Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Phantom of the Opera. (1925) Rupert Julian

Lon Chaney desperately seeks dentist for 
A Black and White February.

Here we have a "Princess and Toad" story, but no magic kiss and no chance at a Prince Charming.

Everyone knows this tale, right?

It's sometime in the 1920, in Paris. The upper crust like to spend their nights at the opera, but the whole town knows the place is haunted, the ghost apparently in love with one of the understudies, Christine. The "phantom" has fallen so hard for her that he carries out threats against the management if they don't place her at the top of the playbill. Eventually, with a mask as a disguise, he gets to take her on a bit of a date (down some kind of black mote of death or something, "unseen by man and the sun,") -- he tells her he is smitten with her, in love to the core, and he explains that she should never, ever, under any circumstances (and we mean never!) try to take off his mask.

And like the original creation story, when you tell someone there's only one thing they cannot do, of course that's the very next thing they'll be doing.

As the phantom sits at his organ (he's an accomplished player), Christine sneaks up behind him and takes off his mask. She recoils in horror as she, and we, for the first time see his hideous face. There is some kind of a terrible joke to be inserted here about people who don't share their photo on popular dating websites, but we'll just leave that alone for now.

I'm going to say two very positive things about this film from the start, although the second may segue into some sort of a negative:

The first is that this is a lavish production, and a film well worth looking at to simply see the sheer size of the Paris opera house archived in film from the mid-twenties. It's neat to see the crowds filling up the huge house, it's neat to see the orchestra, the humongous curtains, the audience responding by clapping between scenes and giving rousing standing ovations at the end. That the place itself, with the people from this time, is archived here is a cool testament to the importance of film itself.

The second is that it's somewhat well-known that Lon Chaney did his own make-up for the film, and that original audiences were aghast at the sight of the phantom. He is a grotesque figure. Even by today's standards he'd be a shocker to sit next to on the bus. But in considering the kinds of things that truly repel audiences today, Chaney's make-up job from the silent era does look a little silly.


I have to say that I don't find much other value in The Phantom of the Opera. Other than perhaps a Film History or a Humanities course, it's not something from this era I'd recommend. Unless perhaps we needed the perfect example of silent era melodrama, because this is a movie that has tons of it.

Quite honestly, this is a silent that tried my patience, in a story that I've never really cared for in the first place (I've seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in Chicago twice). The story itself can never really figure out whether it wants to be a horror story or some kind of displaced romance novel. It's a story that goes from about point A to B to C to D (and really, that's about it), and the whole thing could be told in about ten or twelve minutes. The rest here -- and we're talking over 90 long minutes -- is silent era melodrama. Arms flailing. Title cards that seem to last an eternity. Scenes that take forever to unfold, wherein the actors slow down and overcompensate every dramatic gesture. It's the stuff people think of when they think of "bad acting" in silent films -- horrible, bloated, where the pain goes on, and on , and on, and we just wish for a gun to shoot and kill some of the undying scenes.

The film's ending, which is altered drastically from its source material, borrowed heavily from Mary Shelly, making it rather Frankenstein-ish. This is still a few years in front of that masterpiece, but for anyone looking for an engaging film from this time that's a much better place to start. Phantom lacks that film's engaging enigmatic monster. Phantom also lacks the creep factor of a film like Nosferatu; it doesn't have the romance or charm of Sunrise; nor the cutting edge cinematography or story-telling of something like Vampyr or City Lights.

Overall, I'm glad I gave it a try, but aside from some historic value, The Phantom of the Opera isn't a film I'd attempt again, and it wouldn't be anything I'd recommend to someone for "fun".

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