The Bay Area’s economy may suck, but it can still be an amazing place to be if you love films (and can afford the occasional pricey event). 2015 was my first year back, after an absence of about 15 years—really, I find it’s best not to count any more. What I’m trying to tell you is that on Halloween, I had the privilege not only of watching Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, but of watching it in Grace Cathedral Church, with live organ accompaniment.
The Cathedral is an attraction in itself, and it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to see the 90-year-old gothic classic. It was heartening to see both showings had sold out.
The film has a complicated history, including a frosty reception upon its first (and second release). But even if the film weren’t importantly historically, with one of the first moments of moving technicolor (rather than hand-tinted film), it allows us to watch Chaney in all his sympathetic, oddball glory.
Phantom might have been the greatest vehicle for him, even if it’s not his best movie. It is, of course, an opportunity to shock us with the makeup he designed for the deformed Phantom. But, like a Ginsu-knife commercial, we also get so much more. Best of all is Chaney’s interpretation of the deranged villain.
Like all great villains, the Phantom has a well-honed sense of theatricality. However deranged he may be, the Phantom, like Chaney, is a sly master of spectacle. He doesn’t just live underneath an Opera House—he is constantly performing. It’s an understandable obsession for someone who is so ugly he has to hide from society. And he’s certainly better at it than poor Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), the hopelessly uninteresting Faust understudy whom he tutors. But Chaney’s Phantom is like Ridley Scott’s alien (admittedly, with less drool), we catch only hints, glimpses of the menace—the swish of a cape here, a gloved hand there, a shadow—until the big reveal.
Hollywood lore tells us that Mary Philbin (playing Christine Daaé) didn’t see Chaney in full Phantom glory until they were filming the reveal scene, the better to terrify her on camera. Rumor has it that patrons at the film’s premiere fainted when Christine tears off the Phantom’s mask. Chaney famously did his own makeup here, as elsewhere, and, Hollywood gossip aside, it is both grotesque and astounding. Early in the film, theater worker Buquet, cradling a prop head because why not, describes the Phantom to a rapt audience of skittish Opera ballerinas. His eyes are “ghastly beads in which there is no light.” His skin is a “leprous parchment—yellow skin stretched over protruding bones.” And no nose. Chaney wore a “contoured wire appliance to flare and pull back his nose,” a “contraption which would sometimes cause Chaney to ‘bleed like hell,’” according to cameraman Charles Van Enger (The Monster Show, David J. Skal)—and which made his face look uncannily like a skull.
What’s so unexpectedly delightful about this Phantom is his demented glee at his own flourishes. When the Opera managers don’t let Christine play the part of Marguerite as the Phantom has instructed them to do, he sends them a note: “Behold, she [the other Marguerite] is singing to bring down the chandelier!” And then, of course, the chandelier comes crashing down on the audience. (Which, oddly, doesn’t seem to hurt their box office, if later crowds are any indication.) You can practically hear him cackling. When the Phantom presents Christine with the ultimatum to marry him or he will kill her lover, Raoul of the fabulous moustaches, he wags his finger at her, as though she’s being mischievous.
The Phantom has the lyrical pomposity of the best villains, rearranging his syntax for effect: No longer like a toad in these foul cellars will I secrete the venom of hatred, for you shall bring me love. So romantic.
Arguably the best performance the Phantom gives is at the very, very end of the film, when an enraged mob chases him to the Seine. I won’t tell you what he does, but I like to think that Chaney came up with this last bit of Phantom magic himself.
And, as if that high-class, yet goofy, villainy weren’t enough, the Phantom lives in the bowels of an Opera House, surrounded by an underground lake. And his lair, five cellars below the stage, puts the Opera’s set decorators to shame. All the Opera House gets is a narrow trap door and that really, really big chandelier—which doesn’t even make it through the film. Meanwhile, the Phantom’s man cave boasts an advance alarm system to detect unwelcome visitors, a coffin for his bed and a one-person boat-bed for the woman he loves, an organ, a trapdoor, a secret exit, a torture chamber with its own trapdoor, and a grasshopper figure rigged to a cellar-full of explosives. All the cool kids have one of those.
Not to be missed is the elaborate torture—not of the hapless Christine, no, of her dashing mustache, I mean, boyfriend, and a detective. The two men are nearly roasted to death, a scene during which at least one of them disrobes more than you’d expect, and then nearly drowned. And then everybody is nearly blown up.
The Bal Masque scene is the only surviving sequence using the early Technicolor system. It’s fantastic, as you can see here:
But this is only the prelude to what’s probably my favorite image of the film, the Phantom spying on Christine and Mr. Moustaches on the rooftop of the Opera. The cellar-dwelling villain—a red stain on the now black and white scene—balances on a statue above the lovers, and above Paris. And while the two straight arrows simper at each other, the Phantom curses Christine’s betrayal, his red cape billowing out as though it were part of the statuary.
Well, let me first assure you that it is a matter of life and death. Really. The detective said so. Apparently, the Phantom has become known for silently lowering a noose around the necks of any persons so foolish as to go snooping in the cellars. Clearly, holding your arm up is the way to fend off an unwanted noose. Good tip.
It used to be that you could only see iffy prints of The Phantom paired with some truly godawful music—sometimes it’s not even pretending to be a score; it’s just the same piece of music being played over and over and over again, in absolutely no relation whatsoever to what’s happening on the screen. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. Kino has a recently digitally-restored Blu-ray version, as does Image Entertainment. The Image DVD has the Alloy Orchestra’s score and Gabriel Thibaudeau’s. (It also has the 1925 version of the film and two 1929 reissues.)
If you have never seen a silent film on a screen with live accompaniment, you’ve almost certainly not read this far, but if you’re still with me and you haven’t, do yourself a favor and find one you can get to. Lots of places (museums, summer festivals) now screen silents with live accompaniment around holidays or as special events. It will change the way you see silent film. (Sorta like reading Jane Austen or Laurence Sterne—or Shakespeare—and realizing that musty old literature isn’t musty at all and people were wickedly funny all the way back then, and still worth reading now, whenever now happens to be.)