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.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Wizard of Oz and Its Impact on People

 (This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room)

This month sees the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz (1939). The first sneak preview of the film took place in San Bernardino, California on August 8 1939. More sneak previews took place on August 11 in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and on April 12 in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. The film had its Hollywood premiere at Grauman's Chinese on August 15 1939 and its New York City premiere at Loew's Capitol Theatre on August 17 1939. The Wizard of Oz would go into wide release on August 25 1939.

Since then it has become what many believe to be the most viewed film of all time. This should not be surprising at all. It is not a simple case that The Wizard of Oz has been re-released to theatres multiple times. The Wizard of Oz first aired on network television as the final instalment of Ford Star Jubilee on November 6 1956. Beginning in 1959 The Wizard of Oz would air annually on network television until 1996. Beginning in 2002 it would again air annually on The WB for the next four years. Since then it has aired on a regular basis on the cable channels Turner Classic Movies, TBS, and TNT. Chances are very good that The Wizard of Oz was the first classic movie ever seen by many younger Baby Boomers and the majority of Gen Xers and Gen Yers.

In my case, The Wizard of Oz was certainly the very first movie I ever saw that was considered a classic at the time. In fact, I saw it at such an early age that I cannot precisely remember when I first saw it. The first clear memory I have of watching The Wizard of Oz comes from when I was five years old. That having been said, I remember that at the time I was already somewhat familiar with the movie, which means I must have seen it before. Here I must point out that my earliest memories of The Wizard of Oz are entirely in black and white. Since we did not get a colour set until I was a teenager, I would not see it in colour the first many times I watched it! Regardless, I watched The Wizard of Oz annually throughout my childhood and throughout my teens. As an adult I would miss a few airings due to life and work, but I have probably seen the majority of them. I still watch it every single time it airs on TCM. It remains one of my favourite movies of all time and my favourite musical of all time.

Because I first saw The Wizard of Oz when I was very young and because I have seen it so many times, it is impossible for me to entirely assess the impact that the movie had upon me. I certainly believe my love for classic film stems from The Wizard of Oz. When I was very young I had no idea of when The Wizard of Oz was made until my mother told me. For all I knew it could have been made in the Fifties or Sixties. That having been said, becoming aware that The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939 opened me up to other, older films. Never mind that older films were regularly shown on local stations in the Seventies. It was perhaps because of The Wizard of Oz that I would actively seek them out. I spent more time as a lad watching classic movies on the weekends than I ever would sports.

Along with Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which was the first movie I can remember watching in its entirety, I think I can also credit The Wizard of Oz with spurring my interest in the fantasy genre. I have to think that it was because of The Wizard of Oz that I would not only read the works of L. Frank Baum, but also the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord Dunsany, Michael Moorcock, and others. To this day fantasy remains one of my favourite genres. If I am a Harry Potter fan, J. K. Rowling perhaps has The Wizard of Oz to blame.

Of course, I am not the only one upon whom The Wizard of Oz had an impact. It also had an impact on my late best friend Brian. Like me, The Wizard of Oz was the first classic film he could remember seeing. Unlike me, he only remembered seeing The Wizard of Oz in colour. Regardless, The Wizard of Oz spurred in Brian an interest in classic film and film in general. He knew far more about movies, both old and new, than I ever have. One difference between Brian and I is that it would also open him up to musicals right away. I have to confess that even though I now consider The Wizard of Oz the greatest musical of all time, I would consider musicals beneath a boy's dignity (the exception being The Wizard of Oz, of course) until my father convinced me to watch My Fair Lady (1964) when I was around ten. That having been said, Brian loved musicals from the very beginning, all because of The Wizard of Oz.

As big an impact as The Wizard of Oz had upon Brian and I, it would have an even bigger impact on someone very near and dear to my heart. Actress Vanessa Marquez was both my best friend and the one person I love more than anyone else in my life. She told me how she first saw The Wizard of Oz when she was only three or four years old and she decided right there and then that she wanted to be an actress. Her mother would later tell me how Vanessa, when she was all of seven years old, marched into the living room and announced, "I am going to be a movie star, just like Judy Garland!" Along with Star Wars (1977), The Wizard of Oz would remain Vanessa's favourite movie for the entirety of her life. Like Brian and I, it was the first classic movie she could ever remember seeing. And like Brian and I, it would spur an interest in classic movies that would last her entire life. I cannot say that Vanessa would not have become an actress had it not been for The Wizard of Oz, but it certainly provided much of the impetus for her doing so. It is largely because of The Wizard of Oz that we have her performances as Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver (1988) and as Nurse Wendy Goldman in ER. I think it is also entirely possible that I might never have met Vanessa if not for The Wizard of Oz. It spurred her interest in classic film and as a result she not only became an early fan of Turner Classic Movies, but, like me, one of the original members of #TCMParty, the group of TCM fans who live tweet movies on the channel using that hashtag. It was through #TCMParty and live tweeting Mad Men that I first got to know Vanessa. In that respect, I owe The Wizard of Oz more than I can ever repay.

