Today is Valentine’s Day, which happens to land on a Thursday this year. Thus, it is time for another article in our weekly Breening Thursday series. In honor of today’s romantic holiday, I am going to breen the first major film version of one of the most famous and iconic romance stories of the 20th century, The Phantom of the Opera. It’s true that this tale, which was originally brought to the world by Gaston Leroux as Le Fantome de l’Opera when it was serialized from September of 1909 through January of 1910, is not your average story of hearts and flowers. However, the epic drama of unrequited love has become an iconic romance both in its own identity and through the numerous famous adaptions. The 1943 version of the story, Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains, Nelson Eddy, and Susanna Foster, is one of our favorite films. However, we decided to watch its silent predecessor, the Lon Chaney horror classic from 1925, so that I could breen it today. At last we have seen one of the most famous film adaptions of this immortal story, about which we had heard so much!
We watched this movie for free on Amazon Video with our Prime account. The Phantom of the Opera is the fourth silent film we have watched in its entirety. I don’t think that what we saw was the original 1925 version. I have done some research since then, and I realize that the version we saw contained at least one inclusion from the 1929 re-release, namely, a scene in which opera singer Mary Fabian sings the role of Marguerite in a production of Faust. It seems that, in this release, the woman who played Carlotta, Virginia Pearson, was credited as Carlotta’s mother instead, while a real opera singer was inserted in the role of the diva. This re-release had some sound sequences, but the version we saw was entirely silent with a soundtrack of three songs on a constant loop. I am going to breen the film just as I saw it, despite the possibility that there may be some things which were not included in this version. I hope that I will eventually be able to see the most accurate copy of the original release version. If I discover at that point that I missed some things in my breening, I will publish a new article for the original version!
Everyone probably knows the story of The Phantom of the Opera in some form, but every adaption is different. This first major film version remains the closest to the novel’s plot of any well-known adaption. While there are some changes and eliminations along the way, the basic plot adheres very closely to Monsieur Leroux’s original story. Erik (Lon Chaney) is the Phantom of the Opera, a deformed musical genius who lives in the cellars beneath the Paris Opera House because society will not accept a man with a face as horrible as his. Although no background information is given about him, he must be deformed from birth, since no accident could disfigure the face so badly. He loves Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), a beautiful young soprano in the chorus whom he has been giving voice lessons through the walls as an unidentified voice. He hates her love for a nobleman, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). The Phantom will stop at nothing to get Christine the roles in the opera company which he wants her to have. However, in her he also sees his last chance to get the love which he has been denied his whole life. As a silent film, this movie has less focus on music than the novel does. In its place, it focuses more on the mysterious, suspenseful, and horrific elements of the story. If you are unfamiliar with the rest of the story, you will have to watch the movie for yourself. It is now time for me to mention the Code violations of the first silent film which we have ever breened! Now, with no further ado, let the breening begin!
One of the first things you see in this movie is the ballerinas of the Paris Opera Ballet. They are first seen performing, and then they are gathered backstage, gossiping about the mysterious Phantom of the Opera with sceneshifter Florine Papillon (Snitz Edwards). Ballerinas are an integral element in the novel, so they have been included in most adaptions of the story. I found the ballerinas in this movie to be charming and extremely realistic. Their costumes were beautifully accurate, complete with longer tutus and modesty panties underneath. Their pointe shoes looked less stable than modern ones, and their extension was lower, in accordance with 1880s balletic style. Backstage, the ballerinas display a mixture of horror, fright, and glee as they listen to the chilling tales of the opera house’s Phantom. One of the girls displays her fear by grasping her skirt and lifting it up, revealing her modesty panties. I don’t think that is decent. It’s true that we saw the girls’ panties during the dancing, since the undergarment was designed for the sole purpose of preserving ballerinas’ decency when their skirts flew up because of their movement. What is indecent is the fact that she is pulling up her skirt. This is the Victorian Era, a time during which the idea of a lady pulling up her skirt was scandalous. The ballerinas should express their horror and fright without pulling up their skirts.
In that same scene, a few ballerinas lean over so that their chests are indecently exposed. In accordance with 1880s style, the ballerinas in this movie are more voluptuous than modern ballerinas. Because of this, it is easy for their chests to be revealed too much by certain positions. It should be ensured that the ballerinas do not lean forward enough to indecently expose their figures. The necklines should be raised slightly to achieve this.
