A MILLION THRILLS TO THRILL MILLIONS.
In 2014, at the age of 104, Carla Laemmle died and was hailed as our last link to the silent era. The niece of Universal Pictures founder and producer Carl Laemmle, she had a bit part in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) as one of the ballet dancers and continued to make minor appearances in movies until the late 1930s when she retired from the cinema. Her first movie, made over 90 years ago, became Universal’s entry into the world of monsters, followed by immensely successful talkies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man.
In Paris, the Opera House is doing a production of ”Faust” at the same time as the managers are replaced by new owners who are warned of a ”ghost”. The mysterious, never-seen guest in box number five may know more about this entity, the new managers are told, but they laugh it off. One of the understudies, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), has recently become quite successful and might even replace the prima donna, Madame Carlotta (Virginia Pearson). Christine is in a relationship with Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), but she makes it clear to him that what is most important right now is her career. He doesn’t know that Christine has fallen under the spell of a mysterious voice that’s fulfilling her; this ”spirit of music” is the key to her success, but she must keep it a secret.
Letters signed by ”The Phantom” are sent to the owners, threatening severe consequences unless Christine is given Carlotta’s role…
Gaston Leroux’s tale had been filmed once before, but hardly as elaborately as here. There are several versions of this movie; there was even a reissue in 1930 that contained a music score, sound effects and several newly shot scenes. Also, one key sequence, a masked ball where the Phantom appears in disguise as Edgar Allan Poe’s Red Death, was originally in color. Adding to the confusion over which version is the ”legitimate”, director Rupert Julian left the production after disagreements with Universal and Lon Chaney, leading to substantial reshoots. The new version, which looked more like a comedy, was soundly rejected during test screenings, and much of Julian’s work was restored.
In spite of this messy background, The Phantom of the Opera is still a thrilling experience, a Gothic, romantic horror story that’s well paced and has a number of eye-catching scenes. There’s the great reveal of the Phantom’s face behind his mask; it’s been said that Philbin hadn’t seen what Chaney had cooked up and was genuinely startled on camera by the skull-like make-up he had created for himself. There’s also the memorable scene where the Phantom sneakily swims through the catacombs and attacks Philippe (John St. Polis) who’s in a boat. And finally, the last twenty minutes features a series of traps for Kerry and Arthur Edmund Carewe, followed by an action-filled chase.
Tension is high and the atmosphere rich; before the Phantom dominates the action his shadowy presence is felt throughout the Opera House. There are similarities with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), where Chaney also played the disfigured lead, but here the tragedy of his character is paired with evil, not kindness. It has become his most famous work.
Incidentally, the majestic set of the Paris Opera House was such a sturdy construction that parts of it remained standing on the Universal lot until 2014, the same year Carla Laemmle died. The film is available for free on YouTube and other websites, but there are also DVD and Bluray releases; an equally, sturdy construction, it deserves to be seen in much better quality.
The Phantom of the Opera 1925-U.S. Silent. 98 min. B/W. Produced by Carl Laemmle. Directed by Rupert Julian. Screenplay: Walter Anthony, Elliott J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace. Novel: Gaston Leroux. Art Direction: Elmer Sheeley, Charles D. Hall. Cast: Lon Chaney (The Phantom/Erik), Mary Philbin (Christine Daaé), Norman Kerry (Raoul de Chagny), Snitz Edwards, Gibson Gowland, Arthur Edmund Carewe… Carla Laemmle.
Trivia: Later a stage musical. Remade in 1943 and 1962 (in Britain); the musical got its screen version in 2004.