Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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While there have been many versions of The Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 version of this classic story remains one of the best.

That being said, it’s safe to say that the production of this great silent film did not go very smoothly.

Produced and released almost two years before the first talking movie, The Jazz Singer, was released, this “Phantom” story stars Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kelly, John St. Poli, Arthur Edmund Carewe and Gibson Gowland.  The film is an adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel “Le Fantome De l’Opera.”

Chaney was highly sought after for the role, following his success in the lead role of 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In addition to being arguably Lon Chaney’s greatest role, he was incredibly involved in many aspects of the film’s production.  At times, he directed scenes in place of official director Rupert Julian.  Chaney also created and invented many of the “make-up tricks” that he incorporated into his role as the deformed anti-hero, self-imprisoned in the French Opera House.

According to legend, Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Pictures, took a vacation to Paris in 1922. During his vacation Laemmle met the author Gaston Leroux, who was working in the French film industry. Laemmle mentioned to Leroux that he admired the Paris Opera House. Leroux gave Laemmle a copy of his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle read the book in one night.  He later bought the film rights and soon became the film’s producer.

The original premise (and screenplay) stayed extremely close to the original source but subsequent script revisions strayed wildly after the initial first draft.

Production began in mid-October, 1924 and instantly found problems. According to director of photography Charles Van Enger in the 1970 book “American Cinematographer,” Chaney and the rest of the cast and crew had strained relations with their director, Rupert Jullian. Eventually the lead star and director stopped talking, so Van Enger served as a go-between. He would report Julian’s directions to Chaney, who responded “Tell him to go to hell.” As Van Enger remembered, “Lon did whatever he wanted.”

Despite having a great reputation with Universal, Jullian’s directorial mediocrity was obvious to the crew. For example:  according to Van Enger, Julian had wanted the screen to go black after the chandelier fell on the Opera audience. Van Enger ignored him and lit the set with a soft glow, so the aftermath of the fall would be visible to the film audience.

Furthermore, the ending to the movie was rewritten completely — at least four times.

The initial rough cut of the film came in over four hours long…completely unheard of for motion pictures in the 1920s.  Over two-and-a-half hours of the original prints ended up on the cutting room floor.

The initial screening of the film was so negative, that the premiere date was delayed (several times in fact) and the movie was constantly in a state of reshooting, rewriting and re-editing for months.

When the film was finally released, reviews were still mixed.  However, as time has marched on, the more contemporary reviews cite fewer flaws and more polish than the initial critics.

TV Guide gave the film 4-out-of-5 stars, calling it, “one of the most famous horror movies of all time. The Phantom of the Opera still manages to frighten (audiences) after more than 60 years.”  On Rotten Tomatoes, The Phantom of the Opera holds an approval rating of 90% following its most recent review in October 2020.

Film historians also have praised this version of the film, citing many innovative techniques, from Chaney’s own make-up skills to unique examples of camera positioning and lighting strategies throughout the film.  The fact that this picture had to overcome so many challenges to reach its initial release (and even then, has had to withstand reworkings several times thereafter) have only added to the picture’s lore.

(One more interesting note:  the last surviving cast member was Carla Laemmle, niece of producer Carl, who played a small role as a “prima ballerina.” She was 15 in the movie and passed on in 2014.)

Is it truly a classic masterpiece?  You can decide for yourself when you check out the original film version of The Phantom Of The Opera.  Tune in and set your DVRs for Friday, June 11th at 10pm on RCN TV.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.

 

Chris Michael About Chris Michael

Chris handles play-by-play for RCN sports events, including baseball, football & basketball games and produces/hosts the station’s 60-minute live call-in show. Among Chris’s other responsibilities include reporting on local news & sports stories, conducting “Take 5” interviews with community and political leaders, producing commercials, voiceovers and promos; and generating blog entries and videos on the internet. Click here to listen to the weekly Sports Talk podcast.

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