The Many Faces of “The Phantom of the Opera”

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Tonight (tomorrow morning, really at 12:45am Eastern) Turner Classic Movies will show the 1925 horror classic The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. This seemed a fitting day to do my planned post about several of the significant adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel. And so we shall!

The original Phantom is handily one of the first silent movies I was ever exposed to and I expect I am not unique in that regard. I would speculate that horror runs second only to comedy as most-watched silent film genre nowadays. Chaney devised his most famous make-up for his portrayal of the Phantom, first among a career distinguished by too many memorable guises to count (although I doubt it was actually a thousand, as his promoters claimed).

Do I need to run down the plot? If you haven’t seen the film, you probably know the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. But in the event you’ve encountered neither…

The scene is the Paris Opera House. We hear of rumors of occasional sightings of a mysterious Phantom who lives beneath the theatre. At the same time, there is a mysterious man who frequents the opera; he always hides his face and rents the same box. He terrorizes the company in order to promote the career of a girl he loves (Mary Philbin) – forcing the producers to let her sing lead parts, and threatening her main rival, the company’s prima donna (Virginia Pearson). When the rival sings, a HUGE chandelier falls on the audience. The mysterious man means business. Finally, he meets the girl. She is thrilled at first, but gradually becomes uneasy as she sees the weird mask he wears and he leads her deeper and deeper into a remote sub-basement of the theatre, five levels down and then across a “black lake” which evokes the River Styx… into his sumptuous subterranean apartment (a trope borrowed for everything from the Batcave to V for Vendetta). He sleeps in a coffin. And he plays a pipe organ, a device which has been copied by a million movie villains since. Then she pulls his mask off, revealing one of the most iconic, horrific make-ups ever.

The Phantom’s emotion is not really love, of course. It is just obsession and resentment—the Phantom is the original stalker. He agrees to release her to sing again but she must never again see her former lover (Norman Kerry). Of course she does, and the Phantom catches her in the act. There follows wonderful scene in color, conjuring Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”—a costume ball. The Phantom kidnaps her again, this time pursued by her lover and a policeman. They encounter booby traps along the way. Torture chambers from the revolution. They become trapped in one room filled with unbearable heat. They escape but they find themselves in another room, filled with water, nearly drowning them. Meanwhile a mob approaches, a climax conjuring the one in the previously successful Hunchback. In the end they catch the Phantom, kill him and throw him in the river.

Directed by Rupert Julian, the original Phantom of the Opera is a lean, perfect bit of fairy tale storytelling, and remains the gold standard not just for versions of this particular story, and not just for horror, but for how to make a movie. One measure of this is the fact that people continue to watch THIS version, and for the most part don’t bother with the many subsequent versions, in spite of the addition of theoretical improvements like sound and color. There is no substitute for powerful pictures and good storytelling.

OTHER VERSIONS:

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1943 Version:

Technicolor Universal remake of the silent classic with Claude Rains in the Lon Chaney role, with the trained singer Susanna Foster as Christine. It sounds like a genius concept, and genius casting (and it is) except for the fact that it is about 80% opera and 20% horror story. A better title would be “the Phantom Occasionally Interrupts the Opera”. It clearly wants to be a musical (my theory is that it was a wartime effort to turn the story into a “women’s picture”, with all the men fighting overseas). Not just because the extended musical sequences, but because of a love triangle involving a bunch of mannequins we don’t give a crap about. And annoying silly comedy scenes. This is probably why this film is not well known today.

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1962 Version:

This is the Hammer Horror version, starring Hebert Lom (perhaps best remembered today as Inspector Drefus from the “Pink Panther” comedies, though he played many straight villains in his day.) In the film, Lom’s Phantom plays Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on the pipe organ, an action he would later reprise as a gag in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. The film was a critical and box office disappointment, although Lom did get some praise for the subtlety of his performance.

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The Phantom of Hollywood (1974) 

This modern day CBS television adaptation is delightful for numerous reasons. One special treat is that it was the last thing ever to be shot on the old MGM backlot. In fact, over the course of the film, you are watching it being bulldozed right before your very eyes. Further, the film is essentially about that event, even as it unfolds. The incomparable Jack Cassidy plays the Phantom in this, a guy who works in the old photo stills department of a fictional studio, deep in a catacomb beneath the sound stages (there is a twist to that, but for once I won’t reveal it). Broderick Crawford plays the cop out to solve the mystery of several murders that have taken place in the rubble of the backlot. There is something genuinely eerie about this setting. It works very well.

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The Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

1974 was a VERY good year for re-imaginings of Phantom of the Opera. (One question? Why didn’t they both wait a year? Doesn’t it make sense to hitch your premiere to the 50th anniversary? Or did that make too much sense?). Of course you know I love this one right? A glam, sci-fi rock opera, written and directed by Brian de Palma, with music by Paul Williams who stars as the Phantom? It can’t lose and it doesn’t. It’s funny, electric, campy, riveting….and Jessica Harper as “Phoenix” is the only “Christine” I have ever noticed or cared about. A perfect film to watch a double bill with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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1983 Version:

TV movie version re-set (and shot on location) in Budapest, Hungary. The all-star production stars Maximillian Schell, Jane Seymour and Michael York, but has completely different characters and has changed the story around unrecognizably.

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1989 Version:

This is the one I call the “Freddie” version. Robert Emglund (Freddie Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street pictures) plays the Phantom  in this attempt to update the story in the graphic and gory manner then prevalent in 80s horror films.

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1998 Italian Version:

Italian horror director Dario Argento turns the tale on its head a bit, reimagining the Phantom as a sort of good-looking Goth dude played by Julian Sands, as one part Fabio, one part Vampire Lestat, and one part Tommy Wiseau. 

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2004 Musical Version:

The musical version by Andrew Lloyd Weber which premiered on the West End in 1986, on Broadway in 1988, was finally filmed by Joel Schumacher for movie audiences, starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, and Minnie Driver. The (overly serious? self-important) musical has some nice melodies and reimagines the story as a kitschy romance, de-emphasizing the horror. Schumacher’s big-budget spectacle altered little from the stage original. The Phantom of the Paradise is much more to my tastes…as is the original 1925 film.

 

2 comments

  1. Chaney’s PHANTOM is one of the greatest make-ups every devised by an actor. This film was one of the first silent films I ever saw (although it was in a truncated version by Blackhawk.) I loved the film so much that I even did a parody of it on my 8mm camera. I didn’t have Chaney’s make-up equipment at the time, but I devised something that was scary, if not banal. I am surprised at the many film versions made of this story; but, the Chaney film excepted, they all have the “unmasking” scene at the end. There is so much build-up of the horrible face that when you do see it for a fleeting second–it disappoints. I thought the Lom version was well thought out, even though different. I did think that Lom did a nice job of portrayal, and I didn’t think the film was a complete flop; it had its moments.

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  2. There’s also a 1990 TV version (Teri Polo, Burt Lancaster) which owes much to the “Beauty and the Beast” TV series which was popular at the time. It’s overlong, boring, and disappointing; the Phantom’s face is never revealed.

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