The Phantom of the Opera

Released:  1925

Cast:  Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland

SUMMARY:  At the Paris Opera House, the managers are just completing the paperwork to bring in new management.  After the transaction is complete, the old managers inform the new ones that a mysterious man, known as the Opera Ghost or the Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney), has permanently reserved box #5.  The new managers do not believe this, but the ballerinas are well aware of the rumors.  That evening, they see a strange man in a fez (Arthur Edmund Carewe) moving through the cellars, where the Phantom is rumored to live.  They ask stagehand Joseph Buquet, who has seen the Phantom’s face, to describe him.  Buquet tells of a man with yellowed skin stretched tightly over a gaunt face, with no nose, but the tale is then interrupted by another stagehand.  Back in the offices, a woman bursts in to the office of the management, waving a note.  The woman is the mother of Carlotta, the prima donna of the opera; the note, from the Phantom, requests that Carlotta step aside and let Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) sing the lead role the following night.  If his request is ignored, the Phantom threatens harm.  Christine Daae is a former member of the chorus who is in a relationship with the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry).  However, Christine is being tutored by a mysterious, unseen person, whom she calls the “Spirit of Music”.    This voice tells Christine that she will sing for Carlotta on the following evening, and urges her to forget Raoul in favor of her career.  Carlotta gets sick the next day, and Christine does sing in her place; during a break, believing that she has achieved her dreams, Raoul then asks Christine to marry him.  She refuses, saying that she could never leave the opera.  Meanwhile, the managers have decided to investigate box 5, and are stunned to find an unknown man inside; when they return a few moments later, the man is gone, although no one exited the box.  When the opera ends, Raoul goes back to Christine’s dressing room and hears the Spirit (the Phantom) talking to her.  Carlotta gets well and is set to return to the opera, but receives another note from the Phantom.  This time, she decides to ignore it and perform.

The next day, Carlotta appears in the opera.  Everything goes well until the huge chandelier suddenly falls onto the audience, having been released by the Phantom.  Christine returns to her dressing room, and falls into a trance-like state after hearing the Phantom’s voice.  She then goes through a secret door in her mirror and follows the Phantom into his lair in the old dungeons and cellars beneath the Opera House.  The Phantom, whose real name is Erik, tells her that she can travel around as she wishes, but that she can never look behind the mask that covers the top half of his face.  However, Christine is soon overcome by curiosity and rips the mask off, to find that the Phantom’s face is just as Joseph Buquet described it.  The Phantom then decides to revoke Christine’s freedom, but allows her to return to the world one more time, on the condition that she not speak to Raoul.  The next day Christine attends the famous masquerade ball at the Opera House, where she finds Raoul and tells him everything.  Unbeknownst to them, the Phantom is also in attendance, and overhears everything they say.  Raoul decides that after the performance on the following evening, both of them will go to England; as they leave, they are approached by the mysterious man in the fez, who helps them avoid the Phantom.  The next evening, Raoul leaves a coach waiting outside the Opera House, but Christine has learned that the Phantom knows all about their plans.  During the opera, the lights go out and Christine disappears from stage, taken by the Phantom.  Raoul goes to her dressing room and again sees the man in the fez, who reveals himself to be a secret policeman; he has been tracking the Phantom since he learned that Erik is a prisoner escaped from Devil’s Island.  The policeman, Ledoux, knows how to get into the Phantom’s lair, and takes Raoul with them.  Unfortunately, they fall into the Phantom’s traps.  Christine is given a choice:  she can marry Erik and save Raoul, or she can blow up the entire Opera House.  She chooses to marry Erik, but he then tries to kill Raoul anyway.  He finally relents only when Christine begs him.  Meanwhile, a mob of townspeople have also entered the lair, and are getting closer and closer to the Phantom.  He grabs Christine and tries to escape using the coach Raoul brought, but it overturns and throws both of them out.  The Phantom then tries to flee the oncoming mob.  Christine is rescued by Raoul, but the mob catches the Phantom, beats him, then throws him into the river to drown.

MY TAKE:  First, let me say that I LOVE the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of this story — the actual opera that has also been made into a movie.  The music is spectacular, and the Phantom has one of the most recognizable theme songs around.  I have also read the book, on which both this movie and the opera are based.  Both versions are fairly true to the original story:  basically, the 1925 version of the movie just doesn’t have the music, and a few characters are different.  Being so familiar with the music, I was surprised to find that this movie managed to stand without it.  It does seem weird to watch a film set in an opera house that doesn’t actually have any music (and I did find myself singing the Phantom theme whenever he made a dramatic entrance), but it’s a very well-made film, especially for the time.  Maybe it’s because it was a book first, but there’s very little of the melodrama that’s commonly in old movies.  Lon Chaney, as the Phantom, is particularly good.  He did his own makeup for this movie, and the studio actually kept his appearance a secret until the film was released, in order to maximize shock value.  It’s a little hard to tell in a black-and-white movie (and an old one at that), but he does look pretty odd.  Chaney also did very little of the over-emoting that I expect in old movies, although Mary Philbin does plenty of it.  Chaney manages to be sinister with minimal, subtle actions, instead of the wild dramatics.  I didn’t like the ending because I thought it was too abrupt:  there’s a huge chase after the Phantom, and then he’s just dumped in the river.  Personally, I think it would have been better if the ending was left a little ambiguous, like the more recent versions:  is the Phantom really dead, or did he somehow escape?

RATING:  Very good, even without the famous music.

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