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The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera(1925)

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The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) is probably the most famous silent film. Star Lon Chaney's death's-head makeup for the Phantom is recognizable even today. Most cities have had revival showings, low-quality public domain tapes and DVD's are available in many bargain bins, and television stations program it more than any other silent movie. Andrew Lloyd Webber turned The Phantom Of The Opera into an internationally successful musical. However, when it was first screened, the studio considered it a disaster, it was re-edited and re-shot many times, and the most often seen version is a silent reconstruction of a sound release.

Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel was sought by both Universal Studios and star Lon Chaney. Chaney had just finished making Universal's biggest hit to date, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923), and the idea of another film about a misshapen man desperately in love with an unattainable beauty seemed a surefire commercial success. Universal got the rights to the novel and hired Chaney to play the role and devise his own makeup. Using wires to pull up his nostrils and collodion to create jutting cheekbones, Chaney went to the limits of his art, turning his face into a living skull that is still startling.

However, from there, everything began to go wrong. First, Universal hired Rupert Julian to direct. Julian had replaced Erich Von Stroheim on Merry-Go-Round (1923) and saw himself as Von Stroheim's equal. Julian had all the attitude of the infamous director, but none of the talent and was despised by Chaney and the film crew. Second, young Mary Philbin was called to portray the object of the Phantom's desire. Only under the best directors did Philbin provide a worthwhile performance. Under Julian, she overacted with a pantomime that was thought ridiculously broad even in its day. Finally, the movie's original ending was judged completely ineffective during its initial release. The film was pulled, Julian was replaced, the story was substantially re-written and new scenes were shot. Except for a new ending, this version did not work either, so the movie was again re-edited after lengthy brainstorming meetings. Finally opening at New York's Strand Theatre in 1925, this hastily stitched-together creation became a huge success and made a fortune for Universal Pictures.

However, this is still not the version with which present-day fans of the film are most familiar. In 1929, The Phantom Of The Opera was re-released, again substantially re-edited and with newly shot talking scenes. In 1950, when James Card of the George Eastman film archive went to Universal to gather original prints and negatives, all that was left was a silent copy of the European version of the talkie release. Card reconstructed a print from what was left, put the silent intertitles back in, and this version is the one that has been most often seen since.

Now Milestone Film & Video has gone into the cellars one more time to unearth The Phantom Of The Opera for a definitive two-DVD set. Disc one contains Kevin Brownlow's further restoration of the 1929 edit with a great orchestral score by Carl Davis. In addition, Milestone provides a synced version of the 1929 soundtrack and a commentary track by film historian Scott McQueen. Disc two contains the very different 1925 edit that unfortunately exists only as a 16mm print Universal distributed for home viewing in the 1930's. Despite the soft and scratchy image, this Phantom is still watchable and will be a surprise to anyone familiar with the usual version of this movie. Chaney enthusiast Dr. Jon Mirsalis accompanies the film on the piano.

The extras on this two-disc set are astounding. There are recreations via stills of the earlier, pre-general release versions, trailers for both the 1925 and 1929 movies, press kits, interviews and more and more. The only quibble with the entire set is some motion blur in the 1929 version caused by the PAL to NTSC video transfer that appears only when characters or objects are moving quickly. Otherwise the image of the 1929 version is razor-sharp and does include the two-color Technicolor sequence of the masked ball.

Milestone has done a fabulous job with this presentation providing not only two copies of the film, but also all the materials needed to study its convoluted history. More DVD editions of movies should be released with this level of scholarship and attention to detail.

For more information about The Phantom of the Opera, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Phantom of the Opera, go to TCM Shopping.

by Brian Cady