Film Rants: The Phantom of the Opera (1925 silent film)

The poster for the 1925 film.For most people, the 1925 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera is the first time Gaston Leroux’s novel reached the big screen. Technically, this isn’t the case, as there was a Russian film based on the novel released in 1916. Whether that was any good, only the people who saw it over a century ago know; no copies of the film remain. So for our discussion of The Phantom of the Opera and its many adaptations, we have to skip over the first one and go right to the 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney – which isn’t too bad a deal, since the silent film is pretty darned good.

Oh, sure, there were some missteps here and there, as with anything Phantom related. The titular antagonist is reduced from a complex, needy, but very damaged individual to an escaped criminal. The story is shortened and somewhat simplified due to the constraints of the medium. But in terms of accuracy to Leroux’s original novel, this film is the closest there is. Moreover, the costumes and sets stand up favorably to just about anything you’ll see even in the modern day. The latter is likely due to a whole team of individuals who collaborated to make some truly breathtaking (for the time) sets. The former is almost exclusively thanks to the brilliance of Lon Chaney.

The key to the story of The Phantom of the Opera is that Erik, the phantom, is hideous. Not just an ordinary ugly duckling, but truly horrifying. He has a hole where his nose is supposed to be. His eyes can only be seen in the dark, when they shine like a cat’s. He has the cold feel of death about him. He sleeps in a coffin. Although he was born human, he is every bit as much a monster as the creations of Jekyll or Frankenstein. That’s where the ultimate tragedy of the story comes from – Erik is totally insane and downright homicidal due to the fact that no one, up until Christine Daae, has ever shown him any sort of affection. Even Christine, while she shows Erik sympathy and even love, can’t stand to look at him for very long. With just an ugly character, this is an obstacle that can be overcome. Because Erik is so hideous, people judge him as a monster on sight, driving him underground and causing his long descent into insanity.

As time went on, Erik became increasingly handsome in these adaptations. It started with the 1943 film we’ll go over next time, when the role was taken up by the charming Claude Rains. It really picked up steam after Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical came out, in which the Phantom only wore a half-mask. To be fair to the musical, though, they tried staying true to the look of the character from the novel, but doing so would have required five hours of makeup time and limited the vocal range of the actor, which is kind of an important thing for a musical. Films have less of an excuse, since there is more prep time and the ability to dub in singing, but I’ll take my shots at later movies in the future. The point here is that in an ideal adaptation of the novel, the Phantom has to be truly, frighteningly ugly. And, due to several changes in the story and constraints of various media, only this film got that look right. Lon Chaney was a master of theatrical makeup and came up with a man who really did look like he had a death’s-head for a face:

Chaney's Phantom

Chaney's Phantom

Sure, that might not look like much now, but remember that this was in 1925, when movies were still young. Over 80 years later, we have countless grotesqueries in our cinema and are thus desensitized to things like this. But to really illustrate how effective Chaney’s makeup was, compare his Phantom to Aaron Eckert’s Two Face from The Dark Knight:

The film quality has increased, but the makeup is still comparable.

The film quality has increased, but the makeup is still comparable.

Remember that Eckert’s character was created by a team of people and further aided by computer imagery applied in post-production. Even 80 years later, Chaney’s work holds up well.

At the time of the movie’s release, it was suggested that theatres keep smelling salts on hand. This was not mere publicity – there were people actually fainting at the classic unmasking scene when we first saw Erik’s face. That kind of reaction is just about perfect in terms of the story – that’s how people in Erik’s life reacted to him upon seeing him. They were repulsed. Even his own mother disowned him. By really showing off the Phantom’s ugliness, we see the dilemma presented in the story. Were he merely somewhat ugly or mildly disfigured, then all those who feared him become the villains – they should have overcome their prejudices. But since he looks like a living corpse, the audience feels a portion of the revulsion the characters in the film did. Then that fear of the monster goes from being mere prejudice to something natural and understandable. At the same time, it is still a great injustice because Erik never asked to be disfigured and probably would not have become the insane murderer he was had people been able to see past their fears. It goes from a straight good guy/bad guy scenario into the territory of tragedy – no one can blame people for fearing Erik, but that natural reaction is exactly what drove a gentle soul to a life of evil.

