The Phantom of the Opera (1925) remains a beloved classic of silent cinema. However, even its most devoted fans admit that the film is deeply flawed. Gorgeous sets and costumes are undermined by lackluster direction. Lon Chaney’s performance has to make up for the dreadful acting of his co-stars. At yet, these pluses continue to overwhelm the minuses of this unique production.
The film is often classified as horror but that’s not truly accurate. The movie horror genre was still very young and no one was sure how far they could go. In fact, The Phantom was pulled back for tinkering after its premiere. Why? Universal was dismayed to discover that audiences found it scary and suspenseful. (Gadzooks! Whatever shall we do?)
When the film was re-released with its toned-down terror, it eventually became a hit and cemented Lon Chaney’s claim to stardom.
Nowadays, people are more likely to think of The Phantom as a stage musical, but Chaney’s makeup remains iconic, often cited as an example of the crazy lengths that he went to for realism. In fact, Chaney’s makeup used very normal techniques and its success is more due to careful planning than masochism. More on that in a bit…
For those of you who would like a refresher, here is a quick rundown of the plot:
The Paris Opera has a resident phantom. He demands tribute in the form of his own private box for every performance. When crossed, he tends to leave a trail of strangled bodies. Meanwhile, Raoul (Norman Kerry) is a nobleman who has just been dumped by his love, Christine (Mary Philbin). It seems that she has a spectral music teacher who promises to make her the prima donna of the opera.
It turns out that her music teacher is the masked Erik (Lon Chaney), aka The Phantom of the Opera. He takes her to his underground lair, confesses his love and proposes. Christine cannot resist the temptation and unmasks him. We all know how well that goes (not very).
The terrified Christine rushes back to Raoul but before they can run away together, Erik kidnaps her. Raoul attempts a rescue, assisted by a mysterious secret policeman (Arthur Edmund Carewe), but soon falls into one of Erik’s traps. An angry mob saves the day. They pursue Erik through Paris and finally tear him to pieces.
This sort of monster-with-unrequited-love narrative would become Chaney’s bread and butter once he signed on with MGM. Speaking of MGM…
Thalberg, von Stroheim and the Phantom
Two of the men who had enormous influence on The Phantom of the Opera were no longer at Universal when it entered production. Irving Thalberg and Erich von Stroheim were both powerful figures at the studio. Thalberg basically ran the show while von Stroheim made pricy but popular tales of European decadence and was the artiste in residence. You know, he classed up the joint.
Thalberg had an eye for talent and he recognized that Lon Chaney had something special. Chaney had had several breakout roles (1919’s The Miracle Man, The Penalty in 1920) but no one seemed to understand how to harness his talents. Chaney did not have leading man looks. His tastes were downright morbid. He was an actor’s actor but also a demanding perfectionist. His career up to this point had him seesawing between leading roles and supporting character parts.
When he was at Universal, it had been Thalberg who allowed Chaney to ascend from mere popularity to major stardom with the 1923 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Chaney had been struggling in the lower ranks for years and had developed a wariness toward the front office but he liked and trusted Thalberg.
Depending on which version of events you believe, either Thalberg obtained the Phantom rights for Chaney while he was still with Universal or Chaney sought them out himself when he was negotiating a one-off performance for the studio. It was one of several stories being considered to make the most of Chaney’s makeup skills and acting ability.
This is where Erich von Stroheim enters the tale.
Erich von Stroheim’s films made a fortune but they cost a fortune. Some of this was due to lavish subject matter and some was due to inefficient shooting methods. It was a case of business vs. art and, while Irving Thalberg was a proponent of artistic films, he was not about to see cash thrown down another von Stroheim money pit.
With von Stroheim’s latest picture heading toward new heights of expense, Thalberg took action and fired the director. The movie, entitled Merry-Go-Round, was completed by Rupert Julian, whose previous career high point had been directing and starring in the vile propaganda picture The Kaiser: Beast of Berlin.
With Merry-Go-Round completed generally on budget, Julian was seen as a savior. According to Carl Laemmle, Jr., when it came time to decide on the new Chaney picture, Julian suggested that the rework the Austrian costumes and props from Merry-Go-Round to make them French. With this money-saving suggestion, Julian inherited the plum assignment of directing The Phantom of the Opera.
Along with the sets and costumes, Phantom also borrowed the leading man and lady of Merry-Go-Round. Mary Philbin was a friend of the Laemmle family and had been specially chosen by von Stroheim for her part.
