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The Phantom of the Opera: The Ultimate Edition

Milestone Film & Video / Image Entertainment

Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry

Written by Raymond Schrock and Elliott J. Clawson,
from the novel by Gaston Leroux

Directed by Rupert Julian, with footage directed by
Edward Sedgwick, Ernst Laemmle, and Lon Chaney

Restoration and supplements produced by
Photoplay Productions (Kevin Brownlow, etc.)
and Scott MacQueen

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Review by Mark Bourne (with thanks to Tim Williams)                    

"That ungrateful little bastard is leaving me with a million dollar picture that has a misshapen freak as the main character!"

— Carl Laemmle, President of Universal Pictures,
commenting on Irving Thalberg's defection to MGM
after Thalberg committed
The Phantom of the Opera
as Universal's next big project

When they weren't at the flickers, moviegoers in 1925 heard Calvin Coolidge become the first U.S. President to have his inauguration broadcast on radio. They read newspaper headlines about the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and Mussolini announcing his dictatorial powers over Italy. Perhaps they noticed the first publications of The New Yorker and Mein Kampf. When they attended the motion picture houses, they were the first audiences to see Chaplin's The Gold Rush, the dinosaurs-on-the-loose adventure The Lost World, and one of the earliest horror films, the prelude to the great era of the Universal Classic Monsters, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney.

Gaston Leroux's perverse romance/thriller is by now an oft-told tale. Numerous movie remakes and one of Broadway's most popular musicals have kept the hideously scarred and murderously obsessed musician Erik alive. Hiding his deformity behind a mask, Erik haunts the Paris Opera House and lives in the cavernous catacomb waterways and dungeons beneath its floors. He is the shadowy unseen teacher, mentor, and "angel" of a young understudy, the beautiful soprano Christine (Mary Philbin). He vows to make her the star of the Paris Opera, a promise that involves threatening the new owners of the opera house and terrorizing the opera's lead soprano during a public performance with a crashing chandelier. But Christine's love goes to a handsome soldier, Raoul (Norman Kerry), who cannot prevent the Phantom from luring the mesmerized Christine into his subterranean lair. There the Opera Ghost professes his love and eternal devotion to his pupil. He even has an ornate bedchamber waiting. After the famous unmasking, Erik commands Christine to abandon her love for Raoul. Her eventual betrayal crazes the mad Erik even further, leading to a new abduction, torture chambers, barrels of gunpowder rigged to destroy the opera house, and a chase through the Paris streets to the Seine.

We tend to compare The Phantom of the Opera to the fairy tale romance Beauty and the Beast. A better comparison would be to King Kong. Erik is a monster, alright, but the beauty he loves never touches her abductor's "inner good" or brings about his redemption (although that trope did originally end the movie until audiences complained that it was unbelievable). Instead, his unrequited love leads inexorably to his doom as surely as Kong's did.

Today The Phantom of the Opera remains among the most familiar films from the silent era, even if it's remembered almost solely for one brief moment — the disfigured Erik's unmasking at the hands of the woman he loves. The shocking revelation of that cadaverous face is so magnificently handled that Chaney's Phantom is now as much a part of Hollywood history as "Rosebud" and Rick's Cafe. Like Chaplin's Little Tramp, the Phantom would be at home on a postage stamp commemorating the whole of 1920s cinema. (For Halloween 1997 the U.S. Postal Service released a Universal Classic Monsters series of 32¢ stamps honoring Chaney's unmasked Phantom as well as Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolfman, and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein Monster and The Mummy.)

As for the rest of the movie, let's just say that its reputation as a nominal horror classic comes more from Implanted Memory Syndrome than from its actual merits. Images of Lon Chaney's ghoulish makeup have been so ubiquitous in popular culture that the film as a whole has benefited by association. Far more people are familiar with Chaney's face than have actually sat through the grandly yet clumsily executed hokum; nonetheless, its status is so secure that even silent-cinema aficionados can get snippy if you point out that The Phantom of the Opera is something of a naked emperor.

