The original 1925 silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera is the most famous version of the Gaston Leroux story of the disfigured and deranged Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House. The film is most famous for Lon Chaney’s astounding performance and grisly makeup.
The film’s origins had begun in 1923 when the president of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle, had met author Gaston Leroux while on vacation in Paris. Leroux gave Laemmle a copy of his 1910 novel of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra when hearing that Laemmle was an admirer of the Paris Opera House.
Laemmle quickly bought the film rights with Lon Chaney to star as the monstrous Erik. Production began in mid-October of 1924 and the film was released on November 25, 1925.
The Story Begins
The film begins at the opening night of a production of Gounod’s Faust at the Paris Opera House. Comte Phillipe de Chagny and his brother Vicomte Raoul de Chagney watch the presentation, but Raoul wants to hear his sweetheart Christine Daaé sing. Christine is a rising star of opera, having moved up from the chorus to become the understudy of the prima donna, Madame Carlotta.
Raoul visits Christine in her dressing room to ask her to resign from the opera and marry him, but Christine refuses. She has no intention of throwing away her singing career for romance.
Despite being the most profitable season in the Opera’s history, the management resigns. The new management is told of the Opera Ghost who occupies box number five.
A mysterious-looking gentleman wearing a fez, who will later be revealed as Ledoux, frightens the ballerinas in the cellars. The ballerinas are naturally suspicious of the stranger and ask stagehand Joseph who reveals to them that he has seen the Phantom’s face.
Carlotta angrily tells the new management that she has received a letter from “The Phantom” that Christine must sing the role of Marguerite and that there will be dire consequences if his request has not been granted.
The Phantom’s voice speaks to Christine in her dressing room, telling her that she must think of her career and him.
The next day, Raoul asks Christine to reconsider his offer of marriage, but she tells him that she is being taught by the “Spirit of Music”. She leaves in anger when Raoul tells her that somebody is playing a joke on her.
Carlotta becomes ill and Christine performs in her place. Whilst Christine goes on to receive a standing ovation from the audience, behind the scenes worker Simon Buquet finds his dead brother Joseph hanging by the strangler’s noose. Simon wants vengeance.
Standing outside the dressing room, Raoul overhears the voice instructing Christine. When she leaves the room, Raoul enters but nobody is there.
Carlotta and the management receive notes from the Phantom demanding that Christine continues in her role.
Despite the threats, Carlotta performs as Marguerite. The performance seems to go well until the lights start to flicker as the silhouette of the Phantom loosens the rope of the huge chandelier that falls onto the opera patrons.
Christine runs to her dressing room and is lured by the voice to enter a secret door through the mirror. A masked man leads Christine, who is semi-conscious, on horseback to the subterranean lake where she is taken on a gondola to the Phantom’s lair.
The stranger reveals himself as Erik and declares his love for her. Christine faints and the masked man carries her to a comfortable suite.
When she awakens, she finds a note from Erik assuring her that she can come and go as she pleases, but under no circumstances must she look under the mask.
In the next room, the Phantom is playing his composition. Christine is curious about Erik’s face. She sneaks up behind him and tears off the mask to reveal a monstrously disfigured man.
Christine looks on in terror as Erik imposes his frightening features on to her. Erik aggressively declares that she is now his prisoner. Christine faces an uncertain future underneath the Opera House with the menacing Phantom. Will she be able to escape?
Atmospheric Visuals and Performances
Influenced by German Expressionism, with emphasis on shadows and light, The Phantom of the Opera is an effectively atmospheric horror piece that laid the groundwork for subsequent Universal monster movies of the 1930s such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy.
Despite all the splendidly creepy visuals, The Phantom of the Opera is dominated by a magnificent star performance from Lon Chaney as the deformed Erik. The audience is swayed by Erik’s self-exile in the cellars, dungeons, and torture chambers and his jealousy of Christine’s lover. Lon Chaney, who had a lauded reputation of his devising his ground-breaking makeup, created a monster that resembles a skull and was kept a studio secret until the premiere. The moment when the Phantom is unmasked is a memorable moment and still scary.