I know for a fact that the impact that The Wizard of Oz had upon Brian, Vanessa, and I are not isolated cases. It seems to me that The Wizard of Oz was also the first classic movie ever seen by the majority of my fellow Turner Classic Movies fans. It also seems to me that in every single case it would spur an interest in classic movies that would last a lifetime. While one hears a lot about Gone with the Wind (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942), and other classics, it could well be that The Wizard of Oz has had a greater impact than any other classic movie ever made. It seems almost certain that it has been seen by more people than any other movie ever made.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Meet Me in St. Louis and TCM at the Tivoli Theatre on September 26

Every year TCM Backlot holds a "TCM in Your Hometown" contest in which TCM selects a city in which to hold an event. This year the winner was Lisa Buchhold, whose entry argued why TCM should hold an event in St. Louis. As a result on September 26 2019 Turner Classic Movies will hold a free screening of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) at the historic Tivoli Theatre in University City. There will also be a special introduction and Q&A session with actress Margaret O'Brien (who played Tootie in the movie) and TCM host Ben Makiewicz. I am hoping that I can attend, as this is the first time in my memory that Turner Classic Movies has been in my home state, not to mention my second favourite city in the world.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Buster Keaton in "Once Upon a Time" on The Twlight Zone

Buster Keaton and Gil Lamb in The Twilight
"Once Upon a Time"
Buster Keaton was one of the most successful and creative individuals in the film industry in the Twenties. From 1923 to 1929 he appeared in (and often directed as well) in some of the most inventive comedies of the era. Even when a particular movie was not a success at the box office (such as The General), they would come to be highly regarded in later years. Sadly, in 1928 Mr. Keaton would sign with MGM and give up his independence. It would be the beginning of a decline in his career and even his personal life that would last for years. Fortunately in 1949 Life magazine published the article "Comedy's Greatest Era" by film critic and journalist James Agee. In the article Mr. Agee ranked Buster Keaton alongside Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon as the greatest clowns of the Silent Era. The article is credited with reviving Buster Keaton's career.

Not only would Buster Keaton once more appear in films, but he would also appear on the new medium of television. Not only would Mr. Keaton appear in a diverse number of commercials for everything from Alka Selzer to Ford to Northwest Orient Airlines, but he guest starred on shows from The Donna Reed Show to Route 66. Among his best remembered guest appearances would be one on The Twilight Zone, "Once Upon a Time."

In "Once Upon a Time" Buster Keaton played Woodrow Mulligan, an old man who does not like what his hometown of Harmony, New York had become in 1890. The once tranquil town had become a noisy city with horse drawn carriages, bicycles, and cattle filling the streets and where prices are much too high. Woodrow goes to work as a janitor for the scientist Professor Gilbert (played Milton Parsons), who has invented a time helmet which allows the wearer to travel through time. Certain that the future must be better than 1890, Woodrow steals the time helmet and travels forward through time to 1962. Unfortunately, he finds 1962 to be even noisier and more expensive than 1890 was. Unfortunately, before he can return to his proper time, the time helmet is stolen and then damaged...

What sets "Once Upon a Time" apart from any other Twilight Zone episode (or episodes of other shows, for that matter) is that the sequences set in 1890 are done in the style of silent films, complete with title cards and saloon style piano accompaniment. Rod Serling's opening and closing narration is the only sound to be heard aside from the musical accompaniment. Borth the sequences set in 1890 and 1962 feature the sort of gags that made Buster Keaton a living legend.

"Once Upon a Time" was written by the legendary Richard Matheson, who wrote a total of 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone. Mr. Matheson was friends with author and screenwriter William R. Cox, who introduced him to Buster Keaton. After visiting Mr. Keaton several times in his home, Richard Matheson asked Buster Keaton if he would like to appear on The Twilight Zone and the comedy legend consented. "Once Upon a Time" was then written with Buster Keaton specifically in mind. The major difference between Richard Matheson's script and the finished episode is that in the original script in 1962 after the helmet is damaged Woodrow enters a supermarket where he causes a ruckus. In the finished episode, Woodrow enters a repair shop instead.