In this gaudy, overbaked Grand Guignol melodrama where performance styles are over the top and down the far side, Chaney is triumphant. His meticulous pantomime makes Erik more than merely a scarred madman. He is intelligent, lovelorn, proud, inventive, and agile. His sinister plans are undone only by his uncompromising love for Christine. It's one of the great virtuosic performances of the silent era — so riveting, in fact, that his less-talented costars are spear-carrying functionaries in comparison.

The son of two deaf-mutes, Chaney was a powerfully expressive mime and already a superstar after his moving performance as 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where he imbued a grotesque character with humanity through layers of makeup and uncomfortable facial appliances. Phantom's grandiose gothic designs — particularly the Paris Opera House interiors, the Bal Masque sequence (shot in costly two-strip Technicolor), and the subterranean catacombs — are lavish. However, if it weren't for the man whose 999 other faces are pinnacled by the horrific Erik, the film would likely be a mostly forgotten failure today. But Chaney, an actor's actor, played the Opera Ghost and The Phantom of the Opera carved its groove into our cultural memory.

*          *          *

The Phantom of the Opera was conceived by producer Carl Laemmle as a spectacle-rich prestige production, Universal's "million dollar Super Jewel" for 1925. As the outstanding scholarly commentary track on this new DVD elucidates with clear-eyed and often microscopic detail, it ended up representing one of the most egregious production botch-ups in Hollywood history. Film historian Scott MacQueen has no qualms about thumping the blame soundly at the feet of "the first botch," director Rupert Julian — a pretentious, incompetent, "utility man" hack reviled by his cast and crew. With his upturned mustache and riding jodhpurs, he might have been an early model for the "temperamental director" stereotype seen in cartoons and comedies. A former actor, Julian had repeatedly played Kaiser Wilhelm. Apparently that role, as interpreted by Hollywood during World War I, which is to say as a tyrannical mediocrity, rubbed off on him. Even his wife, a former director herself, belittled the autocratic bully before his production crew by loudly reminding him that he was "just a barber" (which was largely true).

In charge of a story and resources worthy of a director with artistic vision and imagination, Julian failed to give the production the magic it deserved. Minus a few memorable exceptions, Phantom as we know it is a string of scenes that are emotionally and cinematically flat, shot without flair or imagination. The coherence and rhythms of the storyline are terminally off. Julian's footage is a museum of ham-handed histrionics, missed opportunities, indelicate sloppiness, and sluggish pacing. All that, not to mention his own disagreeable personality, kneecapped the production from frame one.

Chaney was nothing if not a consummate professional. His relationship with the director became so strained that the two clashing egos stopped speaking and had to communicate, usually in the form of obscenities and insults, through an intermediary. When Chaney said of Julian, "Tell him to go screw himself — I'll do it the way I want," it was a typical rebuff, one outdone by costar Norman Kerry's attempt to run down Julian with a charging horse. (Perhaps unfortunately, only a camera was injured.)

Ultimately four directors worked to salvage Phantom. When audiences found the first edition of the film to be ponderous and unsatisfying, Western director Edward Sedgewick shot new scenes, including the climactic chase. Responsibility for many of the film's best scenes, such as the Phantom's unmasking, goes to Chaney himself, who often ignored the pompous and irritating Julian. The 1929 sound reissue contained new footage directed by Ernst Laemmle, one of "Uncle Carl" Laemmle's ubiquitous relatives. (Carl's niece, Carla, appears in the opening ballet scene, and on this DVD in a video interview.) In their scenes, Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry come across as ill-served, though Philbin could thank Chaney for her shining moment of terror in the crucial unmasking scene. The fright she displays as she lies on the floor following the unmasking is in fact genuine. It wasn't fear of Chaney's makeup, but of Chaney himself. The canny actor got the reaction he wanted from the sensitive young actress by pretending to berate and verbally abuse her as the camera rolled.

Chaney originally wanted Eric Von Stroheim to direct Phantom. In a wistful Hollywood "what if" scenario, we can dream about what Stroheim or Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau might have done with the assignment.

