Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: The Phantom of the Opera
In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
There have been multiple versions of this story put to film, but unless you’re a huge musical theatre dork, Lon Chaney’s version is by far the iconic one. Despite its relatively modest success at the box office, 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera created enough public interest to motivate a re-release with sound added five years later (Chaney was then under contract at MGM so he was unable to add his voice to this lost “talkie” version). Universal was so encouraged by the film’s notoriety, in fact, that they launched a long stream of horror and monster-related movies such as Bela Lugosi in Dracula, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and The Mummy, and The Wolf Man which starred Chaney’s own son in the lead. These films would become the calling card for the studio for years to come. The path to this sort of cultural influence was a rough one for The Phantom of the Opera, though.
The story originated with a serialization by writer Gaston Leroux who based it in part on stories and rumors surrounding the Paris Opera and a ballet called Der Freischütz. Universal’s Carl Laemmle was on vacation in Paris and met Leroux while he was there, acquiring a copy of the full novel version from the writer after he expressed an admiration for the Paris Opera House. Laemmle read the book quickly and wasted little time in purchasing the film rights for his movie company.
Production on the film was troubled and went through multiple stages before finally landing on the combination of elements which would capture the admiration of the public. It was initially directed by Rupert Julian, a jack-of-all-trades from New Zealand who had some success with a couple of previous films, but was reported to have a prickly relationship with the actors and technicians on The Phantom of the Opera. After a couple of early screenings had garnered tepid reactions, Universal asked Julian to re-shoot portions of the movie and he ended up walking away from the project. The job was passed on to Edward Sedgwick and had romantic comedy elements added, resulting in another screening, this one in San Francisco, which was received with even less admiration than the first. In fact the audience actively booed the film while it was running (hmmmm…I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I will boo at trailers that displease me, though). A pair of film editors were put to work on all of the material at hand and managed to cut the running time substantially, removing almost everything Sedgwick had added, but retaining his ending. It is this version which saw a wide release and ended up entrancing audiences nationwide.
Actor Lon Chaney had made a sensation with his performance and makeup design for a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 so he appeared to be the ideal choice to play the titular Phantom and he did not disappoint. Working faithfully from the description of the character from the novel, he created a shockingly ghoulish image which is still familiar to modern audiences, and is influential to creature builders. The skull-like look of the Phantom was realized with specially fashioned false teeth, blackening makeup around the eyes and nostrils, and an upturned nose held in place by a wire (ouch!). The Phantom’s face is not seen by the audience until about forty-five minutes into the film, and the scene made such an impact that it continues to be referenced and re-played consistently.
The sudden appearance of the Phantom’s horribly disfigured visage was shocking enough to audiences of the day that there were reports of screams and fainting in theaters where the film was showing. These are claims which are consistently made in connection with whatever the big horror flick of the time is, but might be legitimate in this case because the Phantom’s face had mostly remained a secret from the first audiences to see the movie in wide release. Transformative makeup had become what Chaney was most famous for, and he would be known as “The Man of 1,000 Faces,” taking on challenging and dramatic makeup-heavy roles such as in Mr. Wu, Laugh Clown Laugh, and London After Midnight.
This last example has been the recipient of some of the credit for inspiring the look of the Hatbox Ghost in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction, and from this specific image it’s easy to see why. Chaney’s career would last just five years past the wide release of The Phantom of the Opera, unfortunately. While he was filming Thunder in 1929 a series of maladies beset him, as he inhaled fake snow made from corn flakes which lodged in his throat and contributed to pneumonia. At this time it was also revealed that he was suffering from lung cancer. Despite aggressive treatment infection persisted and he passed away in August of 1930 at the age of forty-seven.
Despite Chaney’s excellent design work and the impressive sets and technical elements lavished on The Phantom of the Opera by Universal I find it hard to recommend the movie to modern audiences as anything other than an interesting piece of film history. The pace of the film lags without achieving the hauntingly languid crawl of 1931’s Dracula and the fact that it was released so early in the existence of movies as entertainment is easily observed. Compare the cinematography here with Laemmle’s 1928 production of The Man Who Laughs and you’ll see a real difference both in craft and in the overall quality of the script. There are a few bits of interesting camera work, but when they show up all it does is remind you that the rest of the film is firmly positioned behind a sort of theatrical proscenium, with little to no effort to bring the audience into proceedings.
I still liked it better than the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, though. That guy is seriously overrated.
Interestingly enough, efforts were made at the time of production to add color to a key, splashy set of scenes, and this is retained in the version of the movie I’ve included a link to here.