THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Universal's super-classic scare that started them all.
Directed by Rupert Julian, Lon Chaney, Ernst Laemmle, and Edward Sedgwick
Written by Walter Anthony, Elliot Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond Schrock, Richard Wallace, and Jasper Spearing (based on the celebrated novel by Gaston Leroux)
With Lon Chaney (The Phantom), Mary Philbin (Christine Daae), Norman Kerry (Vicomte Raoul de Chagny), and Arthur Edward Caruwe (Ledoux)
The Monsters Mashed series intends to be a look back at the horror cinema of the Before Times.
Spoiler alert: severe
First things first, if you've never seen The Phantom of the Opera, you should see it. If you somehow know nothing about it, you are very lucky, and I beg you to see it. The 1925 cut is all over the Internet, though I recommend the 1929 reissue via the Image Entertainment blu-ray; not only because it is of higher quality in terms of storytelling, and because it has great music, but because it has been sourced from a 35mm print, whereas the original survives only as a shitty 16mm show-at-home copy that doesn't have—well, if you really don't know anything about it, that would spoil just about the best damn thing.
I always knew Phantom was a great film, but it took time to understand how great, and why. Recently, it leapt ahead of The General in my estimation, seizing its once-impervious position as the fifth best film made before I was born—making no fewer than two of those five Universal Horrors.
Most silent films I've seen aren't really interested in what their silence means; nor should they be, since for the vast majority of them silence was never some kind of deliberate choice. I strongly doubt Rupert Julian, et al were ever concerned with these questions, either. But by happy accident the first Universal Horror film winds up exploring the formal, aesthetic, and cognitive ramifications of its own silent construction, from the eerie title card to the last shot of the Seine.
That's the long way of introducing Phantom. The short way is to call it what it simply has to be: the most perfectly silent silent film there is. The irony of silence being the perfect way to present a movie about an opera singer in an opera house being terrorized by an opera-loving musician is inescapable. That irony is either doubled or neutralized—irony is complicated—insofar as the version of Phantom I like the most is not, exactly, a silent film at all.
Gaston Leroux' tale is so well known that summarizing its 1925 retelling is only necessary to cleave it from Phantom's other hundred iterations:
It is Paris, the late 19th century. Second-string soprano Christine Daae finds a patron in the form of what she describes as the Spirit of Music, and whom some know as the Phantom, but whose intimates, if they existed, would call Erik. He is a man of musical talent and physical strength, but he hides behind his mask the ruin of his face. Whether it was destroyed by accident, torture, or birth, we do not know. Through violence, culminating in mass murder, the Phantom does advance Christine's fame, but when he comes to claim her love she quails. Though there is a part of him that understands her revulsion, the greater, meaner part fixes upon rape and revenge. Luckily, by the intervention of her lover Raoul de Cagny—or, rather moreso, by the interventions of the mysterious Ledoux and torch-wielding Parisians—Christine is saved. Christine is never chastised for availing herself of the services of a monster. The Phantom is chased down the street, beaten to death, and thrown in the river.
A formula is born!
Of course, you can trace Universal's horror roots deeper than Phantom if you absolutely must. Carl Laemmle, president of the studio for two decades, had co-directed one of the early Jekyll and Hyde treatments in 1915. Lost films The Phantom Melody (1920) and Legally Dead (1923) are said to have their horror elements, but who knows?
There remains to dismiss one major, extant film if we want to call Phantom Universal's horror genesis. Fortunately, this is trivial: for reasons that seem to be founded on nothing but the participation of Lon Chaney—and Lon Chaney's make-up—some consider 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be the first entry into Universal's three decade-long parade of horribles. Except there's a big problem: it is not a horror movie in the slightest, remotest, most tenuous way—not even by the relaxed standards we might use to count old movies with sinister themes as "horror." Hunchback is so barely-functional enough in its own genre that I can't imagine what business anyone would have trying to impute to it another one. Certainly, it should go without saying that neither Quasimodo nor Notre Dame count for much when stood against Chaney's Phantom, or his Opera.
Thus, for all intents and purposes, Phantom is the beginning of Universal Horror. Indeed, despite scattered precursors, it is the definite ur-text of the American horror genre. For my intents and purposes, it's the beginning of horror, without geographical limitations. Our Expressionism is better than their Expressionism.
That's the thing to dig about Phantom: the set design by Ben Carre, himself formerly an employee of the Paris Opera. Carre would be the single most important figure in determining the unforgettable look of Phantom—and in the sweep of this statement, I am including Chaney—but, in strict honesty, the most important figure for the look of Phantom is prefaced by a dollar sign. What construction supervisor Archie Hall ultimately wrought from all this money and art was less a movie set than a 1:1 replica of the Palais Garnier that just happened to be on a stage. Soundstage 28, specifically. Framed of steel and anchored in concrete, the thing still stands. It's still, on occasion, used.
The result is a film that, in its most gorgeously excessive moments, looks like a full-on DeMillian spectacle. And indeed, it was advertised as having a cast of thousands: 5000 extras populating the enormous spaces Carre envisioned; 5000 extras fleeing in terror from the Phantom's more terroristic showmanship, taking the form of the Opera's gargantuan chandelier, cut loose from its moorings to crush the high-cultured patrons below.
