In which we begin the legend of the Phantom and the man of 1,000 faces.
Claude Rains, my favourite actor of all time, played the lead in the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera. His performance, in many ways similar to his take on The Invisible Man, was until recently the only interpretation of the role I had seen – having no interest in the Lloyd-Webber musical or 2004 Joel Schumacher film. My only knowledge of the 1925 edition was Lon Chaney’s central performance, iconic for his unique and disturbing makeup design. Taking on this film, I was intrigued to find out how the leading man and wider production would stack up.
Though it’s common these days to hear of films undergoing reshoots either after completion or test screenings, the practice has been around almost as long as cinema itself. The Phantom of the Opera was cut three times, each quite dramatically different from the last with characters and storylines coming in and leaving as abruptly. The version we’re familiar with retains the evil of the Phantom until the end, refusing to redeem him in any way.
The story, taken from the 1920 novel by Gaston Leroux, follows the reign of terror caused by the titular Phantom as he haunts the Paris Opera House. Deformed from birth with pleasingly little backstory, the Phantom falls in love with lead understudy Christine. Using his reputation and ability to stalk around the venue, even dropping the grand chandelier into the audience, he plans to make her a star. His gift comes at a price to Christine though, as he plans to hold her in his lair and force her to love him.
There are two elements to The Phantom of the Opera 1925 that make it arguably the best adaptation of the source material yet filmed. First, it’s an example of early colour use in cinema, with a scene where the Phantom dresses as Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Red Death’. Coming as the Phantom first appears in public during a party, the scene is a striking contrast to the monochrome design of the rest of the film. Highlighting the Phantom this way, walking amongst the Opera goers without fear, adds even further to his power when we see that he’s no longer confined to black shadows but alive and standing just meters away from his victims.
The second is of course the masterful makeup and performance of Lon Chaney in the title role. His incredible dedication led Chaney to design the Phantom, adding pounds of makeup, putty and even wires to his face. The result is sensational, iconic and led to one of the most famous scenes in cinema as his mask his first removed by the trapped Christine. It’s said the audiences of the time fainted when they first saw him, and you can believe that the moment it happens. It’s gruesome, hideous and deserves every bit of praise for lasting almost 100 years. It’s a world away from Rains’ almost charming (albeit unhinged) take, so distant that the two are incomparable.
As Roger Ebert points out in his review, The Phantom of the Opera “is not a great film if you are concerned with art and subtlety, depth and message…But in its fevered melodrama and images of cadaverous romance, it finds a kind of show-biz majesty”.
It’s true that other 1920s films such as Nosferatu, The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Kid are deeper, more thoughtful and more artful movies, but Phantom holds its own in terms of entertainment and the masterful lead performance, which gives us the greatest and most famous of Chaney’s 1,000 faces.
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