The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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Director: Rupert Julian. Universal.

SILENT

Producers: Carl Laemmle. Writers: Elliott J. Clawson, Raymond L. Schrock. Camera: Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, Charles Van Enger. Music: Joseph Carl Briell, Gustav Hinrichs (original). Others at reissue: Sam Perry (1929), Gabriel Thibaudeau, Rick Wakeman (both 1990), Roy Budd (1993), Carl Davis (1996). Sets: Ben Carre.

Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards, Mary Fabian, Virginia Pearson.

SYNOPSIS

Erik (Chaney) is a former singing star, horribly disfigured now reduced to lurking in the vast underground catacombs and cellars of the Paris Opera House. He nurtures the talent of young chorus girl Christine (Philbin) whom by devious methods, he hopes to place in a production of Faust. He also wishes her to see beyond the mask that hides his tortured face and fall in love with him, but is enraged when she pursues her own love in handsome Raoul (Kerry) against his instructions. He kidnaps her so Raoul and a strange, undercover policeman (Carewe) attempt to rescue her.

REVIEW

Chaney’s second, bug-budget horror blockbuster after The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) is set in the same city and eagle-eyed silent movie fans will note that Chaney’s carriage at the end of the film is seen speeding past the facade of Notre Dame cathedral, a little in-joke for contemporary fans.

This is a slow-moving adaption of Gaston Leroux’s famous novel, with a tortuously prolonged opening as the Phantom crawls around a section of his subterranean lair, watched by an Opera orderly. The lack of action isn’t helped by the over-use of letters, constantly passed between characters, to describe action – clunky and effective only in slowing things down more.

Julian quarrelled on set with Chaney and was dismissed at some point during the production, which might explain the slightly unbalanced feel throughout, as if a few more hand than necessary were fingering the clapperboard. Chaney himself directed a few sequences.

Of what remains, there are some giddily enjoyable flourishes, such as the opening that uses a group of silly ballet dancers to set the mystery, as the girls twirl in their tutus around the dank staircases and cellars.

If the unmasking of the phantom is more funny that scary, the eye-catching multi-story sets of the Paris underground that is the phantom’s lair and the Masked Ball, filmed in a beautiful trifle of two-tone colour, more than make up for it. This last scene, lasting only a few precious minutes, would have increased the film’s budget somewhat, so it’s a shame it doesn’t last longer and whomever directed it didn’t have the time to have some more fun with the dancers.

Philbin’s strange, hyper-gesticulatory performance is richly rewarding, she acts as if constantly in a trance (her character is under the spell of her master, at least in her opening scenes). This is a hangover from the overly artificial turns in German films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but this is one to enjoy, slightly mad, but eye-catching (it helps that she is also extremely pretty).

Chaney seems possessed himself, though it could be as a result of what looks like excruciating prosthetics that push his nose up and give him gross, jagged teeth and a bald pate with lank, greasy hair. Every extreme physical stereotype of ugliness is utilised by Chaney, who designed the make-up.

The script is a typical silent blockbuster type of this period, slightly nonsensical and in dire need of a continuity editor. Christine, after being led by a strange man through the catacombs, talks at length to her master but, only after seeing the coffin he sleeps in, does she twig that this man might be the same person as the Phantom. He calls her mad – clearly having little insight into his own sociopathic tendencies (this is just after he has dropped a hefty chandelier on Paris’ hoi polloi).

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

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Director: Wallace Worsley. Universal.

SILENT

 

Producers: Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg. Writer: Edward T. Lowe, Jr. Camera: Robert Newhard. Sets: E.E. Shelley, Sydney Ullman.

Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Kate Lester, Winifred Bryson, Nigel De Brulier, Brandon Hurst, Ernest Torrance, Tully Marshall, Harry van Meter, Raymond Hatton.

SYNOPSIS

Paris, 1482: Set against the backdrop of growing public resentment at the laws and dictates of King Louis XI (Marshall), Quasimodo (Chaney) a deformed bell ringer at Notre Dame cathedral falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmerelda (Miller). When Esmerelda is tried with the attempted murder of her lover, the soldier Phoebus (Kerry), he attempts to rescue her as revolution erupts beneath his beloved cathedral.

REVIEW

Caution, literary respect and a fair degree of common sense are thrown to the wind in the great grand-daddy of all adaptations of Victor Hugo’s mammoth and largely unexciting romantic epic (were all of those chapters about Gothic architecture really necessary?).

‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ Chaney headlines as the poor, mis-shapen campanologist, though it is not one of his better turns.

The hasty editing, particularly in the horrifically rushed introductory scenes (possibly down to there being several versions of the film of differing lengths around the world – not uncommon for silent movies) leads to a large amount of information about characters, themes and sub-plots being whisked by the viewer in quick succession. Hugo’s book is a feat for any screen-writer to compress so it is probably not surprising that sections were skipped or skimmed over, but the irritating over use of title cards to sum up whole people and their motivations when this could have been expressed to the camera shows either poor directorial skills on the part of Worsley or nonexistent talent when wielding the scissors in the cutting room.

We also miss out on those subtle, telling aspects of the story, such as Quasimodo’s dependent relationship with his master Frollo, but the sound era would help rectify such things.

