Colossus of Rhode Island

1925-Phantom of the Opera | July 13, 2010

Phantom of the Opera from wikipedia.org

Phantom of the Opera from wikipedia.org

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):

  • Carla Laemmle, niece of Studio head and producer Carl Laemmle, appeared as one of the dancers in Phantom and, at 100 years old, is the only cast member of this film and 1931’s Dracula that is still living (the last name is pronounced “Lem-lee” and it took me years to figure that out, so you’re welcome).
  • There are some plot changes between the 1925 version of Phantom and the 1930 re-release (something that was fairly easily done when you just needed to change the inter-titles to completely change the story).  Both versions are worth seeing, although I prefer the 1930 version for its lavish Technicolor sequence
  • In the original origin of Batman, Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed after taking them to see Douglas Fairbanks in 1920’s Zorro, the precursor to Don Q.
  • Mary Philbin starred opposite Conrad Veidt in 1928’s film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.  The lead character in this film was one of the visual inspiration’s for Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker.  I kick ass at the game “Six Degrees of Batman.”
  • Not only was The Gold Rush Chaplin’s favorite Chaplin movie, he also once commented that Battleship Potemkin was his favorite movie.
  • Chaney’s son, Creighton Chaney, tried to make a living in Hollywood after his father’s death, but didn’t find success until he allowed Universal to market him as Lon Chaney, Jr. in a series of monster movies, beginning with The Wolf Man.
  • Lon Chaney, Sr. only made one talking film before dying of cancer, just a few years after this.

Favorite Quote:

“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.

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10 Comments »

  1. Dan, wasn’t Lon Chaney Sr. your favorite silent film star when you were young? I seem to remember watching this film with you, but I have forgotten a lot about it. Next time you are down I would love it if you would bring some of the films that you have spotlighted, I would like to watch them. I also think that Auntie Ev would enjoy seeing them as well.

    I am trying to imagine what life must have been like for the child of deaf/mute parents, although I’m sure it was normal for him. I think that it is interesting that some people not only accept things that might be considered adversity by some but also gain so much insight in the process.

    Comment by Mom — July 14, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

  2. Yeah, especially before I discovered the silent comedians. This was one of my favorite movies from the silent era when I was a kid.

    It is amazing when you think about his situation with his parents and the ways this must have effected his future career. Showing emotion without speaking was probably second nature to him before he was a teenager.

    I’ll be sure to bring some of them down so you can check them out.

    Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — July 15, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

  3. i’d be hard pressed to think of a more enjoyable movie from that year, personally.
    (although i do love ‘potemkin.)
    there’s just something so gloriously perverse about chaney’s performance in ‘phantom’ that has never been able to be reproduced.

    Comment by s.j.b. — July 17, 2010 @ 11:24 pm

    • The scene where she removes the mask is one of the best I’ve seen. I don’t know if the rumors of terror-stricken audiences running out of the theaters are true, but I like to think that they are.

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — July 22, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  4. Hi Daniel

    Great blog. Love old films.

    [I’m a friend of your Mom’s from way-back-when in 8th grade in Natick — she pointed me to your blog]

    I’ve had a thought for several years that it’d be neat to have a course for high school kids in which they’d be exposed to approx. 3 movies a week, 100 movies in a year, with individual kids having to write up the sort of info you’re putting on your blog for each one of those films.

    Films are our great modern visual art form, and there are at least 100 that everyone should have seen by the time they hit 18.

    Anyways … great blog !!!

    -0- stanley krute

    Comment by Stanley Krute — July 21, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    • Thanks Stanley, and thanks for checking it out. I love the idea of having that class and I agree that there are TONS of movies that people need to see (which I guess is the point of this blog now that I think about it). I also love looking at movies as historical representations of their time. I did a paper once about how different versions of Robin Hood over the decades and how they show how idealized manhood has changed (Costner’s Robin Hood in 1991 would not have gotten away with wearing tights, for instance). That was a fun excercise (and it didn’t hurt that I just had to watch movies to do my research). I love looking at movies as historical records. Thanks again for checking it out.
      Dan

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — July 22, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  5. Dan,

    You have inspired me to want to watch all of the films you have discussed so far. Thanks for opening my world to all of these amazing movies. I can’t wait for your next blog post 🙂

    Comment by Kate — July 26, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    • Thanks Kate! I’m working on the next one tonight, so hopefully it will be up tonight too. I loaned the first 5 movies in the blog to my mother, so I’m glad that the whole purpose of the blog (getting people to watch movies I think they should see) is having some effect. Can’t wait to see you when you come up to visit in two short weeks!

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — July 26, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

  6. i love classic operatic arias and Phantom Of The Opera is one of the best musical -;.

    Comment by Bettyann Duett — November 17, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    • Thanks Bettyann. I’m actually a little embarassed to say that I’ve never seen Phantom live on stage, so most of my knowledge of the story comes from the silent film. I definitely need to check out a performance of it someday when I get the chance.

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — January 2, 2011 @ 3:20 am


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I write things...this thing that I'm writing and you're reading is a series of posts, starting with 1920 and focusing on a movie from each year that I think you should see.

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