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If you asked movie buffs to select the most memorable scene from the entire Lon Chaney filmography, most of them would probably pick the famous unmasking sequence from The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Despite the effectiveness of this scene, the movie was the most problematic of all the films Chaney made and the most uneven in terms of quality, despite its reputation as Chaney's most famous role.
It is not hard to see why Chaney was attracted to the title character of Gaston Leroux's novel. The dramatic demands of the role and the makeup required for the Phantom presented a physical challenge Chaney couldn't pass up. It also marked a turning point in his career. It would be his final film with Universal Studios. Chaney had just signed a new contract with MGM and already completed the studio's first feature, He Who Gets Slapped, which was an unqualified success.
Universal spared no expense in producing The Phantom of the Opera. They built the first steel and concrete stage in Hollywood which housed the entire interior set of the Opera House, the backstage area, and the grand staircase. (This stage, which still stands today on the Universal lot, is the only surviving set from any Chaney film.) The studio also hired over 250 dancers for elaborate dance numbers supervised by renown dance producer Ernest Belcher and shot the masked ball sequence, among other scenes, in the early two-color Technicolor process.
But the film was plagued by numerous difficulties from the beginning. Chaney clashed frequently with his director, Rupert Julien, whose claim to fame was finishing the directorial chores on Merry-Go-Round after Erich von Stroheim had been fired. The relationship between Chaney and Julien deteriorated to the point where the actor refused to talk to or take direction from Julien. Various scenes, including the sequence with the falling chandelier, had to be re-shot due to inadequate lighting. And after production was completed, a sneak preview for audiences convinced the studio to go back and add scenes with Chester Conklin for comic relief as well as a romantic subplot.
Edward Sedgwick, who had directed several Buster Keaton comedies for MGM, was brought in to complete these additional scenes but, after another unsuccessful public preview, the studio decided to discard the comedy bits, the romantic subplot, and some ballet sequences. A new set of title cards was created for continuity purposes since so many gaps existed in the film's storyline and the film was finally released theatrically.
Chaney's performance in The Phantom of the Opera was universally praised and so were the elaborate sets and costumes but many critics couldn't help noticing the uneven structure of the film. Nevertheless, the film has achieved cinematic immortality due to Chaney's innovative makeup which has influenced numerous makeup artists like Bob Kane (He designed the makeup for Tim Burton's Batman). Some of Chaney's gruesome effects in The Phantom of the Opera were created by using a combination of cotton and collodion for the raised and extended cheekbones, a strip of fishskin attached to the nose with spirit gum for the up-tilted nose effect, and dark eyeliner shading to give him that hollow-eyed look.
Director: Rupert Julian
Producer: Carl Laemmle
Screenplay: Elliott J. Clawson (Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux)
Cinematography: Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, Charles Van Enger
Art Direction: Ben Carre, Charles D. Hall
Cast: Lon Chaney (Erik/The Phantom), Mary Philbin (Christine Daae), Norman Kerry (Vicomte Raoul de Chagny), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Ledoux), Gibson Gowland (Simon Buquet).
BW & C-91m.
by Jeff Stafford