I’m a Europhile, so imagine my shock to see ‘Frexit’ posters on the streets of Paris. In one respect at least, I hope France can learn from our own messy example. Our own deed has not yet been done, and even when it has been, and we have well and truly Brexited, I suspect there will still be yellow stars looped around my heart. So in the spirit of European togetherness, I am always happy to pop over to Paris at the drop of un chapeau to watch old movies and connect with my silent-film-loving friends.
This weekend was just such an occasion – I am posting this on the train home to London. Toute La Mémoire du Monde AKA the International Festival of Restored Cinema, takes place in the drizzly days before spring has truly sprung, at the Cinématheque Francaise and a handful of other cinemas in Paris. This is the sixth edition, and it’s a slightly odd festival, very serious in atmosphere for one so young, despite the fact that it features such populist events such as Russ Meyer all-nighters, and celebrity guests including, this year, Wim Wenders. It’s as diverse in scope as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, but not as welcoming or as easy to navigate. Still, I think of it as a rather shy friend, who always has something fascinating to say if you can coax it out of her. With that in mind I spent two and a bit days in Paris this year, seeing as many silents as possible, and some talkies just for luck. I do it all for you, mes amis!
Three discs, two formats, both existing versions of the movie, the Carl Davis score, snippets of previously unseen footage including a reel from the the lost talkie adaptation, trailers, essays and the comprehensive documentary Lon Chaney: Man of a Thousand Faces … yes, this is a pretty fabulous Phantom.
But first things first … the movie. Well sit comfortably, because this gets a little complicated. The Phantom of the Opera is a 1925 Hollywood adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, starring the unforgettably versatile Lon Chaney as the malignant spectre who stalks the vaults beneath the Paris Opera House, and falls catastrophically in love with one of the sopranos who appears on the stage above him. Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera was booed by the audience at its first test showing, so had many scenes reshot by Edward Sedgwick, failed yet again to impress at screenings and was so handed over to Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber, who reconfigured and edited it down – this version, finally, was a hit, with the punters if not the critics. When talkies arrived, Universal reissued the movie with a score and effects track, plus newly filmed dialogue sequences, in 1929. We have only the soundtrack for this version, but the existing later version of the movie, presented on this dual format disc, is probably the silent version of the sound re-release. You follow?
Here’s what’s clear: Chaney is astounding in this film. His famous makeup skills are responsible for his hideously twisted face, with bulging eyes, no nose and leathery skin. His physical prowess is even more powerful, however. This Phantom is elegantly sinister, a ghost fit for a grand opera house. And even through those grotesque features, his heartsickness for the unattainable Christine, played rather flatly by Mary Philbin, is plain.
What supports Chaney’s performance is the glorious gothic beauty of the thing. The Phantom of the Opera is art directed splendidly, lending due grandeur to the set pieces, such as the chandelier falling on the Opera audience, and adding luscious detail to the glamorous settings. Tinting adds texture to the film: warmth to the brightly lit theatre, a lurid violet for the spooky cellars. The apogee of Phantom’s grand design is the Bal Masqué sequence – a burst of searing two-strip Technicolor, in which Chaney, dressed in a skull mask and rich red satin cloak, stalks into the party, scattering guests and disrupting the festivities to declare a hex.
This is high-camp Hollywood hokum to be sure, but hokum dressed up to the nines. And arguably the sheer gorgeousness of the film, as well as Chaney’s chill portrayal of the spectre, lend the entire endeavour an unexpected gravitas. And there is so much here that repays not just the care taken in the Photoplay restoration, and in the composition of Carl Davis’s thrilling score, but the high-def Blu-Ray treatment too. That spectacularly crashing chandelier; the creepy shadows in the vault; the heartbroken unmasked Phantom, lurking on the Opera House roof, scarlet cape fluttering in the blue tinted night ; the horror of the first moment that Christine sees her pursuer’s terrifying face; the brutality of the mob at the movie’s close.
It should be no surprise that the success of The Phantom of the Opera spurred Universal on to create its famous string of horror movies in the 1930s. If you’re a horror fan yourself, you can’t miss this film which is both a fascinating predecessor to the genre, and also, courtesy of Chaney, a masterclass in acting for scary films. After all, what terrifies us most about the Phantom is not his unnatural powers, but that his very human vulnerabilities prompt him to use them.
The Phantom of the Opera Dual-format edition is available on 2 December from the BFI, rrp £22.99. Extras on the 3-disc set include 1925 and 1929 trailers, a reel from the lost talkie version, the mysterious “Man With a Lantern footage, the 1925 version of the film with a piano score by Ed Bussey, the Lon Chaney documentary, and a booklet of images and essays by Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury as well as a 1975 Monthly FIlm Bulletin review by Geoff Brown. Order a copy for £16.99 from MovieMail here.