Mary Philbin was a lovely woman and had a sweet nature by all accounts but she was no natural actress. To put it bluntly, she was terrible in almost everything she appeared in. It didn’t help that her first mentor, von Stroheim, did not use orthodox methods in his filmmaking. He shot in sequence (instead of shooting all the scenes for one location at once) and he micromanaged his performers to the nth degree. Mary Philbin came into Phantom untrained and unprepared and without any natural talent to fall back on.
Norman Kerry had been the leading man in Merry-Go-Round. He came from an affluent family and movies were just a hobby. It showed. I have heard conflicting reports about his relationship with the very serious Chaney. Some sources state that they hated one another. Others say that Chaney wasn’t nuts about Kerry’s lazy work ethic but he respected his honesty. (“It was either this or go to work!”)
If Chaney really hated Kerry, I am inclined to think he would have vetoed him as the romantic lead of 1927’s The Unknown, made when Chaney was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and surely would have had veto power. Because of this, I think I believe the grudging respect version of the story.
Kerry was no Barrymore but he managed to maintain his popularity as a second-tier leading man through most of the silent era. Mary Philbin had an awful time with him as he had a tendency to get, shall we say, imaginative with where he put his hands during their love scenes. Philbin later recalled a particular time when his hand went astray once too often and so she grabbed it and held on: “I remember Norman Kerry very well. He was very naughty, on screen and off, but he was a very handsome and charming man despite his roving hands… They did the scene (at the top of the opera house) several times and he always found a new place to hold me. I could not react to this on camera and though he was a rascal, he was very proper in a way. I finally had to take his hand and hold onto it to prevent it from wandering.”
I am always happy when I discover these scenes to be exactly as the performer described. It definitely gives their creditability a boost, doesn’t it?
(Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Mary Philbin were both interviewed by Philip J. Riley for his book on the history of The Phantom of the Opera. Philbin was famously shy with her reminisces but became friends with Riley after helping him find his lost dog.)
And so, armed with a groping leading man, a woefully underqualified leading lady, an incompetent director and one of the best actors in motion pictures, The Phantom of the Opera was on its way to being made.
He won’t be happy until someone chops off his arm
There are a lot of conflicting stories as to who obtained the rights to the novel, just how Lon Chaney did his makeup and how everyone was cast. There is, however, one thing that every single person involved with the film seems to have agreed on: They hated Rupert Julian. What’s more, they thought he was a hack.
Julian was known to be a bully and a braggart. Whether he picked up his cartoon Prussian mannerisms from pretending to be the Kaiser or he was trying to be the successor to von Stroheim, he was easily the least popular man on the set.
According to cinematographer Charles Van Enger, Julian lacked even the basic grasp of his craft. Michael Blake makes a compelling case against the director by pointing out all the opportunities for suspense and excitement that Julian squandered. Lon Chaney reportedly despised him and directed himself and Mary Philbin in their major scenes. (No absolute evidence of this but it is likely given Chaney’s intense perfectionism.)
I tend to cut Philbin a little slack in this film. She had Kerry pawing her on one side and she also had to deal with Rupert Julian’s nonsense. Philbin looked like she would blow away in a stiff breeze and so she was padded up to more womanly proportions. According to Van Enger, Julian took every opportunity, ahem, adjust her padding. Nudge nudge. However, I do groan internally every time she starts “acting” as she fulfills every negative cliché about silent films with her fluttering eyelash and weird mannerisms.
Van Enger later recalled that he simply started agreeing to whatever crazy thing Julian demanded and then would do things the right way. Julian never knew the difference. According to Van Enger’s account, all the best scenes in the film were either the work of Chaney or the assistant director. The scenes that meander or fail? Julian’s fingerprints are all over them.
At this point, it was abundantly clear that Julian had no business going within a hundred feet of such a major undertaking. Thalberg’s guidance was sorely missed at Universal but they had tens of thousands of dollars tied up in sets, costumes and salaries. And so The Phantom marched on.
Makeup myths and real performances
Lon Chaney was responsible for designing his own makeup. Like anyone practicing the art of illusion, he guarded his secrets closely. He also realized that the unmasking was the critical point of the film. The impact could not be dulled. In order to ensure that his appearance would shock, he refused to allow any photographs of the makeup to be released in advance.
The Phantom is Chaney’s most famous creation and just about every makeup trick has been named as the secret ingredient. I have heard tales of pins shoved up his nose (seriously, how?) and discs into his cheeks. In fact, it is pretty obvious that Chaney was able to achieve most of the Phantom’s signature look with putty, careful shading and well-planned costuming. Taped-back ears, suitably nasty false teeth and a skullcap completed the look.
