Last time I watched a silent movie was way back in the 60s and think it was Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’. This made reviewing the 1925 edition of ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ a somewhat unique experience and one which turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable. From the BFI, we’ve got a dual-format edition of the 1929 movie which has been restored by careful electronic means to make it as watchable as possible. You can gain an idea of the quality of the restoration by looking at the actual original unrestored edition which is also included on the discs. Expecting black and white, it was pleasing to see colour, albeit tinted, with some shots in actual Technicolor which made images really stand out, especially the Phantom’s red cloak contrasted against the blue night sky.
The starring actor is, of course, the remarkable Lon Chaney who is still a well-known name even though he died as long ago as 1930. His son was also a famous actor especially in horror movies, ‘The Wolf Man’ coming to mind. ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber is by all accounts the most successful musical of all time, although some may argue against this, but it is the version of the story which most people will remember. It has also been the subject of numerous movies and, of course, there was the original book written by Gaston Leroux in 1909. This version directed by Rupert Julian was the first screening of the story.
While this may be a theme familiar to everyone, if you haven’t watched ‘Phantom’ before you will be seeing something quite novel. Living in the catacombs below the Paris Opera, he takes Christine to a place reached by floating across a black lake and descending down steps and twisted corridors. The dimensions are surreal, macabre and definitely frightening. Impression comes that being lost within the depths of this nightmare world you will never be free again. Of all the movies made of ‘The Phantom’, the original conveys these feelings better than any of the others. The silence only adds to the intensity of the effects making this movie a definitive setting for the story.
The Phantom comes across as a somewhat pathetic creature twisted by events from the past. Despite being malevolent and mad, we feel some sympathy for the Phantom but shrink back at his cruelty. Today, it’s no longer politically correct to parody people with physical and mental disabilities but in that time it didn’t seem to matter to the same extent. Another of the great movies of the day, ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’, also went down this route and also included Lon Chaney as the leading actor playing Quasimodo.
When Raoul and the policeman descend the catacombs in search of the Phantom and Christine, a strange thing happens. A figure appears in the darkness, a strange character illuminated by a lamp, ghostly in appearance but not menacing in any way. This creature directs them to the correct route. Some reference is made to this in one of the extra features found on the disc. It’s certainly an oddity, an aberration that just doesn’t fit in to the story but the two heroes are not perplexed and seem to take it as a matter of no consequence.
Drama permeates the movie, especially with scenes which include the red mask of death. Horrific in appearance, this is the real Phantom that condemns all the revellers to a certain future of hopeless despair, much as he feels himself in his own situation living in the catacombs with only a tiny thread of love connecting him to the outside world. Christine is his saviour but it’s a forlorn hope with no prospects and when rejected, as the outcome was a certainty to be, he is left with only despair and death. When his death comes, it’s a death completed by the savage wrath of the whole world and he goes down fighting defiantly to the end. Love conquers all for the two young people in the movie, for the time being at least.
As mentioned, there are extra features on the discs which include the entire movie as originally produced, some of the 1929 version which had sound and also trailers of the movie. Almost 90 years old, we are looking back to a past almost alien in nature to the lives we lead today. Different ethics, different morality and 1,000,000 miles away in technology it may be, but it’s part of our roots. We came from this to what we are today! It’s a sight worth seeing ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ and this is a good way to see it.
The Phantom of the Opera (1929) dual-format edition, DVD + Blu-ray
(region 0 DVD: British Film Institute. 3 DVDs 91 minute film plus extras. ISBN: 5035673011553. Price: £14.99 (UK) for a limited period)
cast: Lon Chaney.
check out website: http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk/acatalog/info_27231.html