Wednesday, November 19, 2008

26. The Phantom Of The Opera - 1925

Director: Some nobody which is why I'll probably stop doing this section from now on unless I think it's especially relevant. Look it up yourself if my review doesn't mention it.

Synopsis: A phantom of the Parisian opera house forces the opera house to use Christine as their star because he loves her. The phantom lures Christine to his lair and professes his love. She removes his mask revealing his ugly countenance. She says she will be his slave forever but goes back on her promise. The phantom kidnaps her and Christine's boyfriend follows. Everyone in Paris also follows because they all find out where the phantom's lair is the exact same day. They are not particularly kind to the phantom. Also, there is some color footage.

Review: The version I watched was the 1929 version I believe.

In the early days of cinema, multiple versions of movies were made for a few reasons. Movies would be made for theaters (un)able to play sound films, later censorship or for foreign release (I find the two versions of The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse to be the most interesting as sound was so expensive that filming a movie twice was cheaper than redubbing a film for foreign markets!).
The most common version--read: the only one I have had the chance to see--of The Phantom Of The Opera is the 1929 version. The film was re-edited, used some different takes, used less color footage and incorporated sound differently. So, I'm not sure where the problems with this film began.

It's not that this movie does anything wrong; it never does anything as well as it should have. The Phantom Of The Opera is a perfect example of a movie that is almost great. There are some interesting elements here that are never fully explored. The movie could have been a straight horror movie or about a tormented musical genius gone mad or about love/obsession or a mystery. It tries to be all four and doesn't do any of them all that well.

Had the movie focused on one or two elements, it could have been a much better movie. It could done everything with a much longer running time--we call that the Dr. Mabuse, der spieler ratio--but it didn't. As it stands, most of the elements feel truncated. Since the movie supposedly follows the source novel closely, it's possible that this problem originated here.

That's not to say there isn't some great stuff here. This was popular enough to essentially spawn Universal's classic horror movies of the 1930s. That alone makes this meritorious. It is a perfect template for those movies in that the plot basically follows this formula:

Monster loves woman. Woman is horrified by monster and engaged to another. Woman's fiancée is not having it. Townspeople are also not having it. Monster is killed by torch and pitchfork wielding mob.
The memorable differentiation between these monster movies is the monster itself. Like the rest of the monster movies since The Phantom Of The Opera, the monster is one of the only things worth the viewers' time. The rest of the movie is waiting for the monster.

The monster is something to behold and not only because he is the only character written to have more than one dimension. Lon Chaney's make up is amazing. Apparently, smelling salts were kept on hand in case people fainted during the reveal of his skull-like face as shown above (compare the 1929 and 1925 unmasking shots here; the original is better). It is more impressive than the skull mask he wears to the masked ball later seen below. While the skull mask is creepy, it doesn't allow for any emotional acting like Chaney's make up does.

As you may have noticed from above still, this is the first color film--in part--on the list. It is not the first color film in whole or in part as films with color existed through various processes since probably the late 1890s. For example, A Trip To The Moon from 1902 supposedly exists in a hand colored version. The Phantom Of The Opera used Technicolor Process 2 (read how it works better than I can explain it here).

A final note and only because it is the best scene in the movie and I love it:

The Phantom, surrounded by the local townspeople, reaches into his cloak. He removes his hand clutching something that causes the mob to recoil. He opens his hand to reveal...nothing. The mob descends on him (an alternative ending featured Christine giving the Phantom her ring before leaving with her fiancée causing the Phantom to die of a broken heart).

Final score: 6/10