Not that the source material itself was any great shakes. Gaston Leroux's penny-dreadful potboiler novel resisted translation into a satisfying screenplay. On screen it creaks at every step, and during production the screenwriters were always in search of an ending. Even after its initial public opening, the film went through the sausage grinder of numerous reshoots, re-edits, and re-thinks. Scenes were added or deleted, characters and subplots eliminated, and continuity shuffled like playing cards. The re-dos even killed off the already put-upon Phantom in varying ways — from a broken heart at his pipe organ, from a bullet fired by "The Persian" (a character whose identity and purpose shifted wildly from recut to recut), and in the final muddled patchwork, by a thrashing mob of torch-bearing locals that ends Erik's life with, as MacQueen puts it, "bathos, bashed brains, and bubbles."

*          *          *

In all the chaos, the question of who Erik actually is got lost. The origin of the Phantom's fearsome aspect went through several changes. Unlike the remakes, such as Universal's 1943 version starring Claude Rains, in which the Phantom is invariably a once-normal man scarred by acid flung in an altercation, the original Erik's ugliness was variously explained.

One script had his face mutilated at the age of three by a soldier's bayonet, a childhood trauma that shaped both his generally unpleasant personality and his left-wing politics, as the original script called for the Phantom to be a leading revolutionary known as "The Scourge" during the Paris Commune in 1871.

Another treatment made Erik the survivor of having been condemned to death on an anthill. He was sent to this hideous fate by the Shah of Persia, Erik's erstwhile employer, for whom he had built an elaborate torture chamber (which we see onscreen in Erik's underground abode). Young Erik would amuse the Shah by executing prisoners with the "Punjab lasso" (also a feature of Erik's extant Parisian existence). Erik was rescued from this hideous death by "The Persian" character, but not before his face was destroyed, along with most of what was left of his basic decency.

But to all appearances, the existing film implies, like the original novel, that he was in fact born that way. The film states that he had been born during "the Boulevard Massacre" and was an escapee from Devil's Island, where he'd been incarcerated for criminal insanity. The Persian, thanks to the magic of silent-screen intertitle cards that were conveniently changeable, became police inspector Ledoux, who skulks the perimeters of the story until he reveals that he has been on the Phantom's trail for months.

*          *          *

By the end of the whole ordeal, the final product still didn't entirely work. In its day, critics lauded Chaney but lambasted the movie. Whereas publicity pieces planted by the studio gushed and fawned over Phantom, the San Francisco Call provided its own assessment: "By the time the Phantom makes his initial appearance, reels of apparently inconsequential events have wearied the audience. The story drags to the point of nausea. We greatly fear an unkind fate for the millions which are said to have been invested."

Variety noted that it was "beautifully produced, but the story fails entirely to bring out the necessary heart interest to make it a draw at the box office. The direction misses in many spots and the story fails to hold the audience in the silly parts, instead bringing gales of laughter."

Variety got just one thing wrong there. With the September 1925 New York premiere hyped to the hilt, Phantom was a smash box office draw. Just as in our new century, audiences' magnetic attraction to giddy thrills and grandiose spectacle — plus, perhaps, the lurid sexuality represented by the subterranean bedchamber Erik prepares for his and Christine's consummation — guaranteed that the movie was critic-proof. Its financial success saved the studio at a time when film profits were suffering audience-loss due to the advent of broadcast radio. Phantom carried Universal for the next five years, until 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front and, in '31, Dracula, which kicked off Universal's seminal horror cycle.

Maybe it's true that pulp, as Pauline Kael wrote, "with its five-and-dime myths, can take a stronger hold on people's imaginations than art because it doesn't affect the conscious imagination the way a great novel does, but the private, hidden imagination, the primitive fantasy life — and with an immediacy that leaves little room for thought." If so, then the longevity of The Phantom of the Opera shouldn't be surprising. (Nor the blockbuster success of Andrew Lloyd Webber's painted elephant of a musical.) There's something in it that even its tacky melodrama and artless director can't extinguish. The allure of "five-and-dime myths" is as strong today as it was in 1925 or in Shakespeare's day. Movies indulge our propensity for immediacy and purely sensory pleasures. Now DVDs stoke our comfort in nostalgia. The ultimate triumph of Phantom of the Opera may be, then, its enduring ability to provide both.

