Ah, 2019’s next-to-last Shamedown. And another silent movie, but I’m not complaining. I like silent movies, and it is Lon Chaney, after all. If anyone would like to know what this Shamedown business is all about , please visit Cinema Shame. And now on with the show…
Lots of people remember Lon Chaney, the Man of A Thousand Faces, playing Erik in the 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera. The big face reveal always pops up in horror documentaries and Chaney retrospectives, and I’ve always been curious about the film. And…it was both everything and nothing I was expecting.
The film opens on a dark tunnel, where a petrified guy in a fez hat stands holding a giant lantern and trembling while a mysterious shaded figure creeps past. Then it cuts to the Paris Opera House, which was built on top of it and where a ballet is taking place. Meanwhile, in an office, the old owners of the theatre are signing the papers transferring the deed to the new owners. Everyone seems happy about the new arrangement, until the old owners mention the theater’s resident Phantom.
The two suits laugh it off, thinking they’re being joshed, but as they walk around the theater, every shape in every box starts looking like the Phantom. They finally decide to just chill, but of course that’s not the end. After that night’s performance, the ballerinas debate over whether or not the Phantom has a nose and join the stagehands in speculating about the fez hat guy in the basement being the mysterious spectral being.
As often happens in show business, egos abound. The mother of one of the opera singers, Carlotta (Mary Fabian), sweeps into the management office with a threatening note someone has sent her daughter a note warning her to call in sick for that night’s performance of Faust, or else. Mom is highly affronted and sweeps out declaring that her daughter will indeed sing the role of Marguerite.
Yeah, no, she doesn’t. Her understudy, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) goes on in her place, and the curtain comes down to rapturous applause. Christine’s been preparing for this night; apparently she has an unseen voice coach who has told her she’s going to be a star. The mysterious voice has also told her she has to forget everything else, including her boyfriend, Raoul (Norman Kerry). After the performance, she sends Raoul away. Raoul does strange things with his eyes in the hallway while listening to Christine talk to a mysterious voice.
Weird things start happening at the opera. During the next performance, a mysterious figure is seated in Box Five, but when the managers go to talk to them, the box is empty. Raoul is also in the audience, and when he goes backstage to see Christine, she’s too busy listening to the Phantom to notice. Also, Joseph, the brother of a stagehand, Simon Buquet (Gibson Gowland) is found dead.
We haven’t heard the last of Carlotta’s mother, either, who sails in with another threatening letter warning her that the theater will be cursed if Carlotta performs Faust. Mom and Carlotta throw caution to the wind this time, though, and Carlotta is back onstage.
On a side note, it’s sort of odd watching opera protrayed in a silent film. For all we know, Carlotta could be crooning “I Am the Very Model of A Modern Major General.”
Anyway, Carlotta finishes up what I believe is “The Jewel Song” just as a chandelier falls on her, throwing the theater into chaos. Christine is carried off by the Phantom, who spirits her away to a bedroom he’s prepared for her in the fifth level of the sub-basement. Christine wakes up the next morning and looks around in bewilderment at the shoes and clothes the Phantom has picked out for her. He tells her everything will be all right if she doesn’t know what he looks like, but Christine’s curiosity gets the better of her and she pulls off his mask.
The local papers are bewildered that Christine has disappeared, and Raoul is frantic. Meanwhile, Christine begs to be allowed to return to her world, and the Phantom relents, as long as she doesn’t see Raoul. Our heroine doesn’t listen, though, and meets Raoul at a masked ball, where they make plans to escape to England after her next performance of Faust. Erik, who has swept into the ball looking like the Red Death, overhears everything and promises to foil their plans.
It all gets crazy. Erik spirits Christine away again. Raoul teams up with the the guy in the fez, who turns out to be an inspector, Ledoux, who’s been secretly tracking Erik. There are torches and villagers looking to take down the Phantom. There are also secret doors and passageways, as well as booby-traps switched on via insect-shaped levers. Yeah, it’s weird.
I don’t know what I was expecting with Phantom, except that I thought it would be scarier. Instead, I was laughing where I shouldn’t have been, which was odd considering what a classic the film is. It’s just that except for Chaney, the acting is so hammy in this film. I know a lot of classic French literature tends to be dramatic, but this seems over the top. A lot of reviews from the time had a “meh” reaction–Variety said it “makes welsh rarebit look foolish as a sleep destroyer.”
In its defense, the movie isn’t that weak. Apparently, Universal kept Chaney’s look in the film secret until it was released, and the audience reaction was huge. In the ensuing years I think it’s lost some of its punch, though, because, as Fritzi at Movies Silently has said, Chaney in his Phantom makeup is now a famous sight, but oh well. The man was a genius, although he doesn’t have much to do but lurk in the shadows and loom over Christine.
The film has had far-reaching effects beyond its influence on the horror genre. It made a solid star out of Lon Chaney, and the Paris Opera set existed until 2014, when it was demolished. The rumor is that Universal has preserved the set somewhere, but there’s no confirmation of that.
The Phantom of the Opera has a lot of good points and deserves to be in the horror canon. It still succeeds almost a century after its release, and its strength lies in the way the film leads the viewer along like the seductive, crafty Erik, ready to pounce when the opportunity strikes. In spite of my chuckles, I enjoyed it and would absolutely watch it again.
Coming up in December:
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Can you believe it’s almost December? Yikes, this year has gone by fast. Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers and I hope everyone has a great last few days of November! Thanks for reading, all. More stuff is on the way next week…