Director: Rupert Julian. Universal.
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.
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.
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).