Although Lon Chaney was the "man of a thousand faces" and was an acclaimed performer in more than just horror, the elements for much of his early and most prestigious credits are lost, but the greatest of his few horror credits PHANTOM OF THE OPERA lives on in Kino Lorber's two-disc Blu-ray package.
Although screenwriters and playwrights have often taken liberties in adapting Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel (with the phantom's origin story changing from film to film), the basic story should be familiar to viewers: beneath the Paris Opera House are the buried dungeons and torture chambers that have become the subterranean lair of the musician Erik (Chaney) – sometimes born deformed, sometimes a composer who once lived among other men before being disfigured in some manner – who has earned the reputation as the "Opera Ghost" for his appearances backstage and in the reserved box five. When Christine Daae (Mary Philbin, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS) joins the company understudying diva Carlotta (Virginia Pearson, IMPOSSIBLE CATHERINE) in a production of "Faust", the Phantom coaches her singing from behind her dressing room walls (with the ingénue believing him to be the "Angel of Music" her father told her about as a child). The Phantom sends missives to Carlotta and the new management warning the diva to let Christine take her place on the stage or court disaster. Carlotta takes ills the first night and Christine becomes an instant success as Marguerite. Christine's childhood friend and suitor Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) plans to marry Christine and whisk her way to domesticity now that she has realized her dream, but her master demands her devotion. When Carlotta defiantly takes the stage the next night, the Phantom sends the chandelier crashing down onto the audience and draws Christine down into his lair. Hiding his face behind a mask, the Phantom declares his love for the reluctant Christine but warns her never to try to see his real face. When curiosity gets the better of her and she reacts in horror, the Phantom plans to keep her with him, only allowing her to revisit the surface one last time if she promises not to see Raoul ever again. Christine arranges to meet Raoul in secret at the opera's "Bal Masque", but the Phantom – making a striking appearance as The Red Death – learns of her betrayal and abducts her again. Raoul's only hope of finding Christine is to depend on the mysterious "Persian" Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe, THE CAT AND THE CANARY) to lead him through the opera's catacombs. When stagehand Joseph Bouquet (Bernard Siegel) pays the price for revealing the phantom's secrets, his vengeful brother Simon (Gibson Gowland, GREED) rounds up a mob to storm the phantom's lair.
An ambitious and lushly-mounted near disaster, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA met with mixed reception upon release. The film was originally released in 1925 after several costly reshoots that altered the tone towards the more adventurous and then the more comic before arriving at the film's final preview version. Meticulous recreations of the Paris Opera House were erected on the Universal backlot that were so massive they had to be photographed outdoors from a distance in order to encompass the sets on-camera. These sets would be reused throughout the twenties, thirties, and forties in Universal pictures whenever an opera set was required, and the Notre Dame cathedral mock-up created for HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME figures into the new action climax. While Chaney is authoritative and still quite chilling in his self-designed make-up, the direction of Rupert Julian (THE CAT CREEPS) is rather unimaginative and the camerawork well-lit and well-framed but static. In 1929, the film was reissued with sound, inserting new dialogue sequences (directed by Edward Sedgwick), and new ballet and opera sequences, while also rewriting some of the intertitles. Since Carlotta's opera sequences were to be replaced with new singing sequences, actress Mary Fabian to play Carlotta and sing, while the intertitles were rewritten to turn actress Pearson into Carlotta's mother confronting the management about the threats on behalf of her daughter. Since Chaney was under contract with MGM at this time, he could not be brought back to shoot new scenes or "dub" his performance, so the voice that speaks to Christine through the walls of her dressing room is now the Phantom's emissary, seen briefly before the Phantom's shadow dismisses him (the Phantom's dialogue remains as intertitles throughout). According to the disc commentary, Universal pretty much disavowed their silent library, melting down the nitrate elements of those that had not been reissued with sound to extract the silver. The original 1925 final preview version of PHANTOM exists only in 16mm because it, along with Chaney's earlier HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, were marketed by Universal in that format as "Show at Home" rentals. The versions most of us have seen derive from various elements for the 1929 reissue version without the sound elements, which is actually purported to be a silent version of the recut meant for European export with the reshot opera and ballet scenes but without the new dialogue sequences, and other scenes shot from slightly different angles. The sound discs do survive for the film, but only one picture reel of the sound cut survives (the sound could only be loosely synchronized to the version on disc and was of course missing the new dialogue scenes).
