The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 33 min.

Release Date: November 15th, 1925 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Rupert Julian Actors: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John Sainpolis, Snitz Edwards, Mary Fabian, Virginia Pearson

 


 

B

eneath the Paris Opera House snakes an intricate maze of cellars, once utilized as dungeons and torture chambers. But when a beautiful ballet is performed on the opulent, colossal stage above, thoughts couldn’t be further from the building’s cruel past. Preeminent patrons include Philippe Auguste de Brienne, Comte de Chagny (John Sainpolis), of the old aristocracy; his younger brother, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), a lieutenant and Beau Brummel of the Second Chasseurs, who attends only to hear his sweetheart, understudy Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), sing; along with countless other officers, royalty, and top-hatted elites. As angelic dancers twirl in unison, music gushes from the orchestra pit, and the prima donna takes the stage, hearts are light and enthusiastic.

At the height of the most prosperous season in the Opera’s history, suddenly and mysteriously, the management resigns. Suspiciously taking over, the new proprietors scoff at the whispers of a ghost – a phantom of the opera – who spooks the theater’s players. But when star Mademoiselle Carlotta (Mary Fabian) receives a handwritten note stating that only Daae is to perform that coming Wednesday in “Faust,” the ballerinas are mortified. “We saw him for an instant – a gray shadow – and then he was gone!”

Prop master Joseph Buquet (Bernard Siegel) claims to have seen the specter, describing leprous skin, sunken eyes, and the absence of a nose – a chilling image that only serves to further scare the young women. To make matters worse, Box Five is always reserved for a credentialed man, whom no one has really seen or heard. This ghastly apparition is something of a puppetmaster, however, guiding and manipulating Christine to stardom, on the condition that she ignore everything except the pursuit of her art. But that pesky emotion of love cannot be curbed forever.

The film may be based on the celebrated novel by Gaston Leroux, a famous French writer often compared with Edgar Allan Poe for his knack with merging fantasy and macabre reality; set in the Grand Opera House of Paris (practically a character of its own, though a recreation in California); and produced by Carl Laemmle, the force behind 1916’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” 1923’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and 1928’s “The Man Who Laughs,” but this production ultimately belongs to Lon Chaney as the Phantom. And he doesn’t even appear until approximately 45 minutes into the picture. But from his initial appearance, brandishing the iconic white mask, to the emaciated skull of the mutilated Erik (augmented with chemicals to dilate his pupils, cotton and celluloid to alter his cheekbones, wires to pull up his nose, and fanged dentures), Chaney has crafted one of cinema’s most enduring characters.

Morbid imagery, strangulations, threats of bodily harm, abductions, curses, murder, and the signature masquerade ball populate this Grand Guignol archetype, which magnificently infuses fateful romance with noirish horror. There’s also a sense of chivalry and adventure, visualized through descents down labyrinthine stairways and hallucinatory glides through the Seine’s seepage, though the fear and mystery are most pressing – brought back to the forefront with a glimpse of the Phantom’s coffin bed. Like many great movie monsters, the Phantom’s disfigurement and motives are never elucidated; the big reveal, however, in which Chaney’s spectacularly grisly visage receives a prominent close-up, imparts a wealth of information.

Passion can’t be suppressed by ugliness; the tragedy of Erik’s deformed features do nothing to diminish his lust for the beauty and talent of his obsession. And so, the only alleviation is to destroy his muse. But help – and heroism – from unexpected places, along with the collective determination of the stage crew to eradicate the Phantom’s plague, like the townsfolk storming Frankenstein’s monster’s hideaway while waving pitchforks and torches, comes to the rescue. It’s an exciting and triumphant finale, concluding adventurously and romantically, like many of the era’s greatest epics.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10