The Phantom of the Opera & Lon Chaney

The 1925 silent classic The Phantom of the Opera is currently available on instant Netflix and Amazon Prime.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – Not Rated

“A grotesquely disfigured composer known as the “Phantom” (Lon Chaney) haunts Paris’ opera house, where he’s secretly grooming Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) to be an opera diva. Luring her to his underground lair, the Phantom declares his love. But Christine loves Raoul de Chagny and plans to elope with him after her next performance. When the Phantom finds out, he abducts Christine, incurring the wrath of Raoul — and a horde of rabid Parisians.”

“If I am the Phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so.”

In 1998, The Phantom of the Opera was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Make no mistake though – The Phantom of the Opera is not a masterpiece. It is culturally significant.

The Phantom is also in the public domain which means that film quality varies wildly across releases. I watched the Amazon version and there was a steady image with a lot of print damage but the Bal Masque scene was in two-color Technicolor. Strangely while the Netflix version is 91 minutes long, the Amazon one clocks in at 106 minutes.

The reason to watch Phantom is, of course, Lon Chaney in the titular role. Chaney’s portrayal of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 led to it being Universal’s most successful silent movie. Sadly, many of his films are lost such as Tod Browning’s London After Midnight.

Lon Chaney’s character in Phantom is iconic and a work of art. He was a master craftsman and did his own makeup. Here he pulled his nose back and up with wire and used black makeup around the nostrils to make it look larger. Some false teeth, a hideous grin, and darkened, vacant eye sockets round out the look. It was as close as he could come to the description of the skull-like Phantom from LeRoux’s novel (and quite a bit closer than Claude Rains and Herbert Lom as the 1943 and 1962 Phantoms respectively).

Tragically the movies he loved so much killed him early. On the set of Thunder in 1929, Chaney caught a cold which later developed into pneumonia. Cornflakes (used as snow in the film) stuck in his throat and caused an infection. In 1930, at the young age of 47 and while slated to play Dracula, Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage.

As would become commonplace in later movies, Universal wisely takes a long time to reveal the ‘monster’. Through the first third of the film, the Phantom is glimpsed as a shadow, a silhouette, and a hand. For a good portion after that, he is the masked phantom and he admonishes Christine not to look behind the mask.

The unmasking is wonderfully filmed, with Christine hesitantly reaching for the mask, retreating, then reaching again – all while the Phantom plays. Once the Phantom is revealed in all his glory, he taunts her, “Feast your eyes – glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!”

Unfortunately the film just drags on and on, particularly in scenes where Chaney is not present. While important, it is probably something that you will only want to watch once.

People Watch: Not people this time but the actual set. In Studio 28, The Phantom of the Opera remains the longest standing set. A portion of it was used recently in Jason Segel’s recent version of The Muppets. It is the audience section of the Muppet Theater.