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American Cinematographer Magazine

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Ultimate Edition
Milestone/Image, $24.95

Before Andrew Lloyd Webber was a pixie-like twinkle in his father's eye, Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera was most famously dramatized by the classic silent horror film starring Lon Chaney. The sumptuously designed movie, shot by Charles Van Enger, ASC and directed by Rupert Julian, was Universal's "Super-Jewel" production for 1925. A generous budget was devoted to an incredible full-scale representation of the Paris Opera House, extended stagings of scenes from Gounod's Faust, and, for select sequences, two-strip Technicolor. The Phantom of the Opera was very popular, and Chaney's indelible makeup and masterful pantomiming secured it a firm place in movie history. That said, the film itself is static, often incoherently plotted, and rather dull whenever Chaney is off camera.

But that shouldn't keep anyone from snatching up this two-disc "Ultimate Edition" of the film and savoring its offerings, which includes two separate versions of the film, an outstanding commentary by historian Scott MacQueen, and a raft of extras, including a 1973 audio interview with Van Enger. On disc one is Photoplay Productions' restoration of a 1929 reissue print, featuring remarkably sharp and clean picture elements and an entire sequence returned to the original Technicolor. Disc two contains a badly scratched copy of the 1925 original release version, which is about 15 minutes longer than the reissue. 

As MacQueen points out in his commentary, there is no "pure version" of The Phantom of the Opera, and the movie's troubled production and extensive reshoots account for some of its narrative confusion. The film was previewed in early 1925 with a story that followed Leroux's 1910 penny-dreadful novel fairly closely. Chaney's masked title character, also known as Erik, haunts the opera house, offering young singer Christine Daa‚ (Mary Philbin) encouragement as a disembodied voice emanating from her dressing-room walls. Erik finally whisks Christine away to his lair in the catacombs, where, in a scene that is still quite startling, she unmasks him, revealing his disfigurement. (In this sequence, Julian's lifeless front-and-center staging is suddenly enlivened by dynamic camera angles; MacQueen accounts for the shift by theorizing that Chaney, whose disdain for the director has been well documented, had grabbed the reins.) Christine briefly escapes and returns to her more conventional lover, Raoul (Norman Kerry), before she is kidnapped once again by the unhinged Erik, who, when confronted with her love for Raoul, releases her and dies.

This ending didn't fly with preview audiences, so the film was extensively reworked before being screened in San Francisco, where it bombed. For the general release, most of the new material (stills from which are included on this DVD) was dumped, with the exception of a new ending directed by Edward Sedgwick and shot by Virgil Miller, ASC. In this comparatively kinetic sequence, the Phantom is run down by a mob and thrown in the Seine. In 1929, all major cast members except Chaney were assembled to film new dialogue sequences; that footage has been lost, but the soundtrack remains, and it has in places been synchronized to the Photoplay restoration (which can also be viewed with Carl Davis' score).

Despite the visual splendor of the restoration - the Technicolor Bal Masque sequence, which shows the Phantom descending the opera house staircase dressed as the Red Death, is really something to see - there are apparent conversion problems with the transfer from PAL to NTSC. (The restoration and original video transfer were done in Britain.) The consistent ghosting and strobing is very distracting, and does a disservice to such impeccable restoration work. Still, Ben Carr‚'s sets are shown off to magnificent effect, as is Van Enger's artful use of silhouette and compositional depth in backstage scenes to provide a much-needed measure of visual variety. The restoration also follows the tinting guidelines of the original release, and includes a digital reconstruction of a Handschiegl process used to color the Phantom's Red Death cloak in a scene on the opera roof.

In his audio interview, Van Enger reveals Julian's ineptitude in a funny anecdote about the episode in which Erik unties the opera chandelier, letting it fall onto the heads of the audience. The director insisted on absolute darkness for the scene, somehow failing to understand that light is a key component in perceiving action. When Julian demanded to look at the setup through Van Enger's blue contrast glass, the cinematographer instead handed him a blue poker chip - and the "view" through the opaque chip met with the director's approval. What Julian thought when he saw the resultant, generously illuminated footage has not been documented.

- John Calhoun

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.