Another thing the sound era would help clear up, is that implausibility that silent movies tended to lean toward, those moments that don’t really make sense. Quasimodo, after being described as totally deaf and half blind, is immediately seen spying on the crowd assembled a hundred feet below and is able to pick out the people insulting him, as the bells of the cathedral ring behind him.

One thing Worlsey really misses a trick with are these crowd scenes. Later versions, including Disney’s animated go in 1996, use the crowd as an integral part of the story, as if it is a living organism, swelling en masse at various points with a fluid motion. Despite the alleged 3,500 extras used in this film, these moments seem empty, slightly scrappy, as if the man with the megaphone in his hand is whispering in the wrong direction.

On the acting front, and again to be democratic, it is difficult to see whether this a poor choice of cast (Miller and Kerry were never top flight actors of this period) or if Worsley was unable to elicit more innovative, subtle performances from his ensemble. Chaney is supposed to be the man of the moment here but his turn is on the edge of over melodramatic. He never really evinces true sympathy, though it doesn’t help that the titles spell him out as being something of a bad one, consumed with hatred for the citizens of Paris who despise his deformity (the novel and subsequent adaptations do not dwell on this).

There are some superb displays of villainy though; De Brulier  as Don Claudio (Claude Frollo in the novel) is genuinely creepy and Torrance proves why he became one of the most famous of silent bad guys as Clopin, King of Thieves.

Pity poor Kerry though, who would spend most of the next six years playing second fiddle to Chaney (he would do so again in The Phantom of the Opera two years later and The Unknown in 1927).

Universal provide the means to an end to recreate Paris with a lavish eye, including the quick glimpses we get of the fetid underground sewers and Court of Miracles. This is described as a place where the blind see and the lame walk, rather like a medieval Atos assessment centre.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

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Director: Victor Seastrom/Sjostrom. MGM.

DRAMA


Producer: Victor Seastrom. Writer: Carey Wilson, Victor Seastrom. Camera: Milton Moore. Sets: Cedric Gibbons.

Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Ruth King, Marc McDermott, Ford sterling, Tully Marshall.

SYNOPSIS

Nice scientist Paul (Chaney) makes a remarkable breakthrough and entrusts the publication of his findings to his friend and patron, the Baron (McDermott). Unbeknownst to him, the Baron is having an affair with Paul’s wife (King) and steals his research, claiming it as his own in front of an august scientific institution. Paul immediately suffers a catastrophic breakdown that sees him fall into uncontrollable hysterics when faced with this double deceit. He leaves to join a circus as a clown who, fetishistically, likes being humiliated and slapped, recreating the moment the Baron did this to him. When beautiful horse-rider Consuela (Shearer) joins his troupe, Paul falls in love, but finds competition for her hand in the form of her riding act partner (Gilbert).

REVIEW

Historically significant as the first film to be produced and released by the newly formed trio of film studio Metro and independent producers (Samuel) Goldwyn and (Louis B.) Mayer. Given the plot, this was a surprisingly depressing start for a studio that would become synonymous with beauty, glamour and happy endings.

But then choosing the esteemed Seastrom, who specialised in moody, epic pastoral dramas in his native Sweden to huge acclaim, was never going to result in the rosiest of products. The director formerly known as Sjostrom in his homeland, was new himself, having arrived to direct American films for Metro only the previous year.

This is a veritable one-man band for him as co-writer, co-producer and director. Riding high following years of commercial and critical success in Europe, he was viewed favourably by Hollywood top brass (the normally tyrannical Louis B. Mayer was said to view him as God), Seastrom was allowed unprecedented artistic freedom in his films.

This film is no exception and allows him the chance to continue exploring the themes of cruelty and fate that he had established in Europe and would elaborate on throughout his sojourn in America (The Scarlet Letter, The Wind). Despite the hoary, theatrical set-up and giddy, fun of the fair atmosphere, this film is as grim a morality tale as anything he told in Sweden or would tell in years to come.

It also lets him show off his unique and arresting visual style – the recurring motif of the clowns dancing around a globe, symbolic of the fools we all are on this earth. This is a world that is also perpetually spinning out of control only to be thrown to the ground, just as Paul’s wife is revealed as an adulterer.

The arrangement of the members of the scientific institution is also genius – seated in serried rows of cold judgement like Paul’s judge, jury and executioner.

The cast list features three actors who would become some of the brightest stars of the silent era, Chaney in particular is heart-wrenchingly good. He was a silent actor of enormous skill, having honed his craft as a mime artist after acting out the day’s activities for his deaf parents as a child. Here, he deftly arouses audience sympathy, although given the brutality he faces during his “act”, it’s understandable why he is so morose.

Gilbert had been acting in films for many years but here hit the big time and would soon mature into the premier leading man of the twenties. His bouncy joie de vivre is readily apparent.

Although pretty Shearer is underused and under-focused she would go onto bigger and better things very soon.

Support actor Marshall, who specialised in playing small time villainy and perversity, is delectably vile as her down-at-heel, minor aristocrat father who sees opportunity around a corner before he even steps outside.