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Director: Rupert Julian
Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry
Year: 1925, 1929, 1930
Length: 78/92/114 Min
Label: Kino Lorber
Release Date: October 13, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Type: Black and White (tinted) and Color
Audio: LPCM 2.0
- Audio Commentary by film historian Jon C. Mirsalis
- Music composed and performed by Alloy Orchestra
- Theatre organ score arranged and performed by Gaylord Carter
- Musical setting composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau
- Interview with Composer Gabriel Thibaudeau
- Two travel films capturing Paris in 1925: “Paris From a Motor” and “A Trip on the Seine”
- Original Screenplay
- Original Trailer
The very power of cinema lies in the fact that it can create images that stand the test of time. Images that don’t falter, don’t lose their luster to a rapidly evolving landscape. A century has little effect on a good film — that is, of course, one that has been physically well-preserved —; Buster Keaton can still make us laugh and Fritz Lang can still marvel us with his phantasmagoric imagery. In fact, many claim that cinema hasn’t gain anything but lost a lot since the advent of sound and color. The argument is that the film industry reached a point of perfection right before the onset of sound cinema, and that, since its intro, film has lost its connection to a purely visual language. Now regardless of whether you stand with this statement or not, there are more than a few films that make a strong case. One of these films is 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera directed by Rupert Julian and starring the fabulous Lon Chaney.
Julian’s Phantom is the oldest existing adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel. There was a Swedish adaptation entitled Das Gespenst im Opernhaus filmed in 1916 but everything, save a few stills and off-hand mentions, has been lost. So it is to Julian, and his cast and crew, that we owe a huge debt of gratitude in bringing the phantom to screen, envisioning what the phantom should look…after all, almost a century later and Lon Chaney’s skeletal character remains as haunting as ever.
The Phantom of the Opera is a story almost as old as cinema itself. It has been made, remade, rehashed, and repurposed endless times, so much so that it would be entirely possible to know nearly every aspect of the film’s story without ever having seen it before. While that is certainly true, it is not recommended because it would mean missing out on one of the greatest marvels in silent cinema. The story is rather simple. The owners of the Paris Opera House suddenly and mysteriously decide to sell to new managers. Before vacating the premises, however, they suggest that the Opera houses a phantom, a suggestion that the new owners rightfully laugh off. Their laughter, however, won’t last long as soon into their new production of Faust, murmurs of the Opera’s phantom prevail and strange figures are seen lurking around the sets. Eventually, the Phantom — who goes by the name Erik — begins making demands, the most important of which that the actress Carlotta is not to appear as “Marguerite,” but rather that a young actress named Christine will take her place. When the owners deny the Phantom’s requests, his curse is unleashed and chaos ensues.The crux of the story occurs later when the Phantom pays Christine a visit, subsequently kidnaps her, and brings her back to his underground lair. Erik has fallen for Christine and attempts to win her over; he tells her of his curse, and proves his talents by playing the piano for her, but she remains uneasy in his presence. Curious to see what is obscured by his waxy and lifeless mask, Christine tears it away only to reveal a face almost too hideous to describe in words. Angered, the Phantom allows Christine her freedom but on the grounds that she never see her lover, Raoul, again. Of course, Christine disobeys the Phantom’s wishes and the two plot to escape the Phantoms grips in the coming days. The Phantom, perched upon a spire (in one of the film’s most marvelous shots), however, overhears their plan and is thrown into a murderous rage.
Initial reviews following the films release criticize it’s story for leaving a lot to be desired. 90 years later, this criticism seems unfair. Phantom maintains all of the elements for a fantastic story. Perhaps the only misstep, one that has been ‘corrected,’ depending on how you look at it, in subsequent adaptations is the characterization of Erik the Phantom. In Julian’s film, the Phantom is utterly despicable. Any sense of pathos that he may elicit — particularly residing in his tortured state: a beautiful musician forced to live in the catacombs of the opera house like rat because he is hideously disfigured — is undermined by his general unpleasantness. He’s a maniacal being, hell bent on taking his loving and not earning it. It is a completely un-romanticized villain.If this is a potential problem in the film, it can also be viewed as one of the film’s greatest attributes because while there is missed opportunity in creating a more challenging character type, Lon Chaney’s Phantom is one of the best on screen monsters of silent cinema. Chaney is a praised figure of American silent cinema, and there is good reason for that. Especially in Phantom, Chaney’s physicality rises above any need for dialogue. He embodies his roles through a universal language. There is pain, anger, even sadness in every movement, every gesture.