The nose remains a mystery, it seems. Let’s discount the pins, shall we? Because, you know, putting pins up your nose tends to be lethal. The two most common theories I have seen involve either pulling the nose back with some sort of adhesive tape or pulling it back with hooked wires. It’s also possible that Chaney used a combination of these techniques.
In the end, though, the hows of the makeup are less important than what was going on underneath.
Here’s the thing about Chaney that you only realize after seeing his work: The man could act. He was one of the finest actors in Hollywood and it had nothing to do with makeup. Some of his most frightening roles and most acclaimed performances actually used minimal makeup. (West of Zanzibar and Tell it to the Marines come to mind.)
While Chaney’s Phantom makeup was certainly elaborate, it was just one aspect of his performance. He was shown in shadow for the first half of the film and his unmasking takes place at almost exactly the halfway mark. And yet, Chaney had already gone a long way in establishing Erik’s personality.
Erik relishes theatricality and he knows it. He loves setting his own stage and creating drama. He prefers to have an audience but it doesn’t really make a difference. He is always “on” whether the audience is Christine, a violent mob or no one at all.
We only see his hand when he slips a threatening letter to the opera management but he makes the most of it. Just toss in the letter? Oh no. The letter is flicked onto the desk and then the hand withdraws with a little abracadabra gesticulation thrown in for good measure. Who is the audience? The one in his head.
While the ending was a compromise (more on that in a bit), Chaney keeps in character. Erik is surrounded by an angry mob, torches and all. He reaches into his coat and pulls out… Is that a bomb? No one knows. The crowd backs away. Then Erik opens his hand. It’s empty. He made his audience react one last time. Reportedly, Chaney did not like this ending, preferring the one in which the Phantom dies of shock when Christine kisses him. No footage from this version exists.
Erik knows that he is not right in the head. I think it’s pretty clear that he enjoys his madness. What he does not enjoy is his physical ugliness. Not only does it keep him from Christine’s love, or what he supposes to be her love, but it also prevents him from using his musical genius to move a larger audience to euphoria. Terror? He can do that a million ways. Adoration is what he cannot achieve.
We have a character to who hates people but he needs them. His self-worth is tied up in making people jump, controlling their reactions. Even his love for Christine is based on manipulation. He presents himself to the naïve girl as an angel of music. However, he ends up falling into his own trap for he believes that he can win her love if he can just create the perfect circumstances.
Christine’s premature unmasking dashes all his hopes. The moment she removes his mask, he knows that he has lost. However, his first reaction is that of a performer. He rises, whirls around and advances. He holds Christine’s head so that she cannot look away. He laughs in her face. His second reaction is that of regret for his lost chance but it comes after
Chaney could very easily have opted for straightforward villainy. Instead, he seeds his performance with tiny details that help create a more three-dimensional character. Erik is the bad guy, twisted from years of scorn and torture. However, he is also still a human being.
We can never go back
Chaney stipulated that his Phantom makeup be concealed before the film opened. He wanted maximum impact. This was a wise decision (and one of the first cases of this Hitchcockian mind trick) as it gave the unmasking scene maximum oomph.
The problem? Chaney’s makeup is now famous. A good number of classic movie buff cut their teeth on movie monster books prominently featuring Chaney’s Phantom gear. This whets everyone’s appetite for the film, but it also dulls the impact of the reveal.
In short, more than any other silent film, we will not be able to experience it as the original audience did. Unless we live in a cave, we probably know what’s coming. We can never go back.
On the subject of the unmasking, let me address a backstage story that seems to be making the rounds. In her reminisces, Mary Philbin stated that she was afraid of everything: the boat, the horse, the sets. Chaney talked her through these scenes. She stated that Chaney had not prepared her for his appearance at the time of the unmasking and it gave her a shock when she finally saw it.
So far so good. Charles Van Enger then states that Chaney directed the unmasking scene behind Rupert Julian’s back and in order to get the most terrified reaction shot out of Philbin, he stood just outside the frame and unleashed a barrage of verbal abuse. The terrified actress responded in terror and that is the reaction that made it onto the screen. After he got the shot he wanted, Chaney apologized.
It is possible that Chaney tried to scare a performance out of Philbin by hurling abuse her way (though she herself makes no mention of this) and everyone agreed that not much acting was required when he was in full Phantom gear. However, the story just seems a tad pat to me.
The unmasking scene is comprised of multiple shots and would have required numerous takes. I am not sure that Philbin could have kept up her hysteria for that amount of time, especially after receiving an apology. I think it far more likely that the timid Miss Philbin was terrorized by Chaney’s full throttle performance, which is in line with her side of the story.
