This blogathon, sponsored by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and longtime friend of Backlots The Self-Styled Siren, exists for a very specific purpose. In the classic film community, the issue of film preservation is akin to the issue of global warming in the general public. We know that the longer we wait to start making efforts to preserve our films, the sooner the films will deteriorate and we will no longer have access to some of the movies we hold most dear in our culture. The Film Foundation reports that we have already lost half of all American films made before 1950, and 90% of films made before 1929. We cannot let this trend continue.
Thus, this blogathon is a specific effort to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving films that would not be saved without public support. The mission with this particular blogathon is to raise money for an online version of a recently restored copy of The White Shadow (1924), one of the earliest-known credits for Alfred Hitchcock, and to increase the visibility of those films that have been restored. Visit their website to learn more about the organization, and I urge you to donate what you can. Your donation can be as little as $10 or as much as $100,000, and any amount is greatly appreciated (if you can seriously afford $100,000, I’m dragging you to my house and making you pay my cable bill. That’s just the way it has to be.)
My contribution to this film preservation blogathon is an analysis of the classic 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. Now, we are all familiar with the story of The Phantom of the Opera, the novel by Gaston Leroux has inspired countless representations on film and onstage, the most famous of which is now, obviously, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that took London by storm in 1986.
However, for classic film fans, there is nothing like the 1925 film adaptation of the story from Universal Studios, which features a spectacularly well-written narrative and, for me, one of the most startling scenes in all of cinema–the unmasking of the Phantom.
The story begins as new owners of the Paris Opera House are just sealing their purchase, and they are warned of a shadowy character that occupies Box 5, “a cloaked figure of a man who hides his face and will not speak.” It seems that the company has known about him for some time, as during the performance that evening, there are exclamations of horror that “the Phantom is up from the cellars again!” Up from the cellars he is, and with a plan–to destroy the career of the prima donna Carlotta in favor of the novice Christine Daaé, with whom he has fallen in love. By way of a series of letters to the owners, the Phantom makes it clear that if Carlotta sings that evening’s performance instead of Christine, she sings “in a house with a curse on it.”
The owners pay no heed, and that evening the curtain rises with Carlotta playing the lead role. Raoul, Christine’s lover, receives a mysterious note during the performance–“I cannot explain, but you must never attempt to see me again.” Then, inexplicably, the lights begin to flicker on and off, and though Carlotta continues singing, with the Phantom’s cry of “Behold! She is singing to bring down the chandelier!” the chandelier falls upon the audience, wreaking havoc in the theater.
In the meantime, Raoul rushes back to Christine’s dressing room to catch her in the act with another man. Instead, he watches Christine almost hypnotically walk through her dressing room mirror, to the other side of the wall. When he tries to follow her, he finds that the mirror only lets her through.
The mirror leads to the Phantom’s lair, and it is here that we first see the Phantom. He is seen wearing a white mask and breathing through a nylon-esque covering on his mouth, which Christine initially shrinks from but comes to be curious about–leading her to the famous Phantom unmasking scene.
This clip has no music set to it, and I almost think it’s even more disturbing this way. Take a look:
Lon Chaney was a makeup master, and he was allowed to design his own makeup for this film as he was previously for Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Out of all the versions of The Phantom of the Opera that have ever been produced, this is considered to be the truest depiction of the Phantom as he was described in the original novel. Universal was prepared to milk the shock they knew Chaney’s face would bring the audience for all it was worth, so they made it a point not to release Chaney’s face as the Phantom on any of the promotional materials for the movie. Thus, the reaction from the audience would be one of genuine shock and horror, and many audience members were said to have screamed and fainted at the sight of the deformed face on the screen.
Upon seeing the Phantom’s face, Christine becomes horrified, and begs him to let her go. He does, but makes her promise never to see Raoul again. “If so, it is death to you both!”
Christine leaves, but the Phantom’s warning did not deter her from writing to Raoul.
At the Bal Masqué, while everybody is dancing and having fun, we see a figure clad in red coming down the stairs. Red, you ask? Yes. In this scene, we see one of the first sequences ever shot in Technicolor.
Christine and Raoul steal away to the Opera rooftop, so as not to be seen by the Phantom. There, Christine describes to Raoul what she has seen–describing the Phantom as a “loathsome beast” and imploring him to save her from his wretchedness. Little does she know that the Phantom is directly above her, listening from the statues on top of the Opera roof.
At the performance the next evening, the Phantom kidnaps Christine while she is onstage and brings her down to the cellars. A man named Ledoux (whom we have been seeing throughout the movie without knowing who he is) reveals to Raoul that he is a secret policeman who has been studying the Phantom for some time. He leads Raoul down to the Phantom’s hiding place, where through a series of events, the Phantom is threatened and gives Christine a choice–turn a scorpion knob to marry him and spare Raoul, or turn a grasshopper knob to blow the Opera House to bits. Christine opts to spare Raoul, but in reality it was a trick, and the intent with the scorpion knob was to drown Raoul and Ledoux in the lake. When Christine learns this, she begs the Phantom to spare them, and promises to do anything he wants. At this, the Phantom opens a trap door and lets them out. He can’t stand the sight of Christine kissing Raoul, so he kidnaps Christine again and steals a carriage outside the Opera to carry her away. His carriage breaks down and the Phantom is pursued by a mob, that allegedly kills him and throws him in the Seine. This is one of the most interesting movie endings I can think of because….there are still bubbles coming out of the water when the camera fades out.
Could the Phantom still be alive? Could he make his way back to the Opera House to find another protégée? I have scoured my available resources for those people who have noticed this subtlety in the ending, and I can’t find another examination on it. From the first time I saw the movie the ending struck me as being a cliffhanger, and when I couldn’t find others’ takes on it, it surprised me. Take a look and see what you think:
You may notice in the title of this video clip that the given year is not 1925, as was the year the movie was originally released, but 1929. This is due to an important re-editing of the film that was done in 1929 after the introduction of talking pictures. The producer, Carl Laemmle, recorded an audio track and score for the movie that were released with a newly edited version of the film on February 16, 1930, and this clip was taken from the newer version. Re-editing the film now seems in vain, however, as all of the sound footage that Laemmle re-shot is currently lost and the re-edited version of The Phantom of the Opera is now considered a lost film.
Which brings me back to my original point–by making film preservation a priority, we can prevent further films from getting lost or damaged. Imagine what it would be like to be able to see the re-edited 1929 Phantom of the Opera with the sound footage that Laemmle shot, and compare it to the original 1925 version. If we had cared more about the future of films in 1930, we might have been able to do just that today.
If you would like to learn more about film preservation and the process by which people go about repairing damaged films and preserving those in danger of being damaged, here are some links. Thanks for reading!
The Selznick School of Film Preservation trains individuals in the art of film archiving and curating. The Selznick School has restored films going back to 1902, and has the distinction of having restored many of the original tests for Gone With the Wind.
The National Film Preservation Foundation, the organization that we are helping to support with this blogathon, was established by Congress in recognition of the need to retain our motion picture heritage. They offer a clear, straightforward explanation on how a film decays and how to stop it. To view that section of their website, click here.
The Sundance Institute joined the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 1997 to create a solid force committed to film preservation. Dealing mostly with independent films, their mission is not strictly related to the classics, but instead demonstrates an all-inclusiveness that recognizes that all vulnerable films need to be protected for the future.