The Phantom of the Opera

Starring Lon Chaney Sr as Erik

Universal Studios, 1925, Black and White, Silent, Horror

Men once knew me as Erik, but for many years I have lived in these cellars, a nameless legend.

~Erik to Christine, when he first brings her to his House on the Lake

You are in no peril as long as you do not touch my mask. You will be free as long as your love for the spirit of Erik overcomes your fear.

~a note Erik leaves for Christine by her bedside in his House on the Lake

The Cinematic Saga Begins

By creating this silent movie classic, Universal Studios brought Erik out of obscurity and into worldwide fame. This is the first movie inspired by Leroux's novel, and in many ways still the most loyal to the original story. The trap doors, the torture chamber, the Punjab lasso, the little trick Erik learned from the Tonkin pirates, even the coffin in Erik's bedroom are all safely kept intact. The threatening notes, the painful scene at Apollo's Lyre, and "The Scorpion or the Grasshopper?" question are also spared. The Bal Masque scene, filmed in two-color Technicolor in the 1929 reissue, as Erik makes his grand entrance as The Red Death, is a classic must-see. As in Leroux, there is no blatant, obvious explanation as to why Erik is so dangerously obsessed with Christine. He just is and seems to believe that her love will somehow save him.

Inspector Ledoux, played by Arthur Edmund Carewe, is the hero of this movie although someone brand new to the story might suspect at first that HE is the Phantom. When the ballerinas run in fear at a shadow, he walks by just seconds later. When Buquet's body is found, he appears seemingly out of the blue. When Christine is kidnapped, Raoul runs into him. It is at this point that Ledoux calmly reveals he is with the French secret police and that he had been on the case for quite some time.

Raoul, played by Norman Kerry, is not the hero. However, this trial with the Phantom, this rite of passage and this quest to save Christine, will help build him up and teach him how to be a hero in the future. In the spirit of Leroux's story, this Phantom encounter is just as much a trial for Raoul as it is for Christine. Kerry is almost a miscast because of this. He had played gallant heroes in other films and looks almost too suave for this role.

Erik's skills as a musician, composer, and singer are present, but not his skills in other areas such as architecture and medicine. There is no mention of his actually designing the Opera House. Although he remains self-trained in music and "The Black Arts" (magician, tarot, ventriloquism, etc.), he is re-written as an escapee from Devil's Island, an institution for the criminally insane. Their portrayal of Erik is that of a mad genius who appears to see all of his horrifying deeds as nothing more than some kind of a child's game. He manipulates, terrifies, kidnaps, and even kills because it seems like the fun thing to do at the moment. If he is the Phantom, he tells Christine at one point, it is because man's hatred has made him so. Later on, it is discovered that he had been held prisoner and tortured in the cellars of the Opera House during the Communist siege.

From the moment Christine learns Erik is a mere mortal, she rejects him all the way. There are none of the mixed emotions or last minute acts of compassion this time. There is even one moment where it appears she is seriously considering death over Erik. She places her hand on the locust long enough to make Erik nearly brace himself for a large explosion.

Thanks to deleted scenes, it appears an angry mob has suddenly been able to find Erik's secret lair remarkably easily. Erik is pursued by this angry mob as a chase scene occurs through the streets of Paris. He is surrounded at a bridge, clubbed to death, and thrown into the river.

The Colors and Musical Scores

Over the years, there have been a number of remakes and reissues of this particular film which has caused some confusion even among dedicated phans. The Masquerade Ball and the scene at Apollo's lyre, for instance, had originally been filmed in color but had only been seen in black-and-white for years at a time. Some releases have tinted film as mood enhancers, a common practice before filming entirely in color became the norm. The musical scores have also changed over the years.

I currently have four of them myself. I have one video that is all in black-and-white and absolutely no musical score. It is silent all the way. No wonder I got it so cheap. I have a DVD copy that came as part of the 50 Horror Movie Classics box package. The picture is all black-and-white and, while it has orchestra music, it does not really go along with the film the way I have seen others do. I taped another one off of A&E network that had a musical score played entirely on an old-timey organ. Color-tinted film depending on the scene is also used: blue for night time, pale green for the catacombs, yellow for daytime and cheery moments, and red during the torture chamber scene. About eight years ago, I bought a 1997 special collector's edition DVD of the 1929 reissue of the silent film. It has an orchestrated musical score by Gabriel Thibaudoux and occasional operatic vocals by Claudine Coté. Most of it also has the color-tinted film but it also has the original two-color Technicolor scenes at the Bal Masque and Apollo's lyre.

My personal favorite is the one I recorded off of A&E. The tinted film and old timey organ just seem appropriate. I think it drives other people crazy in my house, though, from having to hear that organ playing constantly. At least this organ plays along with the picture. For instance, when we first see Christine, she is playing Marguerite in Faust during "Apotheosis." The organ music goes along with that tune. Later, when Carlotta is singing "The Jewel Song" (right before the chandelier falls), the organ plays along the tune of that aria.