Version control

Because of its numerous re-dos, today there is no "pure" version of Phantom of the Opera. But there are five pedigrees:

The new "talking" Phantom was not greeted with uniform accolades. The poorly looped dialogue sequences did not match many of the still-present intertitles. Worse, they did not enhance the drama. Rather, they sounded artificial and ponderous. ("For the most part slow and stupid" was how The New York Times said it.) Most dire was dialogue given to Christine and Raoul in the "Apollo's Lyre" rooftop scene, which was entirely refilmed, its concise intertitles exchanged for dreary blather captured in a single long camera take. As commentator MacQueen notes on this disc, "Norman Kerry returned from England to face death-by-dialogue at Universal City. Mary Philbin faced a fate worse than dialogue" — the non-singer was asked to sing as an opera star.

Their lovers' tryst dialogue, along with some of the other talking sequences, does not appear on the sound version preserved on this disc. Instead you can access them via the Audio Gallery menu item. "For your listening horror," as MacQueen says. Purists may screech, but after listening to the snipped dialogue in the Audio Gallery I agree that the movie is better off without them. Other looped-in voices, including the character Buchet's early exposition and a man's voice impersonating (badly) a cat's meow, remain in this edition.

Universal purchased rights to a sound version of Phantom when it acquired the novel rights in 1922. That was, obviously, a prescient move since sound technology didn't become a viable reality until 1927. Chaney's contract was stern about one thing — that the Phantom would never, ever be given spoken dialogue. When reconstructing the film for sound, Universal wanted to loop in a voice for the Phantom but the one force more powerful than studio heads — the studio lawyers — said no. Sticking to the letter of the contract did not necessarily forbid violating its spirit, however, and the studio gave awkward monologues to the mysterious shadow (re-identified as one of the Phantom's "lieutenants") that speaks to Christine. Reports of the shadow's voice being that of Dwight Frye are probably apocryphal.

Sound technology was barely two years old, and many theaters were not yet equipped for it, so the 1929 version was released in both silent and sound editions. The 1929 silent edition has survived in the public domain, so it's what has most often appeared on TV, home video, and big-screen revivals, making it the version most familiar to us today. While the 1929 version is generally regarded by default as the "official" cut, not everyone agrees that it improves the coherence of the movie's plot. Some fans prefer the longer, but more complete, continuity and storyline of the 1925 New York general release cut, and they can make a good case for that preference.

The fact that Phantom was revamped for sound in 1929 may well have saved it from the oblivion that overtook thousands of other silent pictures. In 1948, the new management at Universal made one of their notorious "cost-saving" decisions. The studio's enormous silent film inventory could no longer be sold for theatrical distribution, and there was no demand for silent films in the new medium of television. So Universal decided that the inventory should instead be burned to recover the silver nitrate and simultaneously free up vault space. (Film historians and preservationists, along with all decent people everywhere, may feel free to shudder at this point.) Because it had been re-issued in '29 with Vitaphone sound discs, Phantom may well have been spared because it was mistaken for a sound film. Other prints existed, as the 1925 version on this DVD bears out, but the version most often seen heretofore has been the silent version of the 1929 reissue.


There has been no shortage of home video editions of Phantom of the Opera, and the site silentcinema.com provides a good overview of them. Milestone Film & Video's two-disc "Ultimate Edition" DVD, distributed by Image Entertainment, will please Phantophiles. We get not just a beautiful restored edition of the 1929 sound version. The 1925 New York silent version is also here, complete for the first time on DVD. The original two-strip Technicolor sequences, tinting, and "Handschiegl" color process are restored or well simulated. Bursting the digital seams are an informative commentary track that's worth the purchase price all by itself, a stunning orchestral score by Carl Davis, and several sub-basement catacombs of ancillary material.

Disc One

The restored 1929 sound version

Specifically, the reissue print here is the 1930 international sound version for foreign markets, which is the finest surviving print. This painstakingly restored edition was produced by Photoplay Productions (namely David Gill, Kevin Brownlow, and Patrick Stanbury), a fact that all by itself gives devotees of silent film restoration a reason to cheer. Sourced from a superior 35mm fine-grain master from George Eastman House as well as additional material from UCLA's Film and Television Archive, this edition features the original two-strip Technicolor footage, including the bal masque, or Masked Ball, sequence.

