The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, et al, 1925)

The young opera starlet, Mary Philbin’s Christine’s, agonizingly slow creep-up to and unmasking of Lon Chaney’s Phantom is arguably one of the most famous moments in all of silent film and horror film, and rightly so when you lay your eyes on that grotesque mouth, bulging, glassy eyes, and noseless face, all thanks to a makeup job that was the creation of Chaney himself.  It is one of those indispensable moments in cinema history, and apparently director Rupert Julian, et al knew as they were filming “The Phantom of the Opera” that this one moment would live forever…or at the very least they were trying their absolute hardest to make it into something special with an endless lead-up to the big moment.  The plot is already thin enough, as the deformed Phantom, living in the dank caverns beneath the Paris Opera House, falls for the young singer Christine from afar and manipulates the goings-on of the Opera to further her career and to possess her for his own deranged self, but miraculously that plot is made even thinner when you consider that practically ever moment of the first portion of the film is devoted to people talking about the Phantom…what he looks like, where he lives, how batshit crazy he is. “His eyes are ghastly beads in which there is no light – like holes in a grinning skull!”, one man says.  “His face is like leprous parchment, yellow skin strung tight over protruding bones!”  “His nose – there is no nose!”  And on and on – so much of the beginning of the film is just…this.  Just dancers and stagehands and well-to-dos going about their everyday lives within the Opera House, and apparently the entirety of their everyday lives involves telling each other ghost stories about the Phantom and chasing each other around.  It’s like a more bizarre version of that long stretch of “The Red Shoes” that simply shows the dancers and what-not going about their daily routine, only in that film they actually danced, and here they just fuck around and worry about the Phantom.  Sure there’re some wonderful images, like the Phantom’s silhouette as he lures Christine towards that mirror, but these are mostly either overused or just thrown in there.  On the whole, this film has spurts of visual brilliance, but is just very, very uneven.

It’s so incredibly shallow and without depth and purely there to build up the mystery of the Phantom, to make you want to see this hideous face that’s being described for you in infinite, lurid detail (when you have Christine, long after the Phantom lures her into his underground kingdom, exclaim “You…You are the Phantom!” in one of cinema’s greatest no-shit moments, abandon all hope of depth and subtlety, ye who enter here).  It’s rather tasteless and damn near shameless…but for once, the actual visual scare lives up to the hype.  I’d seen Chaney’s famously done-up face millions of time out of context before, so the shock value unfortunately wasn’t there, but regardless, it’s still a damned ugly, scary face.  “Feast your eyes!”, the Phantom says, “Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” (there’re a lot of exclamation points in the title cards, in case you haven’t noticed).  Well, we pretty much already have in how much the face we’re now seeing has been described to us, so you don’t need to tell us twice.

The entire purpose of the film to this point has been to make our mouth water in anticipation of seeing this face, and now that we have, it’s no surprise that the film basically comes crashing down afterwards.  Sure there’s some cool stuff to be had, like the primitive use of colors during the big ball to showcase the Phantom’s red costume, and the underground, watery maze that the Phantom calls home is imm ense and detailed and paved the way for many cinematic dungeons to come, but otherwise it’s just Christine begging her doofus boy-toy Raoul to protect her, the Phantom looking on with mad envy, and lots of underground chase scenes.  It’s all dull as hell once the chief purpose of slowly revealing the Phantom is done with and the shock value of the Phantom’s appearance wears off, but despite that, the power of Chaney’s mannerism-driven performance rarely wanes.  Was there ever another actor more willing to go through every pain and mutilation imaginable to deliver a great performance?  What Chaney did to his legs in “The Penalty,” he does to his face in “The Phantom of the Opera.”  It’s all histrionics, but there’s something undeniably powerful when he madly proclaims his obsessed love for Christine while trapping Raoul in a flooding chamber right beneath, and then sees a crazed mob coming towards his safe haven as he maniacally points towards and taunts them and cackles away, as he either considers himself invincible, welcomes his grisly fate, or a little bit of both.  And dare I say it, there’s a tiny bit of profundity in the performances of Chaney and Mary Philbin, that look of ravenous curiosity on Philbin’s face as she moves her fingers closer and closer to that mask, followed by a look of histrionic yet powerful terror right up there with the likes of Lillian Gish.  But ultimately, this is all about one moment, one noseless and scrunched-up face – a superficial novelty of a film solely meant to titillate and scare, and in a later decade maybe, just maybe, would’ve found the time to actually focus on the sexual and psychological tension and implications that this seemingly simple story seems rife for, but in this early era of cinematic experimentation, at least it got something right.


2 comments so far

  1. Louise on

    As many of Musicals lovers I LOVE the Phantom of the Opera! It is my favourite ever… Last year I’ve been in NY & I tried to get my ticket …guess what everything was sold out that show how great the show is. Anyhow I end up getting it from a site through Next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tix from the same place
    So I’ll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.

  2. Wall Heater on

    i love classic operatic arias and Phantom Of The Opera is one of the best musical -,;

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