The Phantom of the Opera (1925): Classic Movie Review

The Phantom of the Opera (1925): Classic Movie ReviewThe Phantom of the Opera (1925): Classic Movie Review

What is the price of fame? According to this 1925 silent classic staring Lon Chaney a deal with the devil…no, no, no that’s Faust; I mean a creepy Phantom. Please excuse my mistake; it was an easy one to make seeing as the opera performed in this film is Faust. Coincidence? I think not.

Christine (Mary Philbin), the understudy to the prima donna, has a mysterious voice coach who first communicates to her through the walls and then later in a face-to-mask meeting that she will be the star of the show, but only if she gives everything up but him and the opera. No, she’s not a schizophrenic, just so hell-bent on being a diva that she’ll do just about anything to get ahead—think Mariah Carey in the Tommy Mottola years. He causes all kinds of mischief to ensure this—threatening notes to the lackluster prima donna and dropping a chandelier on the audience to end a performance. Christine’s very annoying boyfriend, Raoul (Norman Kerry), wants her to give it all up and marry him, and since she is starting to get weirded out by the Phantom she agrees. This makes the Phantom jealous and so he kidnaps Christine and takes her to his man-cave. Instead of seeing posters of his favorite team and his collection of shot glasses, she sees his hideous skullface. To emphasize how shocking his face was the camera actually went out of focus. Eventually, Christine is rescued and the Phantom is chased by an angry mob to his drowning death in the Seine.

This film is ultra-melodramatic, but it is watchable due to the creepiness of Lon Chaney’s Phantom and the great set designs. The underground tunnel scenes are the best, with the unmasking of the Phantom and Raoul’s near-death experience in a torture room where the heat is unbearable (see Hell and Faust), Personally, I wished he had used the provided noose. But I digress. Anyway, the music is eerie and Lon Chaney is stellar. A good watch in October.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.

  • Ron

    I prefer the Claude Rains version that had the ability to engender so much empathy for his character.  Also a very plausible storyline and nice score.

  • http://bitactors.blogspot.com/ Allen Hefner

    I understand that this was a terrifying movie in 1925. Taken in the context of the era, people would run, screaming, from the theater at the unmasking scene. The horror was built by leaving the face unseen so you can only see it in your imagination. Of course, Chaney’s own makeup was as important as any of the actors and actresses.

    Thanks for a great post, Kim. And the comparison to Faust is right on.

    • Kim Wilson

      Thanks, Allen!

  • Wayne P.

    The 1925 version of Gaston Leroux’s novel is certainly a more ‘faustian’ take on The Phantom of the Opera than the 1943 one, but neither hits the nail on the head like the several great movie re-tellings of the timeless tale of Faust, of which the “Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941) is my favorite, followed closely by the great F.W. Murnau silent from 1926 by the same name, ”Faust”!

  • Blair kramer

    The unmasking scene remains one of the greatest FRIGHTS in movies!  Lon Chaney was an incredible make-up artist.  His very unique and specific version of the Phantom remains an iconic piece of American pop culture.  Even to this day nearly 90 years later,  it is recognized and reproduced all over the world.  Children don’t know its origin or history,  but thousands of them continue to wear the Lon Chaney Phantom mask every Halloween!

  • Wayne P.

    Another interesting take on the story of Faust can be found in the 1926 silent film “The Student of Prague”, starring Conrad Veidt…its another fine example of German expressionist film making at its best!

  • Frank1168

    Lon Chaney, sr., the greatest actor, of all time. Too bad, his son, Lon, Jr., is only remembered as Larry Talbot.

    • Blair kramer

      At least he’s remembered for SOMETHING!  That’s more than most people ever get!

      • Frank1168

        I guess, but Wolfman??

        • Scribe_well

          He’s also fondly remembered as Lenny in 1939′s OF MICE AND MEN and turned in fine dramatic performances in small parts in HIGH NOON and THE DEFIANT ONES…

  • Mary

    Just watched it last night on TCM.  I love the way they partially colorized it, especially capturing the Phantom’s red cloak. 

    • Scribe_well

      The masque scene wasn’t colorized.  That’s actual color footage from the original release.

  • ashley willian

    Lon Chaney, sr., the greatest actor, of all time bad, his son, is alxo good but not like Lon Chaney,  

  • Christinekay

    I have a copy on this on DVD and watched it quite a few times – one of the truly great horror films, not just of the silent era, but of all time.  It’s notable not just for its horror content, but the art direction too really added to the atmosphere.  My own favourite scene isn’t the unmasking, notable as it is, but the Masked Ball which was done in colour, as has already been noted on this board.  There is something about this scene, so macabre and yet so attractive, that never fails to hit the mark with me.  You really get a sense of something evil and threatening amongst the revellers when Chaney descends the stairs … and yet you can’t turn away from him.  All the CGI technology we have now (and remember, the film is nearly ninety years old) could never beat the film crew who worked on the silent version.

  • Ketch

    My grandmother played the piano during showings of silent movies.   She would often tell us the story of how she slid right off the piano bench upon seeing the Phantom’s (Lon Chaney, Sr.) face when Christine (Mary Philbin) yanked off his mask.  Upon finding herself on the floor, my Nana immediately scrambled up and resumed playing.  My Nana would always laugh, that even her fiance’ (who was the theater manager and was always chastising her for losing track of the music during Valentino movies) never even noticed the music had stopped entirely…..and seemingly had anyone else.  BTW, the theater mgr. was my grandpa. 

  • williamsommerwerck

    Technically, there are two versions of the Lon Chaney film, the original and the later “sound” version. I prefer the latter, partly because it removes a number of “unnecessary” scenes, and the existing prints are in much better condition.

    I remember seeing the unmasking of the Phantom as a child, and nearly hit the ceiling. It’s a beautifully constructed scene, with Christine’s reaction coming //after// the audience’s.