The print is extraordinary. It's clean and free of harsh splices, with excellent contrast and clarity. Some scratches and wear are unavoidable, but a quick comparison with Disc Two's 1925 version demonstrates how superb this restoration is. There's one scene in the middle — the Phantom leading Christine to the bedchamber — that's plainly from a separate source of lesser quality, but overall the print looks splendid. (That elaborate swan bed, by the way, is the same bed where Gloria Swanson slits her wrists in Sunset Boulevard.)

The color tinting used throughout avoids dreaded over-saturation. Tonal balance looks accurate. The proto-Technicolor footage is a standout, with the Phantom's "Red Death" cloak at the Masked Ball fairly shouting crimson. In the following scene (arguably the most striking in the film), the Phantom perches against the night sky on a statue of Apollo. Here an electronic facsimile of the original Handschiegl — hand-tinting — applied to his billowing cloak enhances the drama of red bat-like wings.

The running speed, always an issue with films of this vintage, looks natural. This version clocks in at 1:34:47.

Only one objectionable element pokes us in the eye. The transfer is rife with motion-blur. Right from the beginning, dancing ballerinas' legs cloud to transparency, and even a character turning his head or opening a door creates a distinct blurring effect. It's certainly not a showstopper (other viewers will undoubtedly be less forgiving), but it is at least a distraction. This being a restoration mastered in the U.K., I at first presumed that the blurring points to a frame-rate problem common in PAL-to-NTSC conversions. However, another explanation comes from a first-hand source, Dennis Doros of Milestone Films. Over at hometheaterforum.com, Doros is quoted to report that the blurring has nothing to do with PAL or the restoration process. Photoplay did their frames-per-second speed corrections for this transfer some years ago, when it was accomplished via tape-to-tape after the conversion from film. This is what caused the motion blur. With today's transfer equipment, the blurring would not occur. For Milestone it posed a tradeoff between the blurring and the superior restoration work Photoplay had accomplished.

Doros also acknowledged Scott MacQueen, who provides the commentary track for this edition, for spending literally 100 hours on video cleanup so that almost all the dust, speckles, scratches and framelines that are in every other master (especially in the bal masque sequence) no longer exist.

So there's no question: the motion-blurring, while unfortunate, is a minor concession for an otherwise outstanding restored Phantom.

Commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen

Famous as a Disney archivist, MacQueen is already familiar to fans of the Universal Classic Monsters series on DVD. He provided the audio commentary for the Bride of Frankenstein disc as well as the DVD of the 1943 Phantom remake with Claude Rains, a disc that also included the documentary The Opera Ghost: a Phantom Unmasked by MacQueen and David Skal. His two-part article on the original Phantom appeared in the September-October 1989 issues of American Cinematographer.

It's clear that MacQueen loves The Phantom of the Opera and knows the film and its complicated history down to the minutest details. But he's neither a droning academic nor a dewy-eyed fanboy. Relaxed, conversational, blunt, and frequently witty or affectionately sarcastic, he's perfectly comfortable pointing out the flubs and blunders on the screen and in the storyline. MacQueen even quotes some of the devastating negative reviews the film received. And you can bet that Rupert Julian gets no love here.

However, his praise for Chaney is boundless. MacQueen points out the hard work the actor put into his performance and into even the Phantom's numerous masks, which Chaney designed and which subtly change depending on the needs of a particular scene.

The track is packed with production history, information on the cast and crew, and the kind of juicy dirt that makes us wish we could travel back in time just to hang out on the set to witness it all. There's the positively goofy story of why the film was banned in Britain (Parliamentary outrage at a detachment of the Royal Horse Guards is involved). There's sweet, innocent, Catholic girl Mary Philbin getting felt-up by Julian on the set, and Norman Kerry's attempted hit-and-run via a charging horse targeted at the director. And of course the other apparently never-ending skirmishes between Julian and ... well, everyone, especially Chaney. MacQueen explains a peculiar visual effect that blurs Erik's face in two scenes, an effect that always struck me as a print flaw (instead, it's deliberate and occurs twice from Christine's P.O.V. to evoke her entrance into a near-fainting dream-like state).

