Cast & Crew
John S. Robertson
C. Aubrey Smith
At the Cirque de Paris, society magician and famous disappearing artist Chéri-Bibi performs his act before a well-heeled Parisian audience. While Cecile, his friend and admirer, waits in his dressing room, unable to watch the daring feat, Chéri, with his hands and legs bound, is lowered into a tank of water. The audience grows silent as the clock ticks away, and firemen wait on the sidelines, prepared to rescue the magician should he fail to emerge from the tank in time. To the audience's astonishment, Chéri makes his escape with little time to spare. Cecile lives with her wealthy but ailing father, Bourrelier, who recently added a codicil to his will specifying that if she were to marry the Marquis du Touchais, he would receive a liberal allowance from his estate. However, when Bourrelier is informed that the marquis is a nobleman, he removes the allowance clause from the will so as not to spoil the young man and allow him to live an idle life. Bourrelier informs the marquis of the change at a party at his residence, and he reacts angrily, accusing Cecile's father of favoring her upstart suitor, Chéri. Bourrelier denies the accusation and later tells Chéri personally that he will not allow him to marry his daughter. Soon after the confrontation between Chéri and Bourrelier, the aged millionaire is murdered. Police Chief Costaud immediately begins an investigation into the murder and questions the guests attending the party. When the marquis is questioned, he lies to Costaud, telling him that Bourrelier privately expressed his fears about Chéri. The magician is promptly arrested and jailed. Though extra security precautions are taken to insure that Chéri does not escape, he manages to free himself from his cell. The magician then attacks a guard, takes his clothes and walks out of the prison unnoticed. Meanwhile, Dr. Gorin, a friend of Chéri's, tells the police that Chéri could not have committed the murder. Another friend of Chéri's, Herman, hides him in the basement of his shop. When Costaud pays Herman a visit, he informs him that the marquis is dying and then searches the shop. Before the police chief can find him, Chéri flees. Having overheard the news of the marquis' impending death, Chéri sneaks into his home and persuades him to admit that he killed Bourrelier. However, the marquis dies before he is able to make the confession. Chéri quickly devises a plan to save himself by bringing the body of the marquis to Dr. Gorin and asking him to perform an operation that would make him resemble the marquis. Chéri then arranges to have his own death announced publicly. The newspapers soon tell stories of the Chéri holding the marquis prisoner before his death. Six months later, Chéri, disguised as the marquis, returns to the marquis' mansion and realizes that Cecile, now married to the marquis, has been unhappy. After Cecile tells Chéri that her love for the magician has never faltered, he reveals himself to her. No sooner does Chéri tell Cecile that he loves her than Costaud and his officers arrive to question the marquis. After fingerprinting the magician, Costaud accuses Chéri of impersonating the marquis and arrests him. Again, Chéri manages to escape, and when he returns to Cecile's house, he forces Vera, the marquis' accomplice in Bourrelier's murder, to confess his guilt. Costaud overhears Vera's confession, and Chéri is vindicated of the crime.
John S. Robertson
C. Aubrey Smith
The Phantom of Paris
Based on the novel Cheri-Bibi by Gaston Leroux, who also wrote The Phantom of the Opera, the mystery-thriller centered on Leroux's eponymous hero, a famous magician and escape artist a la Houdini who falls in love with Cecile, the daughter of a nobleman. When the girl's father is murdered by her disreputable fiancé, Cheri-Bibi is accused of the murder. Using his considerable skills to escape imprisonment, he goes into hiding, eventually impersonating the real killer in a bid to clear his name and win back his love.
Gilbert was given a top-notch supporting cast. As his love interest, Leila Hyams continued her upward climb from pretty ingenue of the 1920s to in-demand actress of the early sound era. A year after the release of this picture, she would appear in two of her best roles, Freaks and Island of Lost Souls (both 1932). She was in line to play Jane in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) but turned it down, and in 1936 she retired from acting, although she and her husband, agent Phil Berg, remained an important part of the Hollywood community most of their lives.
Lewis Stone, later famous as Judge Hardy in MGM's highly successful Andy Hardy franchise, played the police inspector, and English actor C. Aubrey Smith, who specialized in British aristocrats, was cast as Cecile's ill-fated father. Jean Hersholt, as Cheri-Bibi's faithful friend Herman, is best known today as the name attached to the film Academy's annual Humanitarian Award, but at the time he was a respected supporting actor and one of the stars of Erich Von Stroheim's notorious production of Greed (1924).
A pre-production news report noted that, in a departure from its usual procedure, MGM had begun work on a Spanish version of The Phantom of Paris prior to the English-language one. Leroux's story would be filmed again in France in 1938, under his original title, with Pierre Fresnay and Jean-Pierre Aumont, and in a 1955 French-Italian co-production.
The Phantom of Paris earned Gilbert his first good reviews in years, remarking on his elegance and grace and an "electrifying" performance. The New York Telegraph noted that, unlike previous films billed as "great comebacks" for the star, this one was "surprisingly good. No longer the great lover, Gilbert proves himself a darn good actor." It might have been the chance he needed to regain his former glory and establish himself in the sound era. He certainly had the support of many in the industry who were beginning to express openly their indignation over Mayer's vengeful and unjust treatment of Gilbert. According to the actor's daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain (a leading proponent of the notion that Mayer's vendetta was the key factor in the star's failed career), there were "unconfirmable" stories going around that some of the studio's top personnel, among them art director Cedric Gibbons, refused to speak to Mayer or be in the same room with him. It was rumored that even Nicholas Schenck, head of MGM's parent company, Loews Inc. (and therefore someone with a vested interest in seeing Gilbert succeed at the box office), called Mayer and threatened to do to him what everyone felt Mayer was doing to the actor. Whatever the reason, Gilbert was given this opportunity and did his best to make the most of it. But due to the global economic crash, film attendance was down considerably, less than half what it had been a few years earlier, and The Phantom of Paris ended up almost a quarter million dollars in the red. His next assignment was the rather poorly received West of Broadway (1931). He made only four more pictures before his death of a heart attack in 1936. Only one of these could be considered a success - his small supporting role in Queen Christina (1933), opposite his co-star and romantic interest from his glory days in silents, Greta Garbo.
Director: John S. Robertson
Screenplay: Edwin Justus Mayer, John Meehan, based on the novel Cheri-Bibi by Gaston Leroux
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Editing: Jack Ogilvie
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: John Gilbert (Cheri-Bibi), Leila Hyams (Cecile), Lewis Stone (Costaud), Jean Hersholt (Herman), C. Aubrey Smith (Bourellier), Natalie Moorhead (Vera).
by Rob Nixon
The Phantom of Paris
A Motion Picture Herald pre-production news item noted that M-G-M, in a departure from its usual production procedure, began work on the Spanish version of this film, Cheri-Bibi, before starting on the English version. According to Variety, John Gilbert was given the leading role of the English version following the death of the intended lead, Lon Chaney. A Hollywood Reporter pre-release news item reported that M-G-M offered a fifty dollar reward to any employee who could come up with a new title to replace the film's working title, Chéri-Bibi. Other films based on Gaston Leroux' story include the 1937 French film Chéri-Bibi, directed by Léon Mathot and starring Pierre Fresnay and Jean-Pierre Aumont; and a 1955 French-Italian production, also entitled Chéri-Bibi, directed by Marcello Pagliero and starring Jean Richard and Leo Padovani.