Mon
Nov 2 2009 10:52am

Ancient Rockets: Phantom of the Opera

Why, yes—this IS a new look for me!

Everyone knows this story. Or thinks so...

You may have first encountered the Phantom in one of his modern incarnations, which have become increasingly swoony and romantic. Claude Rains’ battered old musician sported a mask to hide the acid-burned side of a normal face; the mask shrank even further for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, to enable him to sing all those passionate pleas to Christine Daae. By the time the musical was filmed in 2004, there seemed barely any reason for Gerard Butler’s buff Phantom to wear a mask at all. All of which undermines the logic of the story, because when your facial booboos could be fixed by a couple of trips to a good dermatologist, why bother with the whole hiding-in-the-cellars and pretending-to-be-a- ghost bit?

No, for the story to make any sense, for it to have any real depth or bitterness, we need to go back to the 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney Sr. in the title role. It isn’t the first; that would be a German film from 1916, now lost, but this is the version closest to the original 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, which is written in such a matter-of-fact way that its fantastic elements seem plausible. Erik the Phantom is no romantic hero here; he’s a psychopath with a hideous face, and no woman in her right mind would find herself torn between Erik and her handsome fiancé. All other versions imply that there’s a dreamboat behind the mask, if a slightly kinky one. Only Chaney’s Erik genuinely terrifies.

Phantom sets the mood in its opening sequence, presented without explanation: a man with a lantern is wandering fearfully in darkness. We see a shadow move across a doorway. Something is down there with him.

And then, pop, we’re up in the sunlight in front of the Paris Opera House, and watch as the final arrangements are made transferring the property to its new managers. After the deal is closed, the former managers mention slyly that there have been a few stories of a ghost in the Opera House. The new managers have a hearty laugh at that. Meanwhile, the new season is kicking off with a performance of Gounod’s Faust. The choice of opera is significant, for reasons I’ll go into below. Up in the boxes reserved for the wealthy are the Comte de Chagny and his younger brother Raoul, there to watch Raoul’s sweetheart Christine. Christine has been a humble chorine before now, but in the last few months has suddenly developed a good enough voice to advance to understudy for the company’s prima donna, Mme. Carlotta. Evidently this is the night Christine has finally gotten her big chance.

We first see Christine as Faust is ending, and here it might be helpful to know that Gounod’s libretto is not really about Faust but about the girl he seduces and ruins, Marguerite. As the opera ends, Marguerite is about to be executed for killing her illegitimate child by Faust in a fit of insanity. Mephistopheles tells Faust he can rescue her, but Marguerite refuses to go with them; she rejects the world, the flesh and the devil and dies. In the very last scene she  rises into Heaven, as a chorus of angels sing of her salvation. In our first glimpse of Christine/Marguerite she is holding the hand of a guardian angel, smiling as they are hauled into Stage Heaven on flying harnesses. Christine has a thing about angels, as we discover.

Raoul comes to her dressing room after the performance to congratulate her—sort of. “How nice that you finally achieved your little goal and sang before a real audience! Now you can give all this up and marry me.” Christine, however, informs him that her singing career is the most important thing in her life and that Raoul had better forget their love affair. Raoul departs, chagrined, but not before he hears Christine having a conversation with someone else in her dressing room.

The someone else is Christine’s Angel, the Spirit of Music, who has been speaking to her for some months now from behind the walls, giving her voice lessons. Christine really believes he’s an angelic spirit sent to shape her talent into something tremendous. The Spirit congratulates her on her triumph, but warns her that to be truly great she must focus on her art and give up all worldly distractions. Christine is perfectly happy to do this, but then the Spirit goes on to say that soon he will take tangible shape and claim her love. O-kay.

Meanwhile the new managers are discovering that there is indeed an opera ghost, and he does have mysterious powers. The little girls of the ballet scare themselves silly when they glimpse his shadow, and together with a comic stagehand go running like a pack of frenzied kittens down into the gloomy cellars under the Opera House. Working there among the stored props and backdrops is Joseph Bouquet, who takes time out from repairing a grisly prop severed head to tell them about all the times he’s sighted the opera ghost. Spooky! And who’s that mysterious man in a cape and fez? Why is he lurking here and there with knowing glances?

Back in the managers’ office, Mme. Carlotta comes storming in with a note she has received threatening a curse if she does not step aside and let her understudy, Christine, sing the role of Marguerite again. The warning’s ignored, Carlotta sings, the famous chandelier falls, and next time it’s Christine singing Marguerite, in the scene in which she’s being tempted from her virtuous life by Faust’s gift of jewels . Big applause for the plucky heroine, who retires to her dressing room to be informed by her Spirit that the time has come for them to get to know each other better. He instructs her to walk into her mirror—she obeys, as the mirror opens onto a hidden passageway. The mirror closes behind her, and when Raoul bursts into the room a moment later he finds no one.

