The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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*. A movie with far too tortured a production history to get into here. For what it’s worth, I watched the 92-minute version, which itself is a pastiche of various efforts.
*. As the earliest film version of this story (Leroux was still alive) it’s also the closest to the original source. There are changes, but later interpretations would stray much further. Only the two signature moments – the falling chandelier and the unmasking – would remain constant.
*. Were the 1920s the golden age of film sets? I don’t (just) mean for their monumental scale, but for their atmosphere, shaping of space, and sheer loveliness.

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*. Perhaps it was the carryover from the world of the stage, but there also seems to have been a big step beyond this as well. For whatever reason, the sets here, designed by E. E. Sheeley, Sidney Ullman, and Ben Carre, are marvelous. Just look at that bedroom Erik has set up for Christine — while he sleeps in a coffin next door! The waterways are particular lovely (in the book it’s described as a lake, but it’s usually interpreted as an underground canal system). The opera set (on Universal’s sound stage 28) is the oldest surviving structure in the world built specifically for a movie. You really feel you are visiting another world here, and not just another time and place.
*. Speaking of the sewer system, the business with Chaney launching a submarine attack on the man in the boat is amazing. The basic idea is in Leroux’s novel, but it’s re-interpreted and made more effective. Indeed, at nearly every turn the events of the novel are tweaked to be made more powerful visually, the eavesdropping scene on the roof of the Opera being the best example. That’s just a bit of filler in the book, but here it’s one of the highlights, with the Phantom a work of living sculpture in his flowing cape and oversized gestures.

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*. It’s hard to figure out just what Erik’s point is. Unlike other versions of the story, we don’t see how he has “made” Christine as a star aside from dissuading her competition from taking the stage. Does he see her as a means to some sort of end, or as an end in herself?
*. But then the Phantom is a complex figure, one who has never been presented consistently, even in Leroux. In the novel he is a resentful, sadistic polymath, albeit one with an overriding need to be loved due to having been despised and abandoned by his mother. In later iterations he was more fully associated with his music, a Svengali-like impresario. He also became more romanticized (and less disfigured). In the original, as here, he is both dangerous and pathetic.

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*. The Technicolor Bal Masque sequence (shot in a two-colour system) looks fabulous, though I’m not sure I’d want the whole movie to look the same way. One can imagine the producers going overboard, given the baroque setting. I like it as is: a strange interruption.

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*. Indeed, it looks so good it makes you wonder why colour wasn’t used more at the time (and in 1925 Technicolor had already been around for a decade). The short answer is that it was very expensive and difficult, involving very large cameras, powerful (and cruel) lighting, and a complicated process of print production.
*. What an odd introduction: the man with the lamp and the Phantom’s shadow. It’s like the frontispiece for a book. Or, I suppose, a visual overture. It has no narrative or informational purpose, but does present what will be the dominant imagery of the film, the language of shadows.
*. I love the ballerinas who twirl when they get frightened or excited. I guess it’s the only way they know how to express themselves.
*. I wonder if it was intentional that the big unmasking scene take place at the exact mid-point of the movie. Probably not, since there were so many different cuts and versions of the film. Still, it strikes me as somehow significant.
*. I’ll give the final word to Freud, by way of David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: “Erik’s bulging head and stiff carriage give him the aspect of a ruined penis that can no longer seduce, only repulse the beloved.” As a bald man with a big head, I’m not sure how this makes me feel. Not very sexy, I guess.

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