Silent Screams

I apologize to my neighbors.  That uncontrolled yelling you heard recently wasn’t me and my crew merely shrieking in terror, but rather shouting for joy at the sight of the magnificent restoration of the 1925 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, now on spectacular Blu-Ray from Kino Classics (in association with Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films and the Library of Congress).

How many classic movie fans and/or horror buffs have suffered through mimeograph-quality dupes (from 8MM-VHS) throughout the past half-century?  No need to actually ponder this query, it’s rhetorical.  But the answer is:  lots!  True, I’ve seen decent, even impressive, restorations at revival houses and on laserdisc and then DVD, but never ANYTHING approaching the level of this definitive 2-platter edition.  Folks, I can’t praise this essential David Shephard-coproduced edition enough.  Silent movie collectors/horror aficionados/Lon Chaney admirers – drop everything and add this to your library today.

I really needn’t go into the story of this oft-told tale of terror, based on the eerie 1910 Gaston Leroux novel.  I mean, it’s been filmed like a ga-zillion times, but with nowhere near the impact of this version (although I do maintain an affectionate liking for the sad, rather moving 1962 Terence Fisher/Hammer production).  And, yeah, I know, it’s a Broadway musical blockbuster.  Once again, the original has Lon Chaney – so game, set, over!  Look, it’s the most identifiable of the guy’s 1000 faces…and with good reason.  The movie is milestone for its attention to makeup effects, art and set design, lighting, and for the sheer fact that after more than 90 years since its release, PHANTOM still has the ability to freak the crap out of you. There’s even more than a hint of overt eroticism.  ([Your purity] “arouses me,” pants Chaney to his chosen young diva, as he indicates a gondola bed (Fun Fact: later Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard).

For Universal, the movie was the definition of “super-production,” but, even for Paramount or Metro (where Chaney had just been signed), the enormity of this pic would have been a massive undertaking.

The writers on PHANTOM comprise enough scribblers to practically qualify for a minyan.  The initial adaptation was by Elliott J. Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock; this was followed by the first of several treatments, penned by Jasper Spearing and Bernard McConville.  Frank M. McCormack was brought in for subsequent uncredited touch-ups.  Walter Anthony turned in the scenario, with Tom Reed assigned to titles.  Universal suits were a bit unnerved by the movie’s fright factor, and, for good or ill, brought in Richard Wallace to create some comedy relief relegated to the Larry Semon-esque Snitz Edwards character (but initially for a hastily-added Chester Conklin sidebar, later completely excised).

The director’s chair was likewise rather overcrowded.  Credited supervisor was actor-turned-megaphone maestro Rupert Julian.  Julian’s love of himself (coupled with his tendency to plod like a Clydesdale) merited bringing in the rapid-paced Edward Sedgwick, who shot a new horse-and-carriage escape ending, replacing an abrupt climax where Chaney’s body is found sprawled on his pipe organ.  That said, it has now been generally acknowledged that Julian’s malfunctions precipitated Chaney himself from grabbing the directorial reins for the majority of the production.  If his superlative efforts don’t rate another face, they certainly do another hat. Things became so strained that the two stopped speaking to each other all together.  In his terrific Chaney biography, Lon Chaney: The Man of a Thousand Faces, author Michael F. Blake recounts cinematographer Charles Van Enger’s additional role as a go-between: “Julian would explain to me what he wanted Lon to do, and then I’d go over to Lon and tell him what he had said.  Then Lon would tell him to ‘go to hell.’”  In any event, by filming’s end, Julian had been officially removed.

The reason Chaney had such power at Universal was the smash success of their previous 1923 Lon-super pic The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Determined to top the grotesque makeup of Quasimodo, Chaney pored through Leroux’s novel, sketching outlines of what a deformed escaped Devil’s Island homicidal maniac (or Erik) might look like at his worst (the upshot being one of great movie title cards of all-time, to say nothing of a guaranteed ice-breaker, suitable of any occasion:  “Feast your eyes!  Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness”).

To this end, Chaney didn’t disappoint; the Phantom is one of the most recognizable movie monsters of all-time (right alongside other iconic Universal ghouls, including Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman and, ironically, the Invisible Man).  To help build up the horror, Chaney demanded that no stills of the Phantom be issued to the press or be illustrated in the posters.  He also tested the results on the crew, memorably calling in d.p. Van Enger to ask him what he thought, then spinning around flashing the Erik skull-like grimace.  Van Enger, to put it mildly, just about lost his lunch, requiring an immediate change of scenery, if not underwear.  Chaney couldn’t have been more delighted. Actress/ingénue Mary Philbin didn’t fare much better.  She hadn’t seen the gruesome face until the famous unmasking scene.  The bug-eyed look of terror on her face ain’t acting (one of my most prized possessions is a still of this sequence, signed to me by Philbin).