In the musical, this is all a dark and dreamy scene with the Phantom taking Christine across a subterranean lake by boat, but in the film Christine’s dismay and disappointment are evident from the moment she comes face to face with him. It’s clear that she was expecting something radiantly spiritual, not a man in a creepy mask in a dark corridor. It is implied by a blurring of the image and her slumped posture that the Phantom mesmerizes her into following him down below, first by horseback and then by boat, to his lair in the depths of the Opera House’s cellars.

Now Christine’s really creeped out. The place looks like a funeral home, thanks to Erik’s morbid taste, and the kicker comes when the Phantom says, essentially, “How nice that we finally achieved our little goal and triumphed on the stage! Now you can give all this up and live down here forever with me.” Great: she’s traded a pushy Vicomte for a stalker in a mask. The discovery that the Phantom sleeps in a goddam COFFIN pushes her over the edge and she faints, to awaken hours later in the obsessively-arranged bedroom Erik had prepared for her. Realizing that he’s been planning her abduction for some time, Christine is beside herself with horror. She finds a note from Erik telling her that she has nothing to fear as long as she does not attempt to see what’s under his mask. 

Out in the parlor, the Phantom is playing solo on his organ (and my, what a metaphor for a stalker’s sex life). Christine advances on him with intent to pull off the mask. Oh, yeah, Woman’s fatal curiosity is proverbial, et cetera, but what would you do in her position? About the only thing she has at this moment is the power to find out who her captor really is. And so she sneaks up behind the Phantom and pulls off the mask.

Sheer and utter horror.

Audiences in 1925 were said to have fainted and screamed at this moment, and it’s hard not to feel a jolt now, even after years of exposure to Famous Monsters of Filmland covers and Revell monster models. You just aren’t prepared for it. Chaney’s artistry with appliance makeup was already legendary, but the Phantom remains his masterpiece. The fact that Chaney can actually express a wide range of emotions—shock, rage, spite, heartbreak, confusion—with that face is all the more remarkable considering it must have been exquisitely painful to wear. (For example, reports that he used only a piece of fishskin and glue to pull the tip of his nose back seem to have been untrue; apparently he also used a tiny pair of hooks, one in either nostril, fixed to a transparent line and wire. He had frequent nosebleeds on the set.)  

If you haven’t seen the silent Phantom, I won’t spoil the end for you, because it differs substantially from the musical and other cinematic treatments. Do watch this classic, but be warned—finding which version to watch takes some hunting around.

To begin with, multiple versions were shot, scrapped, re-shot and edited. What finally hit the screens in 1925 was a collage, the best bits compiled into one coherent narrative. It was a box office success, ran its appointed time and then was shelved in the vaults. But, with the advent of the talkies in 1929, Universal decided to remake Phantom as a sound picture. There were problems with this, however. For one thing, Chaney was now under contract to MGM and unavailable. A compromise was reached by re-editing the original film extensively. Chaney’s dialogue remained silent, retaining title cards. Some scenes were dropped, some scenes re-shot for sound, and in some cases roles changed; Virginia Pearson, who played the wonderfully temperamental Mme. Carlotta in the 1925 version, either could not sing or was otherwise engaged, and so singer Mary Fabian was recast in the role. Unwilling to lose Pearson’s performance, however, the film editors simply changed the title cards and made her Mme. Carlotta’s mother, confronting the managers on her daughter’s behalf. 

At the same time, a silent version of the new Phantom was prepared for those theaters still without sound equipment. This, paradoxically, seems to be the only surviving copy of the 1929 revision, since the sound copy is now lost. The 1925 film only exists in a primitive Blackhawk version, without its Technicolor sequence. And Universal let Phantom lapse into public domain in 1953, a move they must have keenly regretted later, so dozens of cheap copies have been released by DVD companies operating out of garages. What, then, do you watch?

The Phantom of the Opera can be screened for free at the Internet Archive, though I don’t recommend the experience, because they have a ghastly blurred copy with the Technicolor Masked Ball scene faded to almost sepia. Image Entertainment released an “Ultimate Edition” in 2003, containing both the 1925 and “restored” 1929 versions, but unfortunately sloppy transfer has resulted in motion blurs and other artifacts that some viewers feel renders them unwatchable. My recommendation? Go for the Image 1997 release, the one with the soundtrack composed by Gabriel Thibodeaux and fortunately the version Netflix offers. It’s crisp, it’s clean, it’s a joy to watch and the two-strip Technicolor sequence is bright and fresh-looking.

More spooky stuff to come. I know, I know, Halloween was last week, but this is still the dark season of the year, so we’ve got a few chills and thrills to share before hanging up the Christmas stockings. Meanwhile, endless iterations of the Phantom’s story are told, and will continue to be told as long as romantic little girls dream of strange angels who, sadly, turn out to be creeps living in basements.


Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger for Tor.com. Her three-year-old niece used to dress up one of her dolls as the Red Death.

2 comments
ZCam
1. ZCam
Thanks for another delightful review. I've been able to view some of these gems you've found for us and enjoyed them thoroughly. And not just me. My 12yo daughter said the other night, "I'm glad we watch this old stuff. It's really good. The other kids at school miss out because they don't like these!"
Huzzah!

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