Phantom of the Opera (1929) Review

The 1929 version of Phantom of the Opera had a long and rather troubled production. Ostensibly it was directed by Rupert Julian, a rather mediocre director who did not get on with star actor, Lon Chaney ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. Chaney ended up directing himself for most of his scenes, while the film was given over to Edward Sedgwick, a Western director, who re-shot 60% of the film after poor responses to initial previews. Finally appearing in 1925 as a silent movie, the film was a tremendous success, grossing over $2 million. Wishing to capitalise on the success of the film and with the recent phenomenon of talking movies, the film was released again in 1929 in two versions. A sound version was released (in January 1930) although as Chaney was under contract to another studio at this time, the Phantom, at least while on-screen, had to remain silent. A silent version of the film was also re-released for theatres that were not yet wired for sound. Additional ballet and opera scenes were shot for both new releases of the film.

The story is familiar if treated somewhat differently from subsequent versions of the film. The new owners of the Paris Opera are warned about the mysterious occupant of box 5, a shadowy presence known as ‘The Phantom’. A threatening note from the Phantom to the directors insists on Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), the Phantom’s protégé, singing the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and the diva Mlle. Carlotta, scheduled for the role falls inexplicably ill. Raoul, in love with Christine, hears that she has an unknown admirer. He wishes her to leave the opera and marry him, but Christine has pledged herself to her muse and to the mysterious voice that encourages her from behind the walls of her dressing room. When Mlle. Carlotta appears in the opera against the warnings of the Phantom, the masked demon unleashes a furious vengeance.

Right from the opening titles, the film sets about creating suspense with a shadowy figure vaguely seen prowling through the dark labyrinths and cellars of the Paris Opera House. Grand and thrilling, dark and dangerous, the film demonstrates a marvellous use of light and shadow. The sets made for the film are magnificent and include a full-scale replica of the Paris Palais Garnier Opera House, a set that has been used in many other productions, including the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera, and is still in use today.

Chaney’s make-up of a face disfigured by unknown tortures and twisted with hate for mankind makes for a spectacular and famous unmasking scene. His appearance as the Red Death in the two-colour Technicolor Bal Masque sequence is also chillingly impressive. In contrast to later incarnations of the character in the movies and on stage, this Phantom is a much more cruel phantom, a master of the Black Arts, tortured during the Second revolution. There is none of the romantic interest that would partly redeem a phantom with a tragic past and a sensitive soul, as in the 1943 remake starring Claude Rains. An alternative ending where Chaney’s Phantom dies of a broken heart was soon cut in favour of the more exciting and dramatic finale that appears in the final film.

There are no pristine 35mm prints of the original 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera in existence. The version presented on this Eureka DVD is the 1929 silent version which has been colour tinted to the original Universal Pictures specifications and re-mastered to play at the original 20 frames per second running speed. The quality of the picture is generally very good although a film of this age is inevitably going to have many artefacts, marks and scratches. The majority of the film however and certainly the last half are mostly free from all but the smallest of damage. It has to be said that certain reels have survived in better condition than others. The scene of the Phantom’s boat leading Christine through the underground lake to his secret lair looks tremendous. Christine waking up in the phantom’s lair however is quite badly damaged, but nevertheless intact.

A 1990 score composed by Gabriel Thibaudoux is the only soundtrack on the DVD. It is an effective, sweeping and dramatic score that comes across well in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is quite appropriate for the film.

At first glance there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of extras on this Special Edition DVD, but the Essay turns out to be a 16 minute documentary, written by R Dixon Smith and narrated by Russell Cawthorne, on the history of the Paris Opera House, Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel and the film’s complicated and troubled history. Some of the clips from original prints of the film show how good the actual feature on this DVD is by comparison. It’s a good extra that is interesting and of good length. The only other extra on the disc is a three minute Re-release Trailer.

Possibly the greatest version of a famous creation that has been re-visited countless times and will doubtless be visited again. Few however will have the same impact as this version from the silent age of movies when image and expression had such power and few actors were able to wield that power with such authority as Lon Chaney. It’s a wonder that we still have this film in the great condition that it appears on this DVD.

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