In terms of story, the film follows the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel pretty faithfully, although it makes a few key changes, some which were beneficial to future adaptations, others which were not. The biggest change was a switch around in narrative structure that brought the Phantom in early and often. Leroux’s novel focused mostly on the Opera Ghost as a legend and concerned itself with the mystery behind Christine Daae’s sudden surge in talent and bizarre performance. We didn’t get the famous scene of the Phantom whisking Christine away into the labyrinthine opera until more than halfway through the story, and even then it was in flashback. To me, the original story doesn’t get off-the-charts good until about two-thirds of the way through, when the Persian is introduced and we really explore Erik’s madness. That kind of pacing would be terrible in a movie, and so the film changes the scenes around some, introducing Erik much earlier and dealing more intensely with his relationship to Christine right off the bat. This change in pacing would become the standard in future adaptations, including the musical.

The novel was written as a historical account, with the narrative providing many sources, ranging from sworn testimony by Raoul to the chief of police to the detailed journal entries from the Persian. Leroux’s writing style is quite fascinating, because while it makes a display of being a historical text, it includes a lot of dialogue and prose-style point of view scenes that would be absent in a real history piece. Despite that, there’s just enough of a veneer of academic writing to make the reader accept it as something other than a novel – in essence, the reader is willingly allowing Leroux to trick him with the text. Sadly, that sort of complexity doesn’t translate into the visual medium well, so we get this film in a more objective, traditional film style. That’s a not a bad choice – it’s just one of those ways that an adaptation just can’t compete with the original.

Again relating to the pacing, some of the more minor scenes from the novel get turned into dramatic set-pieces in the film. The masked ball, for example, had the Phantom walking around as the Red Death in the novel, but it’s made a much bigger deal here, with the Phantom threatening people and the entire film tinted red to reflect his costume choice. Again, the pacing changes are something that got adopted by later adaptations, including the musical.

The place where I think this film really fumbles the ball is the end. The Persian is replaced by an Inspector Ledoux here, but his purpose remains the same. In the novel, the Persian’s role is to explain some of Erik’s background, thus giving us a bit of sympathy toward him even as he kidnaps Christine and tortures the Persian and Raoul. In a silent film, dialogue can’t be used as often. Even if it were, you can’t just spend a long chunk of time explaining somebody’s backstory in a movie like you can in a novel. In the novel, the reader still imagines a scene like he’s there, even if it’s just written out as exposition. In a movie, that trick doesn’t work. As a result, Erik’s complex backstory full of betrayal and tragedy is reduced to him being an escaped prisoner. Worse, the film ends with him running off with Christine as his hostage, then abandoning her to flee for his life when she falls from the stolen carriage. So while this Erik is a monster, he lacks the sympathetic and tragic parts that made the original so great.

That’s not to say that Chaney’s depiction of Erik himself is a bad one. His performance is filled with subtlety – a tough thing to do in a medium where you have to make your movements and facial expressions extra grandiose for the audience. A couple items really stuck with me after viewing the film:

First, when Erik has Ledoux and Raoul dead to rights, he gives into Christine’s pleading and frees them, all before running off in a stolen carriage with her. This bit would probably make more sense had the original ending been used, which had the Phantom let Christine go and then die of a broken heart, much like in the novel. I guess the studio wanted more action at the climax. If so, would this be an early example of executive meddling?

Second, Erik’s death scene is pretty fun to watch. With a mob closing in on him, he holds up something in his hand. Not sure what it is, the approaching mob backs off. Maybe Erik could have gotten away, but then he opens his hand to reveal…nothing. He gives a mad laugh before being thrown to his doom in the Seine River. Why he gave himself up when he might have gotten away is a matter for discussion and speculation, and it sticks with me even though to took less than five seconds on film. It’s also worth noting that Chaney’s mad laugh is something you can practically hear despite this being a silent film.

So that’s my summary of the 1925 silent film. It’s a good movie, and one of the first true spectacles in the medium of cinema. It falls short of the original story mostly due to constraints of the medium and the fact that they decided to cut out most of Erik’s sympathetic features. But overall, it’s definitely something you should check out if you get the chance. And speaking of getting the chance, it turns out that the entire film is available on YouTube:

Next time, we’ll move into the realm of talkies and discuss my man-crush on Claude Rains, despite the fact that the adaptation featuring him as the Phantom probably did more harm than good to the franchise.

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