let others swoop in and handle it. (Not unexpected, in 1925. But still a shame.)

 

A few interesting details were added to make Erik seem more mysterious and more frighteningly dangerous.  For example, the Phantom is referred to as the "Master of Black Art", though this is never explained; similarly, it is revealed that he comes from the "Devil's Island", but again no further information is presented.  It isn't necessary; the entire point is to establish the Phantom as a near-mythical evil presence, and the addition of such tantalizing occult trappings allows the audience to extrapolate whatever they want to.

 

Like a Greek drama, the film contains a lot of violence but never shows it to the audience, preferring the action to happen offscreen, and then either have the situation narrated by a survivor or have the aftermath dramatically discovered.  It's an effective technique for suspense and one which requires the audience to pay attention and supply their own visuals, which can often be just as evocative as the shock-and-gore most modern horror movies use.

 

One of the more amusing but also depressing (at least for me) changes in the film was the removal of the daroga.  Understandable: in a silent movie forum, it's difficult to introduce a lot of backstory, so the daroga, what with his foreign origin and complex history with Erik and mysterious knowledges, would have taken a very long and arduous amount of film and dialogue plates to explain.  He is replaced instead with Ledoux, head of the Secret Police. Besides the obvious nod to Leroux via the similar name, I am entertained by the dispatch of a French Secret Agent (of the notorious Secret Police, who were instrumental in silencing dissent in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s) to the opera house just on the off-chance that there might be a ghost lurking about.  I am also entertained by the fact that, despite the fact that he is extremely French, he still wears the astrakhan cap that the daroga wears in Leroux's novel.  He does provide a little bit of modified backstory for us, including the tidbit that the Phantom was a prisoner during the second revolution; the catacombs beneath the opera house were, in fact, used as prisons during that time period, so the story has some interesting historical background to it.

 

One of the weird, episodic encounters beneath the opera house that Leroux originally included to stretch out the chase and provide additional suspense, the rat-catcher with the flaming face, makes an appearance but appears in this version to be an accomplice of the Phantom's.  There's no further information, so the question of exactly why anyone would want to be an accomplice of the Phantom remains unanswered.

 

Julian makes an extremely compelling choice in deciding when to have Erik masked and when to have him bare-faced; Erik is consistently bare-faced when committing evil acts, while he is masked when he interacts with Christine or speaks of love.  The dichotomy between the bare-faced, monstrous Erik and the masked lover is powerful, particularly when reinforced by the fact that we never see Erik remove or replace his mask; he is either wearing or not wearing it at the beginning of each scene, leading the viewer to see him almost as two separate creatures, the man and the monster.  The only time in the entire film that we see Erik's mask removed is when Christine snatches it off herself, and the sudden transformation of loving mentor into hideous monster is all the more potent as a result.

 

Following the trend of "monsterizing" Erik that will culminate in his unredeemed death, Julian's Phantom says the following line to Christine: "My evil spirit makes this evil face."  He accepts his deformed face as a result of his deformed, evil soul; in contrast, Leroux's Phantom believes himself to be like anyone else but suffering from a cruel curse.  Even Leroux's narrator absolves him of blame, saying, "Why did God make such an ugly man?"  The change, like most of the changes in the film, further dehumanizes Erik in order to make him into a more palatable villain for a suspense or horror audience.

 

Another change involves the addition of a lynch mob, made up of the opera house staff and stars, which pursues Erik into his underground lair in search of vengeance for his crimes.  The original novel saw a great deal of turmoil above, but no one actually descended into the catacombs except for Raoul, Phillipe, and the daroga, none of whom were seen above ground again by anyone in the opera house. The angry, pursuing mob will be a device reused in a lot of later Phantom versions, due in no small part to it being later picked up by the first Lloyd Webber musical.

 

The final scenes of the film are home to the greatest departure from the original text; cornered by Raoul and pursued by the angry mob, Erik seizes Christine and flees in a carriage, prompting what amounts to a nineteenth-century car-chase as carriages barrel through the streets of Paris and the shouting mob follows behind.  Of course, as the eventual salvation of Erik has been removed from the film, a conclusion more befitting the new, more monstrous Erik had to be found.  In this case, midway through the chase Christine either jumps or falls (I couldn't tell) from the carriage, and though Erik tries to continue his escape, the carriage ultimately crashes.  Erik tries to run, but is cornered on a bridge by the mob, who advance on him with torches and pitchforks.  In possibly the most powerful moment of the entire film, Erik holds them off; he shows them his fist, held high over his head, and threatens them until they shrink back in terror from what he might be holding.  But finally, rather than leaping off the bridge into the water or pushing his way through the crowd to escape, Erik opens his fingers with the flourish of a magician finishing his finest trick, and reveals that he is holding nothing.  The mob falls on him and kills him.  Erik's choice not to escape, effectively a suicide, is the closest he ever comes to redemption through the course of the film; but he leaves his skulking life through despair and death, rather than through love and forgiveness, and the novel's themes are not carried through to the end.

 

This is the clear beginning of the horror interpretation of the Phantom story.  While Leroux's original is definitely a suspense and horror novel, it is also a novel of love and redemption; but most interpretations to follow choose to pursue one or the other, either focusing on the Phantom's reign of terror or upon the love stories of Raoul, Erik and Christine.

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