One of the most famous elements in this story is the scene when the Phantom drops the chandelier during an opera performance. This scene is prominently featured in the 1925 film, complete with a chandelier which is practically identical to the real fixture at the Palais Garnier. When the chandelier falls directly on the audience, it isn’t clearly shown to fall on anyone. However, as the crowds rush toward the exits in a frenzy to escape the theatre, one woman is seen falling to the ground, and others run over her. I know that trampling is a danger of mobs. However, it is very violent to actually depict that in a film. Chaotic crowds can be shown, but no one should be trampled.
Eventually, the Phantom brings Christine down to his subterranean lair, which is an inevitable and very important part of the story. No matter how long or short it is, the time in the lair must be included to develop the character of the Phantom and explore his relationship with Christine. Erik explains to his captive why he brought her down to live with him. Although he gives no definite explanation for why he loves her in particular, there is a title card in which he says he was “aroused by her purity.” At first thought, this is a contradiction. Aren’t men usually aroused by women’s looseness, not their purity? However, upon closer inspection, there is a rather risqué meaning to this line. Some men, often older men, are attracted to young, untouched women in a rather impure way. I don’t think that that is the way that this Phantom feels toward Christine. The Erik of the novel certainly doesn’t feel that way! I don’t think that this story was played that way, but the title card could be misleading. Instead, it should read something like, “charmed by your purity.”
A climactic scene in this film is the Bal Masque, which was shot in color. I was very impressed by this color, which is the first I have seen in a 1920s film. Up to this point, the costumes were very historically accurate. However, in this scene, the costumer completely abandoned realism. The filmmakers probably thought that a hodgepodge of costumes would be appropriate in this scene, since it is a costume party. That’s true, but it does not permit the inclusion of 1920s-style wardrobe! The costumes really run amuck in this scene, as at least half the women are wearing flapper dresses, bathing suits, and other short skirts which wouldn’t even be considered for a few decades in the time of this film’s setting. This historical inaccuracy provided an excellent opportunity for the inclusion of many indecent costumes. The incidental women in the scene have bare legs, low necklines, and short skirts. In this scene, the party guests should all be wearing decent costumes from time periods in or before the later 19th century.
After the Phantom makes his dramatic entrance into the ballroom as the Red Death, Christine and Raoul escape to the roof to have a private tete-a-tete. Erik follows them and overhears their conversation from his hiding place behind a huge statue which is above them. When he leaves, he passes a large female statue, which is nude. The statue should be properly dressed.
Later, Raoul visits Christine in her dressing room on the night when he plans to take her away from the Paris Opera to London, out of the Phantom’s clutches. She is crying because she knows that Erik has discovered their plans. Raoul dries her tears with his handkerchief and kisses the wet marks on the cloth many times. I know this is supposed to be romantic, but I find it to be rather disgusting. Norman Kerry did it as though he were attempting to drink her tears. He should dry her tears with the handkerchief and then kiss her cheeks, but he shouldn’t kiss the tears off the handkerchief.
One of the most unpopular things about this film is its ending. In the original novel, Erik finally shows his noble spirit by releasing Christine and sending her away with Raoul. Then, he dies of love because Christine shared his misery and showed him the only love he ever knew in his life by offering to be his living bride. This is a beautiful and noble ending which has never really been captured in any well-known adaption. In the 1925 film, the Phantom brings Christine to a carriage and drives away with her like a madman, looking positively demonic. Finally, the carriage crashes, and Erik runs away on foot, being hotly pursued by an angry mob which is led by the brother of a man he murdered. The mob eventually chases him down some stairs toward the river. They surround him, and we see several people raising their weapons as though to severely wound him. We don’t actually see the Phantom being beaten and stabbed, but we know it is happening. Then, he is thrown in the river, leaving only a trail of bubbles. Many fans (or should I say phans?) of this film dislike this violent and unsympathetic ending. Instead of dying romantically like a martyr for love and music, he is brutally chased in the streets and killed like a common criminal. I understand that the film originally ended with the Phantom’s dying at his organ. I don’t know why that idea was scrapped in favor of the brutal ending in the streets. I think that the mob ending in the street is too brutal and violent. Also, it destroys the beautiful tragedy which had been created in the rest of the film. I think that the original ending should have been used, which was much more like the novel. Follow this link to see a series of photographs of cut scenes from this film, including several from the original ending. Many people said in the comments that the morality which bore the Hays Code caused the change in the ending, but I disagree. I think that the original would have been more Code-compliant, as long as the Phantom’s eyes are closed after his death.