With due respect to Giger, Phantom is the most extravagant horror film ever made. And Carre's influence did not end at a reproduction of his former workplace.
Influenced by but not beholden to German horror, Carre also designed the dark, dank places beneath the Opera, from the basement where the Opera's stagehands have stored all their disturbing props, to the expanses of stone and water leading to the Phantom's lair, to the mirrored torture chamber where, perhaps, the Phantom himself was once confined and forced to gaze upon his disfigurement. (And though Carre is the giant, let's not forget art designers Sidney Ullman and E.E. Sheeley, who helped translate Carre's ideas, and filled his sets with creepy, hallucinatory imagery of their own.)
...is it comfortable?
The vital difference between Carre's work and its German inspirations is physicality. No shadows painted onto walls here; no doorframes standing in space. This, above all, is what permits not just shallow disorientation, but genuine dream logic to take command. It's like Dali, whose mastery of classicist technique was so strongly aligned with an alien vision that the effect is wholly different in kind than the intemperate scrawlings of lesser surrealists.
Carre's upsettingly palpable underworld is made stranger by Phantom's cinematographers Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, and Charles Van Enger. The cellars are opposed to the Opera House in a symbolic scheme so blatant that you can imagine the shadowed stone walls of Napoleon III's secret prison still echoing with the torments suffered there, in counterpoint to the beautiful music enjoyed above. (And, if you missed the metaphor, the Phantom will state it plainly in the film's most visually arresting sequence.) But despite the Opera's obscene splendor, through the hidden passages known only to the Phantom—and through the force of their secret cartographer's will—it is made but an extension of the hell below. The Opera becomes a purgatorial tower, stretching toward heaven, yet incapable of reaching it. Carre's design is perfect and united: the Phantom's Opera is all a single realm, bounding its dark ruler and his victims alike, quite literally caging them. In the 1929 cut, we leave the Opera just twice: once in a scene that only the eagle-eyed will notice isn't in the Opera's managers' office; and again, but only to die.
You see, the dream logic—the nightmare logic—of Phantom is a requirement, for it is a dreamlike, nightmarelike film. This is a complimentary way of saying that it is absolutely senseless. This is okay.
Julian's rough cut was four hours in length; this version has never been seen, other than by dead Universal employees, and I don't doubt without reason. Julian was a managerial dunce, and conventional wisdom is that he deserves very little credit. History is perhaps too unkind to Julian, whose sometimes-amateurish staging still always serves to enhance Phantom's ethereal qualities. He's been criticized for his blocking, in the scenes with ballerinas who signal their discomfiture by pirouetting, and flee from the Phantom's shadow with the synchrony of a flock of birds; and he's been castigated for long, static takes of action in the midground (and background), as if he were lazily filming a stage play. Yet the former is of but a piece with the theatricality of the whole work; the latter makes the film a gorgeous Gothic diorama. When Leroux' dark fable demands greater dynamism, Phantom provides it.
Though, really, who knows who directed what? Numerous re-edits and re-shoots were undertaken at Laemmle's insistence, due to mixed reactions by preview audiences. New scenes of romance and comedy were experimented with; found to be dire tonal failures, they were excised again. Even during the original filming, large sections are said to have been shadow-directed by Lon Chaney, and no one can now tell us exactly which. The 1925 cut that was widely released—and to such acclaim—was more detailed than the later versions, but is no better for it. The portions shorn are concerned with exposition and developing Christine and Raoul—subjects few could care about.
This constant re-jiggering partly explains the fractured nature of Phantom, which features a list of oddities impossible to account for: the horse beneath the Opera that simply is, then is no more; a murder that occupies radically different chronological positions in the story, dependent on the cut, and is never really properly motivated; the preposterous idea that any show could possibly go on after a disaster on the scale of the death of dozens of patrons; likewise, the notion that a sweep of the catacombs for the villain responsible would wait until the dramatic climax; and, more than anything, the enigma of the Messenger from the Shadows.
That was weird.
These are all on top of the more explicable peculiarities pervading the film: the ethnically-ambiguous creep with the amazing hat and the eviscerating eyes, who turns out to be a nice secret policeman with a detailed knowledge of the cellars that suspiciously rivals the Phantom's own; the deployment of the so-called Punjab lasso ("the Strangler's cord!"), serving as another vague link to the Orientalism of Leroux' novel; an idiosyncratic murder, involving a submarine trek. Above all, we are compelled to wonder about the mental state of Christine, who—from her magical perspective—has made a literal deal with a demon. She seems largely untroubled by her career counselor's violent tendencies.
(Seriously, she might have a legitimate disability.)
With Erik, she has only one insurmountable problem.
And I know: how could anyone go on for so long about Phantom without more than passing reference to Lon Chaney in the title role? Like the film itself, we arrive at this titan at length. But what more can be said about Chaney anyway, of that deliberate body language, those perfectly-timed rages, the most famous makeup job in cinematic history? Not much, certainly: I'll just say that as perfect as the unmasking is, it's still only the third best thing in the movie.
The male pattern baldness is what really pulls it together.
