Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

 (This blog post is part of the Vive Le France Blogathon hosted by The Lady Eve's Reel Life and Silver Screen Modes)

When Hollywood made the shift to sound in the late Twenties, almost immediately they set about remaking their silent movies as talkies. Brewster's Millions (1921) would be remade repeatedly, with notable remakes in 1935 and 1945. The Awful Truth (1925) would be remade in both 1929 and, perhaps the most famous version, in 1937. In many, perhaps most cases, the talkie version would overtake the silent version in fame and popularity. There is one notable exception to the rule. Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantôme de l'Opéra) would be adapted several times to film, with the earliest version being made in 1916. Notable versions were released in 1943 by Universal and in 1962 by Hammer. To this day its most famous iteration on film remains The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney. In fact, it remains one of the most famous silent movies of all time.

Gaston Leroux was inspired to write The Phantom of the Opera by rumours surrounding the Palais Garnier in Paris, even then one of the most famous opera houses in the world. There had long been rumours of an underground lake beneath the opera house. Another source of inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera was an accident in 1896 in which a counterweight from the Palais Garnier's grand chandelier fell and killed a construction worker. More inspiration for the novel came more recently in Gaston Leroux's time. In 1907 the Gramophone Company, Ltd. had 24 records placed in two containers and then sealed in the Palais Garnier's cellars as a time capsule to be opened 100 years later.

From these various pieces Gaston Leroux wove a tale set in the 1880s about a mysterious inhabitant of the Palais Garnier known as "the Phantom of the Opera" or, more simply, "the Opera Ghost." Things begin to go badly for the Palais Garnier when the Phantom takes an interest in young singer Christine Daaé, determined to make her a star through any means possible. The Phantom of the Opera was originally serialised in the newspaper Le Gaulois from September 23 1909, to January 8 1910. It was published as a book in late March, 1910. The Phantom of the Opera was generally well received and proved to be a success not only in France, but in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere.

Having achieved considerable success as a novelist, by the Twenties Gaston Leroux was working in the French film industry. It was in 1922 that Carl Laemmle, president and founder of Universal Pictures, took a vacation in Paris. It was there that he met Gaston Leroux, who gave him a copy of The Phantom of the Opera. After having read it all in one night, Mr. Laemmle bought the film rights to the novel with the intention of turning it into a movie starring Lon Chaney.

From the beginning The Phantom of the Opera was meant to be a blockbuster. Universal hired French artist Ben Caray, who had worked at the Palais Garnier, to recreate the backstage and the cellars of the opera house. It should then come as no surprise that the sets for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) would prove to be very expensive, but then the movie would prove to be very expensive over all.

That having been said, much of the reason for the sheer expense of the film was not simply the lavishness of its sets. Quite simply, director Rupert Julian did not get along particularly well with the cast. Things became so tense between star Lon Chaney and director Rupert Julian that director of photography Charles Van Enger had to serve as a go-between for the two men. In the end Lon Chaney directed many of his own scenes himself. Things went from bad to worse when the first cut was previewed on January 7 and January 25 1925 in Los Angeles. Met with a poor reception for the film, Universal cancelled the film's set release date and then ordered that most of it be reshot. As a result Rupert Julian ultimately left the project.

Edward Sedgwick, who had directed the 1920 American version of the serial Fantômas and several Hoot Gibson Wesetrns, was then brought in to reshoot most of The Phantom of the Opera. Mr. Sedgwick then asked the film's original screenwriter Elliot Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock to write whole news scenes for the movie. Another cut of The Phantom of the Opera would then be previewed in San Francisco on April 26 1925. This preview fared no better than the first two. A third version was then created when Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber did an extensive edit of the film. Much of what Edward Sedgwick had shot was cut. Much of what Rupert Julian had shot was added back into the film. Ultimately this version of the film would be a combination of footage shot by Rupert Julian in 1924 and footage shot by Edward Sedgwick in 1925. It would be this version of The Phantom of the Opera that would be finally released. Between the sets and the extensive reshooting, The Phantom of the Opera ultimately cost around $630,000 to make, with the reshooting costing $50,000. In 2019 that would translate to about $9,343,336.99.

Among the many changes that The Phantom of the Opera went through was its score. For those of you who don't know, silent films did indeed have scores that would be played as live accompaniment whenever the film was shown. The score for the first previews of The Phantom of the Opera was composed by Joseph Carl Breil, who had scored D. W. Griffith's movies The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). This score is now lost. Gustav Hinrichs was to have composed the score for the premiere of the movie at the Astor Theatre in New York City, but he had not completed it yet at that time. Eugene Conte then composed the score for the New York City premiere. Fortunately, Gustav Hinrichs's score would be finished in time for the the movie's general release.