I was pleasantly surprised by how little violence there was in this film. The two murders were handled very delicately, so much so that breening does not require greater subtlety. I think that this great control on the part of the filmmakers is easily explained. The original film was much longer and more intense. However, preview audiences found the film to be too horrific, so 60% of the original footage was removed for the film’s release. What remains is a much more Code-compliant film!
There is only one other element which needs to be considered, and that is Mr. Chaney’s iconic Phantom disguise. It seems traitorous for me, as a “phan,” to suggest changing Lon Chaney’s famous makeup. Personally, I did not find the unmasking scene to be disturbing, horrific, or particularly frightening. Yes, he looked terrible, and I was very impressed by the ingenuity he used to change his appearance so drastically. However, it was not that unsettling to me. My reaction can’t be compared to that of 1925 audiences, who had never seen Mr. Chaney as the Phantom. I had seen photographs and clips from the scene many times before I watched the actual movie, so I was prepared.
The studio was very careful to hide his appearance, since no pictures were released of him beforehand, no actors who were not involved in the production were allowed on the set, the actors in the production were sworn to secrecy, and Lon Chaney himself wore a flesh-colored mask on his way to the studio every day. Thus, audiences had no idea what to expect when Mary Philbin ripped off his mask. I can imagine that, in that situation, the effect would have been very frightening to me. It is said that some women fainted during the unmasking scene. The Code requires that films must not offend the sensibilities of audiences, and that necessitates the elimination of scenes which are gory, disgusting, or repulsive. However, I did not find Lon Chaney’s Phantom disguise to be gory, disgusting, repulsive, or offensive. Yes, he is hideous and frightening. However, he is ultimately a man wearing strange facial contortions. The original story’s message is one of tolerance and acceptance for a man who was born so deformed that people regard him as a monster. I think that, in view of this message and the story’s situation, his makeup is completely acceptable. After all, the fact that he looks frightening couldn’t have been that shocking to audiences in 1925. No one expects the Phantom to be a handsome gentleman under his mask! The very nature of the story warns viewers that they are going to see something frightening.
That concludes my breening of this film. I found it to be very informative and entertaining. I was also fascinated to see how this film inspired later versions. The Phantom of the Opera is not a road; it is a tower. Each subsequent version builds on those which have come before, reusing some old elements and bringing some new ones, too. I could especially see how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical was inspired by this movie, even more than by the novel. The horror, the fear, the manipulation, and the mob were all created in the 1925 film. I think that anyone who likes any version of The Phantom of the Opera should see this one. Despite its faults and eccentricities, this is the film which first brought the Phantom to the screen. Although his Phantom may not have as much depth as the Erik of the novel, Lon Chaney was the first man to give the Phantom a face.
As I stated before, this was only the fourth silent film which I have seen in its entirety. Without a doubt, it is the least objectionable of the four. However, all silent films tend to have less Code violations than pre-Code films. The great problems came with sound, which brought risqué dialogue and verbal subtleties that were impossible in silent cinema. The problems in this film are typical for those in a silent film of the time. This film is less objectionable than many because the filmmakers heeded the reaction of sensitive audience members. Five years later, Universal would have relished the fact that audiences were horrified by their monster films. I hope to breen more silent films in the future. It is enjoyable and challenging in a different way than breening talkies. Also, I look forward to expanding my knowledge of silent films!
Happy Valentine’s Day! I wish you a day filled with love of all kinds. You can celebrate the holiday by watching classic romance films with people you love. Code films are a loving gift from the past, a Valentine from Joseph Breen which we can enjoy every day. Instead of disturbing, dirty, and depressing films, we can enjoy decent movies filled with talent and beauty!
If you want to see The Phantom of the Opera as I saw it, click the above link to join Amazon Prime and watch it for free on Amazon Video. You will be supporting PEPS through the Amazon Affiliate program as you get great movies and free 2-day shipping for yourself!
If you really want to see this movie in its most complete form, I recommend that you purchase the above collector’s edition. This DVD contains the original 1925 film, the 1930 re-release, and some extra footage, plus commentaries and comparisons in bonus features. It sounds like the ultimate edition of this film! I recommend it to all phans. I hope to buy it myself sometime soon!
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!