Then there is the classic unmasking scene. For many years, I was so focused on that unmasking that I overlooked a major detail. Yes, this is a silent movie, but the musical score nonetheless correlates with the scenes. During scenes from Faust, the score plays a piece from this opera. During the unmasking scene, this would be the only time up until the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that anyone would make a serious attempt at Erik's Don Juan Triumphant. At one point in Leroux's novel, the daroga says that Erik was "in a state." If I understand him right, then, Erik was acting unusually out-of-sorts even by Erik standards. I think that his work Don Juan Triumphant is the key to understanding what made him behave the way he did during his last years as Opera Ghost, but I digress.

I like the technicolor scenes on the collector's edition DVD and I always like the extra commentaries that accompany most DVD's, but the orchestrated music just does not work for me. The operatic vocals are an annoying distraction. Coté's voice is lovely, but the singing wrecks the purpose of watching a silent movie. Furthermore, they are out of place. For example, during one scene, Christine as Marguerite in Faust is not even singing. It is during "Apotheosis," the moment when angels are carrying her to heaven, but the lyrics being sung are from "the Final Trio" when Marguerite appeals to the angels to rescue her. It is also an annoyance to have the same singer for both Christine and Carlotta. (Coté also sings for Carlotta in a later scene, "The Jewel Song" when the chandelier falls.) There should have at least been a clear distinction, because Erik hated the sound of Carlotta's voice.

Eh, well. What are you going to do? (Shrugs) I have the one I like, so I'm happy enough in that respect. Unfortunately my tape is getting old.

My Own Comments

In some respects, this movie leaves even more of a mystery concerning Erik's character than Leroux's novel. For example, it is never explained how Erik acquired his visage. Was he born with it, was he burned in an accident, or could it even be possible that it was an act of mutilation by Communist torturers? Other movies, when making Erik insane, show the audience how and when Erik came to be that way. In this movie, it is never explained. The chronological order involving Devil's Island and the Communist siege is never mentioned. Not even Erik's birthplace or how he came to haunt the Paris Opera House is revealed. Scary, no?

Although this movie has a few dark re-writes even compared to Leroux, Lon Chaney still manages to successfully bring sympathy to the lonely, unhappy Erik. The Man of a Thousand Faces is legendary for his compassionate portrayals of outcasts and Erik is no exception to this pattern. True, this is not a "sexy phantom" such as the ones seen in some of the musicals and other movies. That trend would not start until the time of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. However, Lon Chaney manages to show a phantom that is simultaneously scary and sad.

I have seen mixed emotions on portrayal of Erik as criminally insane. Some see it as an insult to Erik's character. Their Erik is lonely and misunderstood, but not mad. Some view it as a sympathetic portrayal. Their Erik is dark and dangerous, but his madness from the imprisonments and torture make his horrifying deeds forgivable. His madness exonerates him because he is incapable of making any conscious choices between good and evil. The real Devil's Island was actually quite different, according to a documentary I watched on the Travel Channel. It could have been used for a more interesting story while still remaining very true to Leroux's Erik, in my humble opinion.

Christine Daaé, played by Mary Philbin, just seems very "flat" to me. She is the stereotypical silent movie damsel in distress. Some of the blame could be placed on the script and deleted scenes. Christine just comes across as a complete airhead, not the lonely dreamer made emotionally vulnerable by the death of her father. The overly melodramatic acting style was typical for that time and, as with many actors during this era, Philbin's career on film ended with the rise of "talkies."

According to "Shadow of a Phantom," a short report on the 1997 DVD special collector's edition, the famous kiss and weeping scene from the original story by Leroux had actually been filmed. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be determined that this was "too anti-climatic." Thus the change in the script and the re-filming of the end of the movie to create this chase scene and clubbing death. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. In my humble opinion, they could have had a wonderful, memorable, tragic love story had they kept the scene in the final cut - the one in which Erik and Christine share a tender moment. What a tragedy for the audience to witness! The man and his broken heart are viewed, only to see him chased down and killed by a hateful mob. (According to Phantom of the Opera by Philip J. Riley, this had been considered a viable alternative. When Erik opens up his hand on the bridge in front of the mob, he is holding the hankerchief that Christine gave him.)

It seems I'm not alone in this observation. Such a scenario does get played out in future movies and musicals, some more so than others. Besides, without that chase scene, Lon Chaney as Erik could not show us, as he opens up his hand to the crowd on the bridge, that it all is just an illusion. (That is according to the biography on Lon Chaney, titled "A Thousand Faces," televised on October 31, 2000 on TCM.) The Phantom of the Opera is here, inside your mind.

Eh, well. Like the grumpy old man on the Netflix commercial, sometimes Mister Puddy and I want to watch a scary movie. Scary, this one is, even after all these years.

Deleted Scenes

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