The 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera is, to my mind, one of the best movies ever made. It stars some of the greatest talent of the era. It features my personal favorite of the classic monsters. It’s arguably the best version of the Phantom story ever produced for film, and certainly the most accurate to the original novel (with minor discrepancies compared to other versions). It showcased one of the greatest movie sets ever constructed. And, to my mind, It represents the absolute pinnacle of the silent era. There was nothing about this movie that said “small” or “intimate.” If it’s possible to say such a thing as “no expense was spared in bringing this spectacle to the screen,” then it can be said in this case more than perhaps in regards to any other film you can name.
Universal Studios president Carl Laemmle visited France in 1922, where he met with the novel’s author Gaston Leroux, who was working in the film industry at the time. A comment was made that Laemmle admired the Opera House, and Leroux seized the opportunity to pass off a copy of his novel, which Laemmle read in a single night. I know the feeling, as I’m prone to do that too. The film rights were purchased the next day with Lon Chaney in mind to play the title role. From there, the production nightmare began, complete with a fussy director that the cast found difficult to work with and, of course, the intense construction of the massive set.
Laemmle set out to have the Paris Opera House reconstructed on Soundstage 28. The film’s poster boasts a cast of 5,000 extras, and to ensure the stage could support the weight, it became the first film stage created with steel girders supported with concrete. And as a bonus, one of the primary artists working on the set was a man who had helped to build the original Paris Opera. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but his technical drawings were so precise, the team at Universal had little difficulty in accurately reproducing the French original in lavish detail. This included the grand staircase, the rooftop statues, and the underground labyrinth that inspired Leroux to write the novel in the first place. Many who would see the film thought that it had been filmed on location, when in fact only an establishing shot of the original location’s exterior was used in the beginning of the film. Soundstage 28 would become one of the most frequently used and longest surviving sets in Hollywood history. Sadly, it was scheduled for demolition in 2014.
In addition to the sets, top talent, the sheer amount of extras, and the costume production that demanded, the film also claimed technical superiority in how it was shot. Every sequence was overlaid with a chromatic filter, so instead of black and white, theater audiences were treated to monochromatic reds, yellows, blues, and greens. But the film’s centerpiece made audiences sit up and take notice. The masquerade sequence was filmed in extremely rare and expensive full color.
In that era, and especially in the wake of his 1923 success in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lon Chaney was the natural choice for the Phantom. Chaney boasted a skill set the likes of which has rarely been seen in film history. He was willing to endure extreme physical pain and discomfort necessary to undertake his transformations, all of which he created and executed himself, thus earning him the nickname “the man of a thousand faces.” As the son of deaf parents, he was more than adept at using his hands for effective communication and pantomimed gestures. Combine all of this with his business professionalism and skills as a dramatic actor and showman, and you’ve got the formula for the closest thing the silent screen had to immortality or even godhood. And best of all, his makeup effects were concealed until the official on-screen unmasking, so the reaction from co-star Mary Philbin is legitimate. It’s said that a number of those present for that scene screamed in fright and/or fainted. The same thing happened in movie houses across the country, and then across the world.
The reception for the film by critics was lukewarm, saying it was “pretty good” and the acting “could have been better.”
But the ignorance of critics is quickly ignored when something strikes a chord with the moviegoing public, and Phantom made truckloads of cash. It was so successful that when motion pictures began to make the transition to sound in 1928-29, The Phantom of the Opera was one of the first out of the gate to make that transition in 1930. Universal announced that they had the rights to a sequel, The Return of the Phantom, and the picture would be made with sound and in full color. The thing is, Chaney was secretly already under contract with MGM and could not be used for the sequel, and he was already sick with the throat cancer that would claim his life the following year. The sequel was tossed aside in favor of re-issuing Phantom with the sound upgrades. Several sequences were re-shot with dialogue looped in, but contractual obligation prevented them from doing so with Chaney’s scenes. A “third person” voice actor was used for the sequences were only Chaney’s shadow appears. This re-issue of the film is lost today, though the soundtrack survives. The important takeaway is that because of its duplicated success as the Great Depression took hold, it opened the door for the next wave of monster features at Universal, beginning with Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. You can hail Lugosi and Karloff for all of their efforts, and I will certainly not short change them. But to my mind, everything they achieved was built on the legacy of Lon Chaney. Universal declares at almost every turn that the era of their Universal Monsters begins in 1931. That’s probably because this film is in the public domain now, and silent movies just aren’t “sexy” to modern audiences. I respectfully disagree on all counts. This film, and all that it achieved, set all of that classic era into motion.
Despite Universal tending to overlook this film, I feel fortunate to live in an age where we respect our history. I’ve seen many copies of this film over the years, the majority of them in substandard black and white, sped up to modern timing conventions, and overlaid with crappy soundtracks. Seriously, one version I own is a VHS copy that incorporates a jazz soundtrack. You cannot dance a beat on the edge of a cymbal for the opening card of this film and listen to that while the man with the lantern peers out from the screen at you. It’s laugh-worthy at best, and it quickly degenerates from there. My DVD copy of Phantom, however, is a remastered edition from 1997 that’s been lovingly restored from 35 mm prints of both the 1925 and ’29 versions, utilizing a re-edit from the 1929 release for the ballet and opera sequences. The original color tinting for every frame is restored, the Bal Masque sequence is remastered in its original two-color Technicolor, and the entire movie is re-timed from the standard 24-29 frames per second to its original 20 frames per second. It features an orchestral score that not only fits the film perfectly, but it also utilizes the operatic tracks that match what you see on screen. It really lends another level to the film. You wouldn’t think that would be a big deal, but for me it really is. The original 1925 version exists today only in 16 mm “show at home” prints. There’s a lot more technical information I could offer, but suffice it to say, this is the best version of the film available today. There have been later attempts to improve, including a 2003 re-issue of the 1929 talkie version. The soundtrack doesn’t quite line up, and there are still whole sequences that are simply silent. Good effort, but not good enough. I stick with my ’97 disc for most viewings these days. I watch it frequently.