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October 05, 2015

The Phantom of the Opera

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Rupert Julian - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

Somehow, I had it fixed in my memory that I had actually seen the silent Phantom of the Opera. What I saw was a highly edited version. I know that I had seen the unmasking scene quite a few times. But until I got the Kino two disc set, I never saw the actual feature length film.

What we have primarily is the original 1925 version taken from a 16mm print, plus the 1929 re-issue shown at 24 frames per second with two different music tracks, or at 20 fps, the correct projection speed, with a music track or a commentary track. The 1929 version originally had a synchronized track of music and sound effects, no longer available. The print, reported taken from a European release version, is the best preserved, and has color tinting, plus the early Technicolor footage in the masked ball sequence. The 1929 version also improves upon the 1925 version in a couple of other ways.

Rupert Julian's original version takes a lot of time setting things up, mostly with the romance of Christine and Raoul. Julian shoots the dance numbers as if from the back row of the auditorium. As visually unimaginative as Julian was, he was also not very observant, as there is an audience member furiously waving a fan in the long shots. The dance scenes were reshot for 1929 version to go with the soundtrack, and were filmed by someone who knew a thing or two about editing and camera angles. Additionally, the 1929 version runs for about an hour and a half. Not only is there little of narrative import missed, but Lon Chaney shows up earlier. It should also be noted that while Julian was listed as the director, with Chaney reportedly directing himself, other uncredited studio hands contributed to both the 1925 and 1929 version. This is a rare case where studio interference improved the film.

In retrospect, while the Phantom is Lon Chaney's most iconic role, it is neither the best film to showcase his talents, nor is it really that good a film. What makes Phantom memorable are Chaney's make-up and Ben Carre's incredible sets, especially the giant demon face with the doorway in the mouth leading to a mysterious passageway. For myself, Tod Browning's The Unknown remains not only a much better made film, but one that is better as a showcase for Lon Chaney's skills as an actor, with an ending that continues to horrify.

That the sound reissue of Phantom is the version that is considered definitive is somewhat ironic in that the careers of most of the principle participants were undone by talking pictures. Mary Philbin, the would be opera star, could not sing in real life, and had a high pitched voice. His speaking voice also hampered Norman Kerry, a popular star who appeared in other films with Chaney. Rupert Julian made his last movie in 1930. Even Lon Chaney's career in talkies was short-lived, most cruelly with death at the age of 47 from throat cancer.

One of my favorite moments is the scene of the ballerinas backstage running in fear of rumors of the Phantom, with giant shadows against the wall. There is also Chaney's grand entrance in the masked ball, dressed in red, with the skull mask. Unlike the remakes, there's no back story to explain how the Phantom has a deformed face, nor is there any attempt to make the Phantom sympathetic beyond Chaney's own characterization. Whatever thoughts I have about the film, I can not deny the impact made ninety years after the initial release, and this new blu-ray set is the version to have for any personal collection.

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Posted by peter at October 5, 2015 05:40 PM