Edited, reshot, reconstructed and rearranged, the 1925 version of Gaston Leroux‘s gothic shocker remains the best.
OK kids, pay attention, because this is about to get complicated.
The first – and best – version of The Phantom of the Opera emerged in 1925, a Grand Guignol, epic showcase for the talents of Lon Chaney that pushed at the boundaries of production technique for the period. But within a couple of years of the film’s production, it faced being made redundant by the advent of sound. And so in 1929, a new version of the film was created, with scenes replaced by newly shot sound footage, moments of dialogue and sound effects dubbed onto the soundtrack along with a new score and the sequence of events re-edited. Simultaneous with this, a new silent edit was created, which didn’t include any newly shot footage apart from the opera scenes, but did re-edit the story, losing about twelve minutes in the process. It also appears to use alternate camera takes, as several scenes seem to be shown from a slightly different angle to the original.
Thanks to Universal having a BBC-like attitude to their back catalogue at the time, the film was almost lost – original negatives and prints were scrapped to reclaim silver nitrate. However, home viewing versions of the film did emerge in the 1930s, and the 1929 silent edit was saved in the 1940s. In the Fifties, a reconstructed version of the original cut, cobbled together from various home viewing prints – watchable but badly damaged and certainly missing bits – emerged, and this battered version forms the basis of most ‘public domain’ editions of the film that you might have seen. Meanwhile, the 1929 silent version – which was in far better condition – formed the basis of a version restored in 1996. The sound edition, however, has mostly vanished. There’s only one existing reel from this version, which allows for an interesting comparison. Chaney’s contract prevented his character from being dubbed, so ironically, most of the footage in this twelve-minute scene remains silent, other than sound effects and scratchy music. Also surviving is the ‘man with a lantern’ scene, now lacking the sound that was clearly supposed to be there. This appears to have been shot as an introductory sequence for some sound editions (though not the sound version released in the US) and adds little to the film.
The 1996 restoration of the 1929 silent version is considerably shorter than the original version of the film (91 minutes as opposed to 103 minutes) and has some events presented in a different order; it also features the newly-shot opera scenes that are less grand in scale than in the original film. However, it is a much better print (and now includes some digital restoration) and is fully tinted with the original technicolor and Handschiegl colour scenes (the latter a two-colour format that has been recreated by colorisation). This version also features a new score by Carl Davis, while most copies of the original 1925 version have a frankly weak piano accompaniment by Ed Bussy (the music is fine, but the film really needs more than someone bashing away at a piano).
While the existence of both versions and the current capabilities of digital restoration suggests that someone could now create a definitive edition of the original version, it’s questionable whether anyone with the finances and ability would actually want to, given the film’s public domain status. There’s no financial motivation to recreate the film, and so the only hope is for a film-loving philanthropist to step up and foot the bill.
There’s actually nothing wrong with the 1929 cut – in places, it improves on the film by tightening up the pace and cutting out much of the ineffectual romance between Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, though it would benefit from the extended opening of the original and the more impressively staged opera scenes. but those moments aside, you are not really seeing a compromised version when you watch this one.
As for the film itself – the story of the Phantom has been told many times, but it’s ironic that the silent version of a story that is so much about music proves to be the best. Later sound versions often tended to emphasise the opera elements excessively (the plodding 1943 remake is more of a romantic musical than a horror film), eventually leading to the Lloyd-Webber debacle, but this original goes fully for the gothic horror. Like most versions, it deviates from the original novel by Gaston Leroux – here, Chaney is Erik, a disfigured escapee from Devil’s Island (and practitioner of ‘the black arts’), who lurks in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, becoming obsessed with understudy Christine Daaé (Philbin), who he has been coaching through the walls of her dressing room. He uses threats and violence to ensure that she is given the lead in the performance of Faust, but once he lures her through the mirror into his secret lair, she becomes rather less keen on his attentions. He may have made her a star, but no way is she going to submit to the attentions and obsessions of someone so grotesque. She returns to the Opera, having promised to renounce her love for the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Kerry), but – ungrateful wretch that she is – she immediately betrays the Phantom, leading to more murder, more kidnap and more tragedy.
I remember as a child being distinctly unimpressed by Chaney’s Phantom make-up when I saw photos in books. I was constantly told how utterly terrifying it was, but all the stills made him look like nothing more terrifying than a man with slightly elongated nostrils. I still maintain that the horror of this make-up is wildly overstated – at no point does he look like someone without a nose – but in the film, it works more effectively because of camera angles, shock cuts and of course Chaney’s performance, which is nothing short of brilliant. A lot of silent performers seem hokey and overly theatrical when seen today, but Chaney is sensational, managing to be tragic and sympathetic one moment, fanatical and terrifying the next. It’s a pity that the rest of the cast is not up to the job – Philbin is pretty but vacuous, and not the most sympathetic of figures, while Kerry makes for a terrible romantic lead, being far too stiff. Christine probably would’ve been better off with the Phantom, quite honestly – looks aren’t everything, after all.
Chaney and director Rupert Julian argued constantly throughout the film, and – as if the later reworkings weren’t enough – it was reshot and re-edited three times before its original release. To confuse the issue of which version is the authentic edition, several new scenes were shot and then dumped in 1925, all of which remain unseen. Yet despite the drama of the production, this doesn’t feel like a troubled film in either version. The grandiose sets, the sense of gothic horror, the drama and the excitement of the final scenes all feel assured and impressive, and the technicolor scene, where Chaney appears as The Red Death at a masked ball, is astonishing – this is the real moment of horror in the film, not the unmasking. A single colour scene in a black and white movie might sound gimmicky, and of course, to a degree it is – but when it has the impact that this scene has, you can’t really argue against it. The loss of this moment in most versions is particularly unfortunate.
The 1929 cut has been beautifully tinted, bringing a real vibrancy to the look of the movie, and Davis’ score is suitably epic, as befits such a huge production. The result is a film that feels a lot more modern than many a silent – indeed, than many a sound film of the Thirties – and still manages to keep the viewer engrossed. It remains the definitive telling of the story, even if the definitive version of this actual film will remain a bone of contention for critics and fans.
Help support The Reprobate: