This entry is more about Lon Chaney Sr. than about the film, although Phantom is a genuine classic. It is the melodramatic story of a disfigured man named Erik, who lives in the old torture chambers far below the Paris Opera House and is occasionally seen by actors and stagehands. He takes a fancy to an understudy, Christine Daae, and uses the threat of violence to get her into the performance. Once he has fulfilled her dream of appearing on the stage, she keeps her promise to come and live with him (honestly, I can’t tell if she’s drugged or fulfilling her promise or what, but for some reason she moves to the sewers with him), although she has never seen his face. In the end, she must be rescued by her true, mustachioed, love (and, of course, he has to win because his mustache is so glorious).
The movie itself has beautiful set pieces, costumes, and some good performances. The massive sets were intended to recreate the Paris Opera House perfectly (allegedly some of the sets still stand on the studio lot and won’t be taken down because the ghost of Lon Chaney hurts studio employees who try to take it down)
The film includes a mesmerizing Technicolor sequence that takes place during a costume ball (contrary to popular belief, Technicolor was available during the silent era, but was VERY expensive, hence only a portion of the movie was filmed in color. Douglas Fairbanks filmed all of The Black Pirate in Technicolor). This scene allows Chaney, dressed in a red costume and a skull mask, to interact with other denizens of the Opera House. He intimidates and frightens them and follows Christine and her lover to the roof. While they discuss their love for one another and their fear of the Phantom, he sits above them on a statue, his red cloak whipping in the wind, his twisted face pained by her rejection.
Mary Philbin is a little over-the-top but charming as Christine and the supporting players, by and large, are good. But Chaney is the center piece. Famously known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” (this nickname was the inspiration for the genius Dragunfyst and Phriskey line “I’m the man of a million rhymes/the Lon Chaney of raps”), he did all his own makeup and his creation for Phantom is one of the most iconic in screen history and the makeup job for which he is best known. The scene where his face is first revealed is a ballet of tension and suspense. While Erik is playing the organ, Christine walks up behind him. She wants to remove his mask, she reconsiders, and then she decides to do so. She pulls the mask from his face while both of them are facing the camera, revealing his hideous visage to the audience before she glimpses it. When he turns she is mortified. Audiences allegedly screamed out loud when Chaney’s phantom was first revealed.
Chaney had grown up the child of two deaf/mute parents. This lifetime of communicating without sound made him particularly suited to the silent film era and there was no star bigger in the second half of the 1920s. His performances are emotional and subtle in a time when most actors were merely emotional. Lon Chaney, Sr. is a jewel of early film acting and you should see at least one of his movies. I loved him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he is mesmerizing in Phantom.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1925 that are worth seeing):
If this was a blog simply about the greatest film of a particular year, it would be almost impossible to not select Battleship Potemkin. The impact of Eisenstein’s masterpiece on film cannot be overstated. His “Odessa Steps” sequence is so recognizable that everyone who reads this blog has seen something that imitates it. Eisenstein’s Strike was also released in the U.S. that same year. Like Battleship some of the editing tricks will seem conventional to modern eyes, but they were completely revolutionary for their time. If you enjoyed the Douglas Fairbanks film I recommended for 1924, you will also love Don Q, Son of Zorro, a sequel to his highly successful turn as Zorro a few years earlier. Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman rather unrealistically casts Lloyd as a college freshman, but it is a fun romp. The Gold Rush was Charlie Chaplin’s favorite Charlie Chaplin film, where he mined comedy from a story inspired partly by the Donner Party tragedy.
Did you know? (1925 Trivial Knowledge):
“Feast your eyes – glut your soul on my accursed ugliness.” Erik, the Phantom, to Christine Daae.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Milestone edition, which features both the original and the re-edited 1930 re-release. I watched the 1930 version.