Arthur Edmund Carewe produces a convincing performance as the mysterious Ledoux, whilst the other supporting stars are less memorable, especially Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé and Norman Kerry as Vicomte Raoul de Chagny.
Director Philip Julian and production designer Ben Carré created some stylish visuals, which are enhanced by the atmospheric cinematography from Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, and Charles Van Enger.
Problems during production
Although entertaining and exciting to this day, The Phantom of the Opera was a troubled production. The script kept getting tinkered with and the director Rupert Julian walked off from production after continual conflicts with the film’s cast and crew. Lon Chaney was said to have contributed to the direction, especially during the famous unmasking sequence.
After unenthusiastic preview screenings, the New York premiere was canceled. The film was sent back for production again, with a reworked screenplay which emphasized more on Christine’s romantic intentions and the need for an ending more suited for a villain, instead of romantic redemption.
Edward Sedgwick was summoned by Laemmle to replace Julian and reshoot a substantial part of the film, which included comic and romantic subplots. The new version had a disastrous preview screening in San Francisco on April 26, 1925, when most audience members had felt that the movie was tedious.
A third version was edited by filmmaker Lois Weber and film editor Maurice Pivar who removed most of Sedgwick’s scenes and reinstated most of Rupert Julian’s work but kept Sedgwick’s ending. The film was better received when it premiered in Hollywood on October 17, 1925.
Although there are a few slackly handled moments, especially at the later stages, The Phantom of the Opera is a wonderful horror classic that is held together by the impressive cinematography, the many memorable moments, and the brilliant Lon Chaney.
Despite being originally released in 1925, The Phantom of the Opera was re-edited and released as a sound version in 1929. Except for a small fragment, the sound version has been lost. The original 1925 and 1929 reissue versions are still available.
The Kino company Video released a version of The Phantom of the Opera in 1995, which includes an original score by Gabriel Thibaudoux. Kino also restored a re-edited 1930 version of the film.
In 1996, acclaimed film historian Kevin Brownlow restored the 1925 film for Thames Silents, which is now working under the company Photoplay Productions. The Photoplay Productions restoration of The Phantom of the Opera has been widely acclaimed and is best watched via the British Film Institute Blu-ray release. The 3-disc dual-format edition (which has been available in the UK since 2 December 2013) includes the following:
- A newly-restored 2k scanned presentation of the tinted and toned 1929 version comprising elements from three sources (the 35mm George Eastman House master positive, a 35mm color dupe negative of the masked ball made in 1996, and 35 mm dupe negative sections made in 1996 from an original 16 mm print), new opening and closing titles, and a 5.1 mix of Carl Davis’ 1996 Channel 4 Silents Series score.
- The 103 minutes 1925 version, newly transferred in high definition from the Photoplay Productions 16mm print and digitally remastered, with a newly commissioned piano accompaniment by Ed Bussey.
- Original 1925 trailer (featuring Ed Bussey’s music) and 1929 sound re-issue trailer (featuring recreated soundtrack).
- An edited version of Reel 5 from the lost 1928 sound re-issue (12 minutes).
- The “man with the lantern” footage believed to have been shot for non-English speaking territories.
- Lon: A Thousand Faces documentary (2000, 86 minutes, DVD only).
- Booklet featuring new essays, including extensive notes on the film’s restoration history from acclaimed film historians Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury, etc.
- Channel 4 Silents restoration souvenir program on PDF.
Although significantly shorter than the 1925 version, The 1929 re-release cut is the version that has been painstakingly restored, using colorful tints and various sequences in two-color Technicolor, all accompanied by Carl Davis’ 1996 score which itself is influenced by the opera used in the film, Charles Gounod’s Faust.
This print of The Phantom of the Opera, released by the British Film Institute on Blu-Ray, is the best version of the film.