Chaney’s masterful performance owes a lot of debt to the stunning makeup design, to which he also handled. Chaney was said to be a bit of a control freak (it is even rumored that he directed some of this film when Julian stepped down), but one can hardly blame him when that control lead to fantastic results. The image of Chaney as the Phantom is inexplicably chilling. Everything from his recessed and dark eyes, to his pushed up and truncated nose, to his decayed teeth suggest something sinister. Likewise —and this is a fact often overlooked or under-appreciated — the mask that Chaney wears to hide his disfigurement, with its smooth, textureless surface and dead eyes, is nearly as unnerving as his face. The face of Chaney’s Phantom is one of the most iconic images in cinema history.While a great deal of the work, here, is owed to Chaney’s bringing the character to life, Julian’s work is sold and should not be overlooked — although, it has to be noted that Julian did leave before the production ceased, so the producers brought in Fantomas director Edward Sedgwick to finish the job. Julian and company may not be on par with some of the best American silent filmmakers, or early sound directors that would helm films for the Universal Horror cycle, but are nonetheless quite the stylists. In particular, the scenes utilizing color are ethereally crafted, there is something about the look of the color (still at a primitive stage in 1925) that feels extremely real yet entirely fake at the same time. The “Masque of Red Death” ball remains one of the greatest pieces ever to emerge from American cinema, and, likewise, the scene atop the Opera House with the Phantom perched and peering upon Raoul and Christine is intensely evocative and chilling.
One of the great things about this release by Kino Lorber is how complete it is. Featured on these two discs are both a 24 frames per second and 18 frames per second version of the shorter 1929 cut, the 1925 theatrical cut, and excerpts from the 1930 sound version, which doesn’t exist in its complete form. In addition, there is the choice between music composed by the more classical Alloy Orchestra (24fps), a bit more modern organ score arranged and performed by Gaylord Carter (24fps), or the much beloved Gabriel Thibaudeau score (18fps) — also available on the 1925 cut as well. So, in a way, there are four full, different ways to experience this film all available on this one convenient release. Unfortunate for some, this disc does not feature Carl Davis’ score for the 1929 cut, which has been featured on earlier releases like Image’s DVD, but, considering the scope that went into this release, this can hardly be faulted. Another big win for Kino is their choice to use original theatrical poster artwork for the cover, which looks beautiful and is much preferred to recent BFI release.
The Phantom of the Opera has had a sordid restoration history and the only manageable print is housed at Eastman. While it is pretty fantastic shape, all things considered, there are some noticeable areas of damage. BFI’s disc utilizes a restoration of the Eastman print by Photoplay to good results, so when Kino decided to throw the hat into the mix, it was interesting to see what they’d come up with. Rather than source the same transfer, Kino opted for Film Preservation Associates restoration. The results are mostly stunning, presented in 1080p in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The few problems that do exist in the transfer are due to damage in the print due to Nitrate decomposition, but are only somewhat severe in one scene. The longer 1925 version is far worse preserved and only presented in 1080i, but it is great to have the original cut featured as well, even given its shortcomings. Again, this is an issue that results with poor original elements and not the transfer itself. Ultimately, you really couldn’t ask for a better image quality than what Kino has offered. The grain texture is finely intact and the clarity is crisp, with the few Technicolor shots offering a beautifully rich image. Even during the tinted scenes, black remain bold and dark, an aspect that really reveals the film’s impressive visual makeup. Other than the aforementioned nitrate damage, there are some scratches and dust fragments inherent in the print but nothing more than what is expected out of a print so old. There are a few instances where the focus slips, or certain shots appear completely out of focus, but without having checked these against other prints (disclosure, I did not have them handy at the time), it is hard to know if they are results of the transfer or not.Additionally, all the scores are presented in uncompressed 2.0 mixes that are bold and deep, and will sound great on any home stereo system. It’s a knock out disc, one that, if not bests, certainly rivals its competition at BFI.
By and large, the best takeaway from this disc is the audio commentary by Jon C. Mirsalis. The unfortunate aspect of that, however, is that it is ported over from the previous Image release in 2011, so its not something new for fans. Mirsalis is quite the expert, running us through not only the film’s sordid history but also going into detail about the state of the print and what causes deterioration, etc. He’s not the world’s most lively speaker but his discussion is engaging and will please those who are familiar with the film but not with the history of its production. Additional to the commentary track, Kino have arranged a few nice features including the inclusion of the original script and trailer, an interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, the aforementioned segments from the sound film, and two travel short films from early Paris Paris From a Motor” and A Trip on the Seine that go a long way in setting the scene of the film in the era it was shot.
If you do not already own a copy of The Phantom of the Opera, Kino Lorber’s newest Blu-ray release is simply a no brainer. The new restoration has the film looking stunning, just about as good as a 90 year old film can look. The elements of these films are not in the greatest shape but given the film’s archival history, one cannot expect them to be. The Phantom of the Opera is a hybridic story, blending genres together. So perhaps its role as a horror film has been overstated, however, no other classical rendition of the story is as haunting as Julien’s, here. The complete lack of sympathy towards the Phantom makes this film still the greatest rendition of the the original story to date. At 90 years old, Phantom still caries the power to inspire awe, to shock, and to repel its viewers. It’s a marvelous work and its a pleasure to see it given such a fantastic treatment by Kino Lorber. This is an essential purchase for cinema fans, and comes at just the right time of year.