1925 and 1929
Here’s an interesting tidbit: The Phantom of the Opera, at least the version most commonly shown, is not a silent film. That’s right. You are in fact watching a sound re-release of a silent film. And this is where things get sticky.
I mentioned before that the film was pulled back for retinkering after its premier. Reels and reels of footage were cut, new scenes were shot, it was a mess. The original original version of the film is surely lost, only stills remain of the scenes that were cut. (This review is long enough so I am not going into massive detail. If you want to full scoop, plus stills, check out Philip J. Riley’s massive tome on the film.)
When people talk about the “original” cut of The Phantom, they are talking about the version that finally was presented after retitling, reshooting, re-retitling, more shooting, cuts, cuts, cuts. When sound came to Hollywood a few years after the film’s success, it made sense to make some more coin from this popular property.
Chaney was under contract for MGM, but Mary Philbin and Arthur Edmund Carewe were still with Universal. The movie was cut yet again, a few roles were recast, the silent sequences were retitled and some scenes were reordered. There were also additional song and dance numbers, intended to bank on the novelty of sound.
At the time, movie soundtracks were recorded on separate discs and much of this material is lost or at least uncatalogued. So, revivals of The Phantom generally used the reissue print with live or rerecorded scores.
The 1925 release print has survived but in poor shape. For this reason, the 1929 version is what you are most likely to see.
So, which one is better? Let’s take a look. Here are some of the main differences between the 1925 and 1929 versions of the film:
Raoul and Christine’s Romance
The single biggest difference between the versions is the amount of time spent on Raoul and Christine’s romance. We are shown that they are lovers and then Christine begins to draw away from him. She says that she must give herself to music. She has a teacher, an angel of music, and she must give up earthly love. Raoul smells a rat and decides to investigate.
Raoul and Christine are the weak spots in the film but the additional footage did help improve the story. In the 1929 cut, we are shown Raoul hanging outside Christine’s dressing room. He is jealous but as no real romance has been established, he seems to be strangely possessive.
In contrast, the 1925 version makes it clear that they are longtime lovers, everything was going well but then Christine abruptly dumps Raoul and gives a bizarre explanation. Any normal person would consider this suspicious and worthy of investigation. Raoul’s behavior becomes completely understandable.
There are more dibs and dabs of Raoul and Christine but most of the footage is loaded into the first act. Finally, while the 1929 version ends with the Phantom’s death at the hands of the mob, the 1925 version ends with a clutch between Raoul and Christine. Not a fan of this.
Okay, who moved the body?
One of the true horror elements of Phantom was the murder of the stagehand, Joseph. His hanged corpse is discovered by Snitz Edwards’ ‘fraidy cat character. In the more familiar 1929 version, the body is discovered just before Erik kidnaps Christine and kicks off the finale. In the 1925 version, the murder occurs in the first act, before Christine meets Erik in the flesh.
This move makes two major changes to the story. First, it makes the angry mob hunting down the Phantom into a more spur-of-the-moment event rather than simmering rage at one murder too many. Now Joseph’s brother has the entire middle of the film to work up his fellow citizens and convince them to seek out the killer. This also makes it more apparent that the Phantom is not easy to find. With the murder happening so near the climax in the 1929 version, it makes tracking Erik look like a piece of cake.
Second, it subtly alters Erik’s character. If the murder occurs after Christine’s betrayal, it could be seen as the work of a wounded animal pushed to the brink. However, with the murder happening even before Christine’s rejection of Erik, it makes it clear that he was a homicidal maniac from the very beginning. This is important for the film’s suspense as no one has been taking the Phantom or the “angel of music” very seriously up to this point. The only people who seem scared of him are the ballerinas and Snitz Edwards.
A hanging corpse? Yeah, that makes the audience sit up and pay attention.
Which version do I prefer? It’s a tough call. The 1929 version has better prints and better scores but I do think the 1925 version has better flow and character development. Both versions are flawed but the original (original-ish?) cut makes a lot more sense.
Why is this the one we remember?
I can’t pretend to speak for every fan but I think that the successful elements of the film are so memorable that they drive out the duds. Sure, Kerry and Philbin are dull and painful in most of their scenes. Chaney makes up for that. Sure, the direction is staid but the set design is incredible and that is what we remember.
Yes, this film could have benefited from Irving Thalberg’s guidance and a top level director at the helm. It could have been a masterpiece. Yet there are hundreds of masterpieces that lie in vaults unseen and forgotten. The Phantom may be flawed but it has flair. In the end, I guess that’s what matters.
Fritzi Kramer lives in California and blogs about silent movies at MoviesSilently.com. She specializes in detailed film discussions, silent movie myth-busting, video reviews and zany GIFs.