While the "Show at Home" prints of the 1925 version distributed in the thirties became obscure, the silent 1929 version became available on the bootleg circuit from a 35mm print struck off the recut original camera negative for the George Eastman House in the 1950s. This version became more widely available as a 16mm print from Blackhawk Films in the seventies with a Wurlitzer organ score by house composer Gaylord Carter, which was purchased by universities and ran once in a while on PBS (back when their definition of "classic" was not limited to DOWNTON ABBEY). A number of PD VHS releases appeared in the eighties and nineties from the usual labels (some with different scores). I first saw clips from the unmasking on THE MUPPET SHOW and the entire film on a mail order tape from Discount Video Tapes. Kino issued the first semi-official version in 1989 and a restoration was performed by Photoplay in 1996 that Image/Milestone Film & Video issued on DVD in 2003 which featured the 1925 cut with a score by Lon Chaney website author/silent film accompanist Dr. Jon Mirsalis and the 1929 cut accompanied by a score by Carl Davis (FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND) or a commentary by Scott McQueen. BFI region free Blu-ray/DVD combo featured the Photoplay version with the Davis score and the 1925 version with a score by Ed Bussey. Exclusive to this release was the feature-length "Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces" documentary (85:15) from 2000.
Image's 2011 Blu-ray was derived from a new restoration by David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates and included the 1929 version at 20fps with an orchestral score by Gabriel Thibaudeau (more on that later) in LPCM 2.0 stereo and a new audio commentary by Mirsalis as well as a 24fps version with your choice of LCPM 2.0 stereo scores by Alloy Orchestra or the seventies Blackhawk score by Gaylord Carter. The 1925 version (in SD and untinted) featured a piano score by Frederick Hodges in LPCM 2.0 stereo. Besides the film's theatrical trailer, the disc also included a Canadian TV interview from 2004 with composer Thibaudeau who discussed his usual working methods accompanying silent films on piano and how he was moved to write an original score for piano, synthesizer, and soprano for PHANTOM after seeing it on video tape. The performance of it went over so well that he was invited to compose an orchestral score for video and other mediums (it is this score performed by I Musici de Montreal that appears on the Blu-ray). All of this was also ported over for Park Circus' Region B Blu-ray edition.
The 1929 cuts (91:51 at 20fps and 78:04 at 24fps) are identical quality-wise with a generally clean image with tinted in ambers and emerald greens according to the script (the Photoplay version sometimes utilized reds, lighter greens, and even purple in the scenes with the Phantom's shadow). The two-color "Bal Masque" is gorgeous given the primitive technology which Mirsalis tells us on the commentary track was strongest in rendering reds and fleshtones (explaining the heavy use of red in the costumes). There is some mottling from nitrate damage, but Mirsales tells us that this was evident on the Eastman House 35mm element suggesting the original camera negative was already decomposing when the print was struck. Thibaudeau's rich orchestral score is the strongest of the choices, lending believability to the opera sequences with the combination of soprano Claudine Cote and the heavy quotation of Gounod's "Faust" (which some of the other scores do so more half-heartedly with their pianos and synths).
Mirsalis, citing McQueen's commentary and American Cinematographer article on the film, as well as his own experience as an accompanist and collector of all things Lon Chaney (from rare 8mm reels to photographs from the estate of the actor's brother), starts off well as a commentator, covering the film's original script and the changes from romance to gothic horror, the various production problems with actor-turned-director Julian bullying crew and cast (including Chaney), the preview screenings and the reshoots, as well as the critical reception. Although he loves the film, he is not afraid to point out its weak points like its dull romantic leads, as well as how the some of the cuts to the 1929 version weaken the film (although it is his version of choice to show to new viewers because of the print quality). He makes a case for the film's strengths lying with Chaney (who was rumored to have directed some scenes himself), the cinematographers, the art directors, and some of the supporting cast rather than Julian. He also discusses the careers of the cast after the film (with Kerry and Philbin retiring in the early thirties), but his extended biography for Chaney takes up the last third of the film and finds him discussing details of the actor's personal life (interesting as they are) while commenting less and less on the action as it gets more exciting.
Kino Lorber reproduces this package with the same A/V specs and score choices for each cut, the Thibaudeau interview (10:30), and theatrical trailer (3:14), as well as some new extras. While the BFI included the only surviving reel of the sound edition, Kino Lorber has included lengthier "Excerpts of the Sound Edition" (53:55) loosely-synchronized to fit the 1929 version, with intertitles pointing out missing footage from the newer dialogue scenes, as well as the full reel five centered around the aftermath of the chandelier crash and Christine venturing into the Phantom's lair. The original screenplay is presented as scrolling white text against a black background (90:59), with some of the scene notations including tinting information. Also included were two turn-of-the-century travelogues shot by Burton Holmes (1870 – 1958) titled "Paris from a Motor" (3:24) and "A Trip on the Seine" (3:30) that give an idea of what Paris looked like during the period in which PHANTOM is set. (Eric Cotenas)
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