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Director: Rupert Julian
Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis
Length: 91 min
Rating: Cert PG
Region: Region Free
Disks: 3 (1 BD, 2 DVD)
Release Date: Dec 2nd, 2013
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p / 24fps
Aspect Ratio: 1.19:1
Type: Tinted and Toned, Black & White, and Colour
Audio: 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and PCM stereo audio (48k/24-bit)
- Original 1925 version (b&w, 103 mins) with newly commissioned piano accompaniment by Ed Bussey
- Original 1925 trailer and 1929 sound reissue trailer
- Reel 5 from lost 1929 sound reissue: the only surviving element, discovered in the Library of Congress archives
- The ‘man with the lantern’ sequence: mysterious footage thought to have been shot for non-English speaking territories
- Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000, Kevin Brownlow, 86 mins, DVD only): the definitive documentary on the legendary actor and make-up artist
- Channel 4 Silents restoration souvenir programme (PDF)
- Illustrated booklet featuring new essays, an original review and film credits
The immortal thespian and makeup genius Lon Chaney never looked better (or more frightening) than in this newly restored 1929 version of The Phantom of the Opera, brought to you by the British Film Institute (BFI). Digitally remastered in HD by Photoplay Productions, director Rupert Julian’s lavish adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 best-seller is given a compelling score by silent movie specialist Carl Davis (Napoleon) and is fully tinted throughout. The “Red Death crashes the Bal Masqué” scene—a prime example of the early use of Technicolor—looks eerily beautiful.
When the mysteriously disfigured Erik, aka the Phantom, falls in love with the voice of Christine, a young opera singer (played by winsome Mary Philbin), he coaxes her to enter his abode in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House and teaches her to sing only for him… Christine soon sings better than opera diva Carlotta, for whom she understudies. Erik threatens the managers of the Paris Opera House with mass destruction (conspiring to drop an enormous chandelier onto the audience) unless Christine replaces Carlotta in the role of Marguerite in Faust. Eventually, the repulsive, infatuated Phantom hopes to get up close and personal with Christine, whom he expects will be grateful for the singing lessons and casting opportunity. Fat chance with a mug like that! (Even the child-like mask Erik wears to cover his nightmarish face is grotesque)!
The restored 1929 re-edit of The Phantom of the Opera is quite good… except for a few silly moments involving wax-mustached “romantic leading man” Norman Kerry and the pretty but vacuous Mary Philbin. Image quality varies a great deal, but this version is so much better than the murky tattered prints I watched as an adolescent. I really felt as though I were viewing The Phantom of the Opera for the first time. And the set design (now captured in astonishing detail) is as impressive as The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Cathedral of Notre Dame or the Ancient Babylon set built for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. The interior of the Phantom set still stands at Universal Studios—remarkable for Hollywood, a town that has so disdainfully jettisoned or sold off so many of its historical artifacts.
Photoplay’s 2013 restoration is so good, it makes up for all the melodramatic shenanigans onscreen. However, scenes from the 1925 edit that were cut really helped the narrative flow and tied quite a few plot strands together.
Lon Chaney is remembered to this day as a king of horror. He favored naturalistic performances and had an impressive range, which he displayed in many other outré pictures, including several directed by Tod Browning—notably The Unknown, The Big City and West of Zanzibar. Ruggedly handsome and world-weary à la Bogart, Chaney was the first star character actor, often cast as a pathetic victim of unrequited love. I think Chaney hams it up a bit too much in Phantom, but apparently that’s what the autocratic and singularly uninspired director Rupert Julian wanted, despite Chaney’s objections that he was being asked to play the part too broadly.
Chaney’s conception of the Phantom is more a triumph in makeup artistry than of the acting craft—a cultural icon as instantly recognizable everywhere as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Even those who haven’t seen the original version of The Phantom of the Opera are aware of the Big Reveal moment, when the mask comes off and the Phantom’s face from Hell is exposed by the curious Christine.
Kevin Brownlow aught to be knighted for his restoration work on silent films, particularly Napoleon (1927). Now, he and his company, Photoplay Productions, have turned their attention to Chaney’s 1929 version of The Phantom of the Opera and the results are predictably illuminating. Not all the print damage has been eradicated, as that would have likely destroyed the film’s texture, but those who remember seeing this film on bootleg VHS, or even projected from 16mm prints at repertory theaters are in for a revelation. The image has gained so much depth and nuance, it almost looks modern. Image softness remains in certain shots, but this is inherited and is part of the film’s look. The new tinting looks spectacular as well. Gorgeous sepia tones give way to rich blues and reds, and then back to shimmering black and white. The famous color sequences—an early example of technicolor—look grainy but, like the rest of the film, the improvement over previous releases is substantial.
By contrast, the original 1925 version with piano accompaniment looks just like those old beat-up 16mm prints. It’s still good to have it, if only for documentary value, but the restored 1929 version is the one most people will want to watch.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track copes beautifully with Carl Davis’s newly recorded orchestral score. A regular collaborator of Kevin Brownlow’s, Davis has here re-imagined the musical landscape of Phantom. He is careful, however, to stay true to the period in which Phantom takes place, incorporating themes from Gounod’s Faust. The big reveal shot is underscored by a suitably powerful crescendo, imbuing the scene with the necessary tragic weight.
Among the extra features on the BFI release are the definitive filmed biography of the legendary actor and make-up artist: the 86-minute Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000 TCM documentary, directed by Kevin Brownlow, produced by Hugh Hefner and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, with commentary by Ray Bradbury, Ron Chaney and Forrest J Ackerman, among others); the original 103-minute version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925, b&w) with newly commissioned piano accompaniment by Ed Bussey (this version is not remastered); a very peculiar but informative trailer for the 1925 release, featuring footage that does not appear in the film, including a trick shot of a giant masked Phantom looming over the opera house; and the fifth reel from the lost 1929 sound reissue (the only surviving element of that print, discovered in the Library of Congress archives). In 1929, Universal re-released the 1925 film in a “sound” version. The film was edited to speed up the pace—especially noticeable during the falling chandelier scene; several sequences had dialogue overdubbed onto them (although subtitles were rather confusingly retained); and a few new scenes were shot with synchronous sound, including two arias by Carlotta (played by trained opera singer Mary Fabian).
The Phantom of the Opera is the last of nine home cinema titles released by BFI as part of its “GOTHIC: The Dark Heart of Film” series which includes many interesting and rarely seen titles. Opera and silent cinema lovers should grab a copy of this blu-ray today. It is a worthy testament to one of the greatest silent movie stars of all time.
Carl Davis on The Phantom of the Opera