There are other notables in the cast, many well-known to 1920s audiences, including the great Gibson Gowland (star of von Stroheim’s Greed), Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, John St. Polis, Cesare Gravina; as evidence of the studio’s notoriety for nepotism (“Uncle Carl Laemmle had a big faemmle” was a snarky Ogden Nash pun) 15-year-old Carla Laemmle (the mogul’s niece) appears as one of the ballerinas.  Future famed producer Joe Pasternak (not a relative) worked on the movie as an a.d.  Aforementioned d.p. Van Enger, too, had some uncredited assist (and quite a backup unit – no less than Virgil Miller and Milton Bridenbecker).

But, once again, you can’t seriously discuss this movie without citing the built-to-scale fantastic sets by Ben Carre, so impressive that they remained a staple at Universal for decades (still standing in tattered remains on Stage 28, if, for no other reason, than to wow the studio’s throngs of annual tourists and rumored to be haunted by Chaney’s ghost).  Being the cynical bastard that I am, I suspect Universal started the horror craze JUST to wring every penny out of those sets (the period opera house, the labyrinth of sewers, the Phantom lair, etc.  Seeing these wondrous cinematic constructions is tantamount to catching glimpse of a beloved character actor; the first time I joyously recall eyeing a piece of those sets post-PHANTOM was in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (“broom closet”).

Of course, in a movie almost 100 years old, there are some musty narrative elements that unintentionally replace jitters with titters (and without the aid of Richard Wallace or Snitz Edwards).  For instance, that goofy dude in the fez (who turns out to be…well, if you’ve never seen it, I won’t spoil it for you)…and some of Philbin’s responses to the events at hand.  After the monumental unmasking, her character, Christine Daae, pensively emotes, “You – You are the Phantom!”  Christine Daae may be beautiful and talented, but she ain’t exactly perceptive.

But why quibble?

The movie has so much going for it, and, aside from still being unabashedly creepy, is a non-stop royal entertainment from fade-in to fade-out.

And now, more than ever.

Kino’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA‘s two-discs offer a plethora of viewing options.  Disc One, the streamlined 1929 reissue (which we recommend as the prime choice for novices and Bijou veterans), constitutes the most perfect transfer of this movie that I have EVER seen.  A splendid 35MM 1080p restoration (yeah, some of that unmasking still has the blotches) that blows every other copy out of the water (or, sewer, if you’re in full Erik mode).  Never have I viewed such detail, clarity, contrast – all of which visually punctuates the atmosphere so necessary to the complete enjoyment.

Aside from the fabulous black-and-white photography, this edition, of course, also incorporates the two-strip Technicolor Bal Masque sequence (again, never looking better than it does here), and a reconstruction of many of the movie’s original hand-colored Handschliegal Color Process segments.

Furthermore, the movie is accessible in two projected speeds (both historically accurate), each accompanied by a separate score (either the Alloy Orchestra or a Gaylord Carter organ composition); a 1990 musical setting by Gabriel Thibaudeau beautifully sets the scene for the operatic moments’ thrilling suspense.  Supplemental audio commentary by John C. Mirsalis additionally offers encyclopedic insight into the flick’s background.

And that’s just Disc One!

Disc Two contains the complete 1925 release with a score by Frederick Hodges, plus hefty chunks from the 1930 “talkie” re-release (partially directed by Ernst Laemmle, proving that Universal’s theory of relativity survived the transition to sound.  All the music is in dynamic 2.0 stereo (except for the ‘30 version, in its authentic recorded mono).

Other extras include the 1925 trailer, an interview with Thibaudeau, the screenplay, and, my favorites, two vintage 1920s Burton Holmes travelogues, Paris From a Motor and A Trip on the Seine.

If none of this has provided incentive for you to become personally acquainted with the most famous sewer-dweller since Ed Norton, then I give up!  But methinks many a collector’s attention has been piqued.  So what are you waiting for – a chandelier to fall on you?

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Black and white w/Technicolor sequence.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definiton]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Classics/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films/The Library of Congress.  CAT # K20139.  SRP:  $39.95.




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