Rod Serling apparently realised they had something special in "Once Upon a Time." To direct the episode he got Norman Z. McLeod, who had directed such comedy classics as Horse Feathers (1932), Topper (1937), Road to Rio (1947), and The Paleface (1948). It was over a month after the episode had completed production that Les Goodwins was brought in to direct the sequence in the repair shop. Les Goodwin had begun his career in the Silent Era and had directed several "Mexican Spitfire" comedies. He would go uncredited in the episode.

While Richard Matheson's script is arguably stronger than the finished episode (in the original script the action is nearly non-stop), it is still one of the better episodes of The Twilight Zone and certainly one of the most memorable. It is true that this is not Buster Keaton in his prime. He is not as spry as he once was and he is clearly older. That having been said, Buster Keaton in his sixties is better than most actors and comedians in their twenties. He may not be the Buster Keaton who grabbed a speeding car in "Cops" or rode the cow catcher of a train in The General, but he is still Buster Keaton. There are several wonderful gags and bits throughout the episode, and the silent movie sequences in 1890 are magic. Certainly "Once Upon a Time" could have been better, but it is still one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone as it is.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Late Great Animator Richard Williams

Richard Williams, the animator who directed an Academy Award winning animated version of A Christmas Carol and served as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), died on August 16 2019 at the age of 86. The cause was cancer.

Richard Williams was born in Toronto, Ontario on March 19 1933. His mother, Kathleen "Kay" Bell, was an illustrator who had turned down a job with Disney. His father, Leslie Lane, was a painter who left the family when Richard Williams was still a baby. As a child he became fascinated by the animated films of Walt Disney.  When he was 15 he went to California to visit Walt Disney studio. As a publicity stunt the studio let him visit for two days before Disney art director Dick Kelsey told him to "learn how to draw." Due to his stepfather's connections in advertising, he was already making a living as a commercial artist when he was only 16. Richard Williams attended the Ontario College of Art.

For a time Mr. Williams lost interest in animation. After attending the Ontario College of Art he made a living as an illustrator and spent two years painting on the Spanish island of Ibiza. He once more became interested in animation in his early twenties. Disillusioned by the sentimentality of Disney's works, he moved to London. His first short, "The Little Island (1958)" was heavily influenced by the simpler style of UPA. It won the BAFTA award for Best Animated Film. The same year he made the short "The Wardrobe." Afterwards he began working for TV Cartoons (later renamed TVC London).

Richard Williams left TV Cartoons to begin his own company, Richard Williams Animated Films, Ltd. Through the company he would make his next short, "Love Me, Love Me, Love Me (1962)." He would also work extensively in creating title sequences for feature films. It was in 1964 that Richard Williams began work on The Thief and the Cobbler. The film took years, so that after twenty years of work Mr. Williams had only completed twenty minutes. In 1988 he secured a production deal with Warner Bros. Unfortunately Richard Williams lost control of the production and it would be completed without him. A version would be released as The Princess and the Cobbler in 1993. Another version would be released under the title Arabian Nights in 1995. A workprint would be screened in 2013, but ultimately The Thief and the Cobbler as Richard Williams envisioned it would remain unfinished.

He directed the TV special A Christmas Carol, which first aired on television in 1971. The special would later be released theatrically and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Given it first aired on television this caused considerable controversy in the industry and ultimately resulted in a change in the rules that disqualified animated works originally aired on television. Richard Williams would go onto direct the feature film Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) and the TV special Ziggy's Gift. He served as an animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, for which he won a Special Achievement Academy Award. He would later make the short "Prologue (2015)."

As mentioned earlier, Richard Williams also created title sequences for movies. Among the movies were What's New Pussycat? (1965), The Liquidator (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Sebastian (1968), Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968), 30 Is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia (1968), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Prudence and the Pill (1968), Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), Every Home Should Have One (1970), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976).

Richard Williams also taught master classes in animation and wrote the book The Animator’s Survival Kit.

Richard Williams was certainly a ground breaking animator, brining to animation a richness as never had been seen before. His 1971 TV special A Christmas Carol utilised pans and zooms and a visual style inspired by Victorian engravers. Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure blended animation and live action, and utilised a wide variety of animation styles. The uncompleted Thief and the Cobbler featured some of Richard Williams's most amazing animation, far surpassing the complexity of the average Disney feature. Not only could Richard Williams create dazzling animation, but he was versatile in a number of styles. "The Little Island" utilised a style close to that of UPA. A Christmas Carol had the look of illustrations from Victorian books. Quite naturally, for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Mr. Williams drew upon the styles of the American Golden Age of Animation. In the end, Richard Williams set the bar higher for every animator in his wake.