The Phantom of the Opera premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York City on September 6 1924. Its Hollywood premiere was on October 17 1925. It went into general release on November 15 1925. Surprisingly for what remains one of the few well known silent films, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) opened to decidedly mixed reviews. While Time magazine praised the film's sets, it only referred to the movie over all as "only pretty good." The New York Times praised The Phantom of the Opera as spectacle, but criticised both the script and the acting. Variety was critical of the film over all. That having been said, Lon Chaney was generally singled about for praise. Photoplay noted that "In spite of of the horror of his role, Lon Chaney, wins at time, sympathy."

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is often considered the most faithful of the film adaptations, but there are some significant differences between it and the novel. In the novel Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, was the son of a construction worker who was born with severe deformities. He ran away from home to work in carnivals and at fairs and travelled throughout Europe and Asia, eventually spending years in Persia and Turkey. When he returned to Paris he started a construction business and worked on the Palais Garnier. That is how he built his lair. In Phantom of the Opera (1925), Erik is a criminally insane escapee from Devil's Island skilled in the Dark Arts. In the novel Erik is portrayed with some sympathy and Christine has feelings for him even after he begins his reign of terror. In the movie, Erik would come off almost entirely as a villain if not for Lon Chaney's performance. Indeed, in the movie Christine eventually has no feelings or sympathy for Erik at all, despite the fact that as her Angel of Music he mentored her in operatic singing. Another difference is that a major character in the novel, the mysterious Persian, is made the French police detective Ledoux.

That having been said, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) does draw a good deal from the novel, so that ultimately it is more faithful to it than many more recent, more romantic versions. Lon Chaney's appearance as the Phantom is much as the Phantom's appearance is in the novel: skull-like with wisps of hair. The 1925 movie also features the horror inherent in the novel, something that is played down in many later versions. Like the novel The Phantom of the Opera (1925) has a good deal of violence.

Regardless of how loyal The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is to the original novel, it very much stands as a work of art of its own. While it might have received mixed reviews upon its initial release, it is now widely regarded as a classic. This comes down to two things. The first is the recreation of the Palais Garnier and its cellars that is still impressive to this day. Not only does Phantom of the Opera (1925) contain some of the most incredible sets of any silent movie, but of any movie ever made. It captures the feel of 1880s Paris very well. The second is Lon Chaney's performance as Erik, the Phantom of the Opera. Despite a screenplay that would lead one to think of the Phantom as a base villain, Lon Chaney endows the Phantom with a humanity that is absolutely haunting. While the screenplay reduced Erik to a criminally insane former inmate of Devil's Island, Lon Chaney makes him a tragic figure. The combination of the film's visuals and Lon Chaney's performance take The Phantom of the Opera (1925) beyond an expensive horror movie to a true work of cinematic art.

Despite mixed reviews, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) proved to be a hit at the box office. It would also prove successful upon its re-release in 1930. It would largely its success that would lead Universal to produce more horror movies. One of those horror movies, Dracula (1931), would spark an entire cycle of horror movies that would dominate the first half of the Thirties and in which nearly every major studio took part. In the end it remains one of the few well known movies from the Silent Era. Even people who have never even seen a silent movie are familiar with Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. Nearly 100 years after its release, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) remains one of the best remembered movies of all time.


Christian Esquevin said...

Great review Terence. This is indeed a real classic of the silent era. Lon Chaney was a master and the perfect choice for the Phantom as he was for so many of his roles.Thank you for providing so much of the back story and for selecting this for the Vive la France blogathon.

Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating history. It is incredible that with all of the revisions and different directors involved that the film was even completed. Lon Chaney's influence certainly went a long way. His talent was truly appreciated in his lifetime.

FlickChick said...

Wonderful post. It certainly is an unforgettable achievement. Lots of cooks in the kitchen in this one, but Chaney is just everything. Thank you for a well done and compelling post.

The Lady Eve said...

Exquisite in-depth history of this classic. It is one of the first silents I ever saw and Lon Chaney's performance is such tour de force that the memory of it is indelible. In my opinion it is Chaney that ensures The Phantom of the Opera's place in the pantheon of great films. I love film history and backstory, and so for me your piece is an absolute treasure trove. Thank you! And thanks for taking part in our blogathon.

Silver Screenings said...

I was surprised to read the New York Times didn't rave about the movie. Even though I haven't yet seen it in its entirety – only a few clips – it looks like an astonishing work. Now you've got me wanting to see it ASAP.