Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I have a question – what is this thing on my head? (still from

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.

Grace Cathedral, photo by Michael Caven

Grace Cathedral, photo by Michael Caven. The screen was all the way at the back.

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.

umasking 1925Hollywood 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.

pointy phantom

The Uncle Sam poster came first, in case you were wondering.

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.

pointy phantom 2

This is what demented glee looks like.

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:

bal masque phantom

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.

Just one more tidbit. Why, you ask, are the two men on this lobby card (a detective and the mustachioed boyfriend), holding their arms aloft as if they’re in math class and they have to pee?lobby card arms

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.)

phantom at the organ

Lon Chaney–bendier than you realized.

The Great Villain Blogathon: Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol in Mad Love (1935)


Like most movie watchers of my generation, I probably first saw the actual Peter Lorre in Casablanca (1942). He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’s hard to forget. My first exposure to Peter Lorre, however, and perhaps also like a lot of folks my generation, was through the glory of Looney Tunes.

So when I saw him in Casablanca, and then in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and M (1931), I might already have understood what a big deal he was. But I couldn’t have understood how amazing Peter Lorre is, because I hadn’t yet seen the glorious Mad Love (1935).

As a villain, Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol might be a distant relative of Udo Kier’s Baron Frankenstein. On his best day, Dr. Gogol has at least one foot in la-la land. Far more refined than the putatively aristocratic Baron, he’s got Lorre’s soft, soothing voice and self-effacing manner. Gogol is, however, equally likely to slip into hysterics at the drop of a hat. He is, after all, an unhinged doctor, also a surgeon, like Baron Frankenstein. Very much unlike the Baron, we see Dr. Gogol using his surgical gifts for good, helping crippled children walk and so forth. Mad Love is so effective as a horror film in large part because Lorre somehow endows Dr. Gogol with a glimmer of humanity, and we empathize with it. It’s an amazing trick—more difficult, I think, than what he does as the murderer in M, simply because we know Gogol so much better. We hear him talk to others, and to himself; we see him do good, and we see him luxuriate in the suffering of others.

mad_love_poster_04Mad Love is a delirious adaptation of a French novel, Les Mains d’Orlac, by Maurice Renard, a story that has been adapted no fewer than eight times (though the English translation is now out of print). The first was in 1924, a silent film starring Conrad Veidt and directed by Robert Weine—which is not a bad way to start a second life in celluloid. Here in 1935, it’s astonishing how much plot director Karl Freund has been packed into a mere 68 minutes (though I’ve no idea what’s from the novel and what might not be).

When we meet Dr. Gogol, he’s attending a performance at the Théâtre des Horreurs, a popular Grand Guignol-type entertainment starring his favorite actress/torture victim, Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake). The camera takes us through the entrance, past the goblin selling tickets and the headless hatcheck girl. Yvonne plays a Duchess who is tortured on stage by her husband as an adulteress. Gogol attends this performance every night, and when Yvonne begins to scream as she’s being stretched on wheel, he closes his eyes in rapture. Ick. (Below the box he sits in every night is a nurse, as there was usually a nurse in attendance at such theaters, the better to create the illusion of unendurable horrors.)

grand-guignol-1In a sense, we never leave the Théâtre; the plot of the film is more bizarre and morbid, if not quite as gory, as anything that might have graced the Théâtre’s stage.

In quick succession the following happens:

Yvonne quits the stage to be with her successful pianist husband, Stephen Orlac (the twitchy Colin Clive). Gogol is devastated, and to compensate, he buys the wax figure of Yvonne that has been gracing the entrance of the Théâtre des Horrors. A murdering American knife-thrower from the circus is guillotined (Edward Brophy), witnessed by Gogol and a scandal-mongering American journalist (Ted Healy). Traveling to meet her, Yvonne’s husband, Stephen, is in a terrible train wreck in which his hands are crushed. And that’s the set-up.

After Yvonne’s final performance, she is fêted by the company, complete with a going-away-wedding cake.


“The théatre loses another head.” How romantic.

Now, things get weird.

Stephen’s destroyed hands will have to be amputated. In a panic, Yvonne takes her husband to Dr. Gogol, in the hopes that the famous doctor will be able to find a way Stephen can keep his hands. Desperate to please her, Gogol agrees to take a look. He comes to the same unpleasant pro-amputation conclusion. But while washing up before the operation, he has a flash of inspiration, if by “inspiration” one can mean a man’s reflection audibly urging him to acquire a handy corpse and replace a pianist’s crushed hands with the hands a guillotined knife-thrower no longer needs. Gogol follows this sage advice, assuring the reassembled Stephen that his new hands are truly his own.


Really, what could go wrong?

