Friday, 16 March 2012

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I've finally gotten round to reviewing the Phantom of the Opera adaptation that started all of the others off - the silent Lon Chaney version from 1925. I've been putting this review off for ages because I felt I should really watch this version a second time around before I reviewed it. At the risk of being considered a cinematic philistine I'm just not a silent film fan. On the few occasions when I have sat down with the intention of watching a silent film I've ended up getting bored and going off to do something else. Even when I first watched this film my attention span wandered at times - but when I watched this film again I liked and appreciated it much more! The Lon Chaney version is widely regarded by Leroux fans to be the best screen adaptation of the novel, and it's certainly the one that is most faithful to the story. It has almost everything. It's got Carlotta, Joseph Buquet, Box Five, the two managers, Raoul's brother Philippe, the chandelier crash, Cesar the horse, the unmasking scene (the most famous part of the film), the masked ball, Apollo's Lyre, the Persian (well, sort of), the torture chamber, the grasshopper and the scorpion, the dynamite barrels and the water... yep, it's got pretty much everything! The film isn't 100% accurate though. It's missing out on Meg and Madame Giry and the Phantom's backstory is different. The Phantom is still called Erik in this version and he claims to have been mistreated by others because of his deformity. But the Phantom didn't spend time in Persia - in this film he's a magician and a purveyor of the black arts who was sent to a French penal colony in the Caribbean for the criminally insane. He then escaped and returned to Paris. The Persian is called Inspector Ledoux in this and he's a French policeman who's been hunting Erik down ever since he got back to France. There are a couple of other ways in which this film strays from the book too but I'll get to that later.

The Lon Chaney version is a true classic and - although it's not my personal favourite Phantom adaptation - I still think it's a great film. It has a genuinely creepy and eerie atmosphere, and Lon Chaney gives a brilliant performance as the Phantom. Chaney designed his own make-up for the role and it's absolutely superb. He twisted his face around with wires, stuffed his cheeks and nose with putty, and dilated his pupils. Chaney put himself through agony for his art and to this day the make-up that he achieved for this film has never been bettered or even equalled. I think it's pretty bad when you get these modern actors who whinge and moan about having to wear make-up for any length of time, and then moan about having to sit in a chair for hours to have it put on and taken off. It's like when Julian Sands refused to wear make-up when he played the Phantom in Dario Argento's monstrous and unholy abomination. If you don't want to wear make-up then don't take on the role of one of the most famous deformed characters in all of literature!

Special mention must also go to Chaney's acting. As the son of deaf mutes Chaney had a lifetime's worth of expressing himself through mime. He can say so much with just the smallest movement of hands and his acting has a subtlety and depth that you don't usually see in silent films. His Phantom is very Leroux-ish too which obviously makes him popular with fans of the book. When you watch the film you can see why Chaney's acting was so highly regarded. Chaney even ended up directing quite a few of his own scenes in this film too because he didn't get on with the demanding director Rupert Julian. The acting from everyone else in this film is rather more hit-and-miss. Some of the acting is very bad and over-the-top in places even for a silent movie. The worst culprits for this are Mary Philbin, who plays Christine, and the actresses playing the Ballerinas.

The faults that this film has are fairly minor apart from the ending which is unfaithful to the book. We get a tacked-on, absolutely stupid chase scene where the Phantom tries to smuggle Christine out of the opera house by throwing her into a horse-driven carriage. He then gets caught and is beaten to death by an angry mob. Although I do quite like Erik's hand-grenade bluff when he's running away from the mob, this ending is upsetting and horrible for all the wrong reasons and I really do not like it. In all fairness to the film-makers, the film wasn't supposed to end in this way. When the film was previewed in Los Angeles it was even more faithful to the book. It included the cemetery scene at Perros where Christine prays at her father's grave and the Phantom plays the violin to her. Raoul then arrives and the Phantom pelts skulls at him. Raoul also gets a look at the Phantom's repulsive face. But this scene was scrapped because some of the audience members thought the skull-pelting was offensive and - with some justification - that showing the Phantom's face then lessened the impact of the unmasking scene that happens later on. The ending was also more accurate to the book. It had Christine kissing Erik on the forehead, Erik letting her go, and then dying of a broken heart at his organ. But surprise, surprise, the test-audiences didn't like that either. Times were different back then. Apart from some European films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari there were very few horror films around back then. Audiences generally liked to see light-hearted comedies. When the Phantom gets unmasked by Christine in this film audience members actually fainted at the sight of Erik's face! In fact you could make a very good argument for the Lon Chaney version being the first true American horror movie. As a result audiences at the time weren't really prepared for this film, and they weren't comfortable with the idea of a sympathetic "villian" who redeems himself at the end. Oh no, they didn't like that at all! They thought Erik should be punished for his crimes. Stupid 1920s' test audiences! All of this makes me think that Gaston Leroux was actually ahead of his time. These days you get anti-heroes in books and films all the time but back then it seems to have been a lot more unusual.

Anyway, this film has its faults but it's still a classic - and if you're any kind of Phantom fan it really is a must-see. Although I still prefer the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage version, this film is excellent and is the most faithful screen adaptation of Leroux's book. Also, it's the only silent film that I've been able to watch all the way through without getting bored which is some achievement!

Rating: 4/5

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