And how about that subjective focus? That's a great trick—whose dream, we wonder, is this?
In 1929, Phantom was re-edited again, partially reshot again, and released again... in sound. This is how the '29 version is not quite a silent film, though it is viewed today as a mute one, with soundtracks emulating some of the singing that once was present.
The years have been kinder to Phantom than you'd think. First, every studio-mandated change, at least every one that's lasted, has wound up making it ever-leaner, thus offering the essentially perfect version we have today. Further, the very decay of the existing print has only heightened the film's strangeness, granting it that obscurity so beneficial to horror; the restorations are at the balance between the tediously pristine and the simply unwatchable. Entropy even seems to know when its effect will be most welcome; the infamous mottling of the boudoir scene serendipitously kicks in just as Christine seems to wake. (It's her dream.)
Time and loss have even conspired to heighten the effect of the second best of the 1929 Phantom's endlessly excellent moments. Originally, the 1925 version had several color scenes. The first arrives too early; it was an operatic number of minimal inherent interest. The goal was not to enhance the story, but to strike the eye with spectacle. It probably worked, but today it would seem arbitrary. However, Universal's notorious lack of archival zeal, in all other respects an abomination, has nevertheless granted Phantom something of a twisted boon. The color negatives of these scenes have all been lost. What remains is a single Technicolor sequence: the Bal Masque.
I've said it's better than Oz. I just said it again.
Slicing through the celebrants like a bolshevik angel, the Phantom as the Red Death is the Phantom at his most terrifying. The technical construction of the scene is sublime: the midgrounding staginess of Julian's direction enhances the scope, the movements of Chaney are brutal, and the costume design by someone they didn't bother crediting is extraordinary. But more than anything else, the aesthetic shock of color—that is nothing like true color—is jaw-dropping. This is Process 2, an early technology capable of reproducing red and green only, and here the effect is bizarre, elevating surreality into garish hyperreality.
The Bal Masque is punctuated by an even stranger, if not such an almightily-effective, use of color: in the subsequent scene atop the Opera, the Handschiegel process (reproduced now by hand-painting) grants color solely to the Red Death's cloak as it flutters against the night, and the Phantom bemoans what he perceives as Christine's betrayal.
Though I make no comment on the more romantic novel, this scene is where a movie that had any interest in realism would stop. No cut of Phantom avoids the plot hole that should swallow it: why don't Raoul and Christine just leave? The lovers talk of fleeing to England—fleeing to Val-de-Marne should be sufficient. But Christine must stay, sing, and be stolen again. Her narrative demands it.
Who could have it any other way? Well, Leroux and Phantom's initial adapters would've had it a bit differently (note that army of writers—Universal could've recruited their cast of thousands solely from the ranks of those engaged to draft the screenplay). Though the pursuit of the Phantom is faithful enough, its outcome is not. The very best moment in Phantom came out of reshoots that wiped clean the more tragic but far less exciting ending of the novel, as well as that of the little-seen preview cut. In true Hollywood fashion, Laemmle demanded a cool action sequence. This is just another reason why the artistic opinions of those who must account for ticket sales should never be discounted: this chase—which we know to have been directed by Edward Sedgwick—is brief, thrilling, stunt-heavy.
But the death of the Phantom could have been a rote affair: merely satisfying, not wonderful. It is wonderful, thanks to Sedgwick and especially Chaney, who never forget the Phantom's black whimsy. The Phantom, surrounded, has one last trick—his best trick. He raises his clenched fist into the air, halting his pursuers with fear. But the Phantom can only laugh hysterically when he shows them that in his hand was nothing at all. His magic is all used up. The mob descends, killing him on the spot.
Phantom is a reverie, but even in its slowest version, it commands attention in a way other such fanciful works, especially of the silent era, do not. Compare Thief of Bagdad, another extraordinary dream made celluloid—that you don't just think you're waking up from. (Or, contrast Waxworks, a piece of garbage.) Truly, the single issue with pace is the presumption, apparently widespread at the time, that cinema audiences were dolts who could not outread a first grader—but at least you get chance to catch your breath. The silence intensifies the phantasmagoria of the imagery and plot better than any other silent film I've seen; it is the sole non-comedy silent film I would ever recommend to a novice, because it is impossible to see Phantom's quietude as a handicap.
Phantom is also a frightful reverie, more capable of unnerving the modern mind than any Universal Horror to come. More than any of them, Phantom deserves the moniker "horror," for both the shock of the Phantom's face, and for the impressive pile of corpses he creates—only one other classic Universal monster would prove himself a more impressive and indiscriminate onscreen killer, but he's too fun to be scary. Moreover, Phantom earns its place in the foundations of our culture: it has proven a tale of enormous power, capable both of terror, as here, as well as more tender feelings. From De Palma's rock-and-roll cautionary tale to Weber's maudlin musical, I've never seen a bad adaption of Leroux' novel. Perhaps none exists. To this bold statement, I must add that, yes, I have seen Universal's own remake, but that is a story for another time.
Until then, let's exit on this: it's the best silent film, it's damned near the best horror film, and though I haven't seen them all, surely it must be the best Phantom there is, too.