Of special interest to historians are MacQueen's insights into the monkey-puzzle of edits and reshoots that so radically altered the film throughout its tortured production. The mystery of "the Persian" is well addressed, as is the inexplicable "floating, glowing head" seen in the Phantom's underground passageways.

This spirited exegesis is among the most engaging audio commentaries I've heard, up there with David Kalat's Dr. Mabuse track.

Carl Davis score — Composer/conductor Carl Davis scored Kevin Brownlow's renowned restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon. Here again he rises to a remarkable achievement. Originally composed in 1996 for the U.K.'s Channel 4 Television series of silent classics, this full-length Phantom score works as an exemplary accompaniment to the film as well as an orchestral work in its own right. It's beautifully produced in strong, crystalline Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo.

The original soundtrack edited to fit the picture — The original talking version of Phantom proper is a lost movie. However, its soundtrack survives and has been used for this auxiliary track, synchronized as intended for two-thirds of the common footage. The remaining third has been re-engineered for music only. The dialogue outtakes are archived in the Audio Gallery outlined below. The original musical score exhibits the low fidelity that silent-film fans are used to, but it's quite clear in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural.

Original theatrical trailers — The trailer for the 1925 version is silent, and most of its footage was reused for the 1929/30 sound version that follows. Both are in unrestored but reasonable shape.

Still Galleries — Ten video montages display hundreds of still images, from promo material to behind-the-scenes shots. While the content is first-rate, the display is problematic. First of all, most of the images appear within gold "picture frames" that reduce their screen size by quite a lot. Secondly, and more annoyingly, each individual video montage is authored with a severe set of remote-control restrictions (using my home theater, at least). During playback, you cannot fast-forward, rewind, or pause a montage. The inability to fast-forward and rewind is most aggravating in the Los Angeles premiere reconstruction, which tops 20 minutes in length. The inability to pause was a problem in the San Francisco premiere reconstruction's introductory text, which is not on the screen long enough to read in its entirety in a single playing. Each montage gallery exists as a single chapter-stop, and a click of the chapter-advance button bounced me out and back to the Main Menu. The still galleries are as follows:

Audio Gallery / Audio-Only Feature: Dialogue sequences from the sound version not found in this restoration — As mentioned above, here are nine dialogue sequences looped into the original sound version and excised from this edition. They are illustrated with scene-appropriate stills:

Disc Two

The 1925 silent version (1:47:03) — Milestone is the first home video producer to offer the complete original 1925 New York premiere version of the film on DVD. The storyline flows more smoothly than the sound reissue version, and with the alterations in cast and continuity it offers a remarkably different viewing experience.

The print, from a 16mm master, is definitely not in pristine condition. It's as contrasty as any typical multi-generation print, marred by scratches from start to finish. However, that's not unexpected to the aficionado who's likely to snap up this DVD, and it still looks better than most home video editions previously released. We're just pleased that it's a complete reconstruction right down to the brief "honeymoon" two-shot of Christine and Raoul at the end.

This edition of the 1925 version comes with a very good DD 2.0 stereo music score by the seriously hardcore Lon Chaney enthusiast Jon C. Mirsalis.

"Carla Laemmle Remembers," a video interview with David Skal (6:13) — Carl Laemmle's niece, who as a teenager played Phantom's Prima Ballerina, chats with horror film scholar David Skal. A genial matriarch at the time of this taping, she reminisces about Uncle Carl, growing up on the Universal lot, and the genius of Chaney.

Faust opera extract from the 1929 Tiffany sound feature Midstream (9:59) — A sampling of the opera performed in Phantom.

Audio-Only Feature: Cinematographer Charles Van Enger interview (9:11) — This 1973 audio conversation between historian Richard Koszarski and Phantom cinematographer Charles van Enger (a cantankerous old cuss) includes a funny anecdote about a blue poker chip and "screwy as hell" Rupert Julian.

—Mark Bourne

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