The American newspaperman gets wind that Gogol has taken the beheaded corpse, and when he swings by Gogol’s house to find out what the good doctor might be doing with it, he meets Françoise, Gogol’s perpetually drunk housekeeper. Who has a cockatiel on her shoulder, because why wouldn’t she? Françoise (May Beatty) assumes the newspaperman is asking about the wax figure of Yvonne, and she regales him with tales of grooming “it,” and of Gogol playing music to it every night. You know, on his chamber organ. But Gogol comes home and prevents the newspaperman from seeing any corpses with his own eyes.

I suspect that, in the novel, as in other adaptations of the original story, the main character is Stephen, the hands-less piano player. Here, it is the mad Gogol, and it’s an excellent choice. Clive is always effective as a gifted man losing his marbles, but Lorre is the main attraction, and his super-creepy obsession with Yvonne is certainly the stuff of horror movies. In fact, his super-creepy obsession has a long and proud literary heritage, to which the movie does a fine job of alluding.

As Stephen and Lorre mirror each other in their mad spiral, Gogol, a well-educated and cultured fellow, after all, takes to quoting poetry to articulate his feelings about Yvonne. He has, from the beginning, thought of the wax figure as Galatea and himself Pygmalion. Gogol recites some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which narrate her courtship with the poet Robert Browning.

Straightaway I was ‘ware,

So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move

Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;

And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,–

Guess now who holds thee?Death, I said, But, there,

The silver answer rang,–Not Death, but Love. (I.9-14)

The face of all the world is changed, I think,

Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul

Move still, oh, still, beside me…  (VII.1 – 3)


When the real Yvonne is locked in Gogol’s study by Françoise, Yvonne pretends to be his Galatea. When Gogol realizes she has “come to life,” she faints in his arms. He knows she will never accept him. What else to do but reply to Barrett Browning’s hopeful sonnets with the words of one of Browning’s madmen?

                                      …I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
       In one long yellow string I wound
       Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
       I am quite sure she felt no pain.
                            (from “Porphyria’s Lover”)


Both verses mention hair and Yvonne’s has been called to our attention repeatedly throughout the film. When we first see her, the long, wavy black hair has been brushed out to the point of frizziness.



The movie is full of mirrors (with and without talking ids) and the plot itself is wonderfully symmetrical, opening with Yvonne’s stage performance at the Théatre and closing with her performance in Gogol’s study. In each she is persecuted by a man who claims to love her, wearing strikingly similar gowns/robes. During her first performance, Stephen is performing a concert of his own—his music plays over the radio during Yvonne’s first encounter with Gogol, backstage. During her last performance, Stephen comes to the rescue with a new performance courtesy of his new hands.

There is a simply fantastic moment at the beginning of the movie when Gogol is in the lobby of the Théatre, mooning at the statue of Yvonne, and a similarly dressed inebriate reels out of the auditorium as though from a mirror reflecting Gogol. The fellow drunkenly professes his love for the wax effigy.

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The staging in this scene is also wonderful. As the drunk begins to speak to the statue, Gogol turns away, so we can focus on what the second man is saying. As the declaration of love continues, Gogol turns slightly, drawing our attention back to him, and his distress at what the drunk is saying. There are a few “reaction” shots of the statue—and when it’s in close up, it’s not an “it” at all, but the actress, Frances Drake, standing in for the statue, prefiguring the end of the film, when the character will do so.

Lorre was never even nominated for an Oscar, which strikes me as scandalous. If TCM has ever devoted a Summer under the Stars day to Peter Lorre, I’ve missed it. If they haven’t, it’s long overdue.



The film is the last of nineteen that famed cinematographer Karl Freund directed. Like Lorre, Freund was an Austro-Hungarian ex-pat with a background in Expressionist film (and the film has some great shadows and dark staircases). Freund did ground-breaking work on F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), and was also the director of photography on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and later, Dracula (1931).

Mad Love also features Keye Luke, a Chinese-born American artist-turned-actor, as Dr. Wong, Gogol’s much more sensible colleague. Luke played Charlie Chan’s Number-One Son, Kato, the klukeGreen Hornet’s side-kick, Master Po in “Kung Fu,” and was in Gremlins (1984) and Woody Allen’s 1990 Alice. He amassed a ludicrous 211 credits, with a guest spot on what appears to have been every television show in production during his career. “The Ray Milland Show”? Check. “Gunsmoke”? Check. “Mike Hammer,” “General Hospital” and “Perry Mason”? Check, check, and check. “Jonny Quest,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Star Trek,” “Hawaii-Five-O,” and on and on through “M*A*S*H,” “Remington Steele,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The A-Team,” “T. J. Hooker,” “The Golden Girls,” and “MacGyver.” Sheesh. No Emmy, but he did get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the year before he died. Luke and Lorre co-starred again in Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938).


**This post was originally intended to be part of a blogathon that took place in—holy cow—April. I didn’t realize it had been that long. Anyway, life intervened and I changed jobs and we moved and everything all went screwy for a couple of months. Things are settling down, so here we are again.