A Peek Behind the Mask(s) of The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Since this article was originally posted in four parts at Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities, it technically qualifies as a Throwback Thursday post–but since this is Halloween week, and since Mike has something extra-special planned for the actual day, I figured it would be best to get this up before then. I’ve also incorporated any new insight I’ve gained into Phantom ’25 in this long-form piece, so I guess it could work as a new article as well. Or maybe I’m getting too distracted by classification.

This article was written under similar circumstances as my Full Circle article, in that it was serialized when originally posted. All of the pieces have been joined here in one long-form article, with connective tissue added to make the piece flow better as a whole.


Originally posted between October 31, 2017 and January 27, 2018.

A Personal History

By the time I was…had to be three or four years old, I was fully obsessed with classic monsters and classic monster movies.  My parents were older–from the Silent Generation, which is the no man’s land between the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers–and so a lot of my entertainment influences were older as a result.  Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy–my parents rented the Universal masterpieces from the library on VHS, and I was mesmerized by them.  While I don’t remember exactly where my interest began–it might have been Count Chocula and Frankenberry, or perhaps it was the large vinyl action figures of the Universal monsters I had at the time–one thing I can remember quite clearly is the genesis of my love of silent film.

My grandparents were, as you can probably guess, from the Greatest Generation–both maternal and paternal, actually, but by the time I came around, the only grandparents still alive were those on my mother’s side.  Being from the Greatest Generation, they were old enough to have seen some of the most beloved classic films in history at a time when these films weren’t classic yet, but were rather brand new.  My maternal grandmother, Grandma Stell, was born in the late Nineteen-teens and as such, was old enough to have seen Universal’s silent masterpiece The Phantom of the Opera when it was released in 1925.  She saw it in theaters, and the great Lon Chaney’s portrayal of Erik the Opera Ghost (along with his earlier portrayal of Quasimodo in Universal’s 1923 hit The Hunchback of Notre Dame) made her a Chaney–and a Universal–fan for life.

When I was about the age I mentioned above, Grandma Stell told me about Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera.  She told me about the now-famous unmasking scene, and about how Chaney’s make-up was so shocking and so uncanny that some members of the audience back in 1925 actually screamed–and she would say, with a bit of chagrin, that she might have been one of those audience members.  Needless to say, this sounded like the coolest thing to me: A horrorfest with great make-up that had no sound but music?  I had to see it.

Luckily, Phantom, like the other Universal monsters, was available on VHS at the time, and it took no time at all for my parents to find a copy at the local K-Mart.  We invited Grandma Stell over for a viewing the next evening.  Being as young as I was, silent films presented a problem at first: I couldn’t read the intertitles (or “captions” as I knew them back then).  So, my grandmother kindly obliged me.

The unmasking scene was all it had been hyped to be, and yet more.  Lon Chaney’s make-up was phenomenal.  I’d never seen anything quite like it–and, honestly, I haven’t seen anything quite like it since.  With digital effects becoming the norm (with everything, including blood splatter in slasher films), such hands-on make-up techniques as employed by the “Man of a Thousand Faces” are becoming a lost art; and Chaney, like a magician, never revealed his secrets anyway.  But I digress.

Thus was my first brush with silent cinema. My second silent film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, though I don’t remember my first time seeing that film (I still have the old 80s VHS, though, as proof to myself).  My third was Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, which Ma–my mother–suggested.  Fourth, Metropolis, which Pop–my father–suggested when our local PBS station showed the Giorgio Moroder version once in the late 1980s. Needless to say, I was hooked. And it all started with Phantom ’25.

And Chaney’s Phantom ’25 is responsible for many things in my life.  Not only did it ignite a lifelong love affair with silent cinema, but it also ignited my love of reading.  Over the course of the next year, I learned to read–in part, so that I could read the intertitles myself, and in part so that I could read biographies written about my favorite horror actors, of which Chaney was one.

So, as impactful as The Phantom of the Opera was to me, I was shocked when, during a family re-watch of the film later in life, Grandma Stell confessed that the unmasking scene had lost its potency for her over the years.  It seemed, to her, less intense than she remembered it.  As shocked as I was, it made a degree of sense the more I considered it.  The older a person gets, the less childhood frights hold any power.  Didn’t I experience the same thing myself, but in other arenas?  Of course I did.  Everyone does.

I didn’t find out until after her death in 1999 that it might not have been her age, after all.  The scene seemed less intense not because she was older, but because it was less intense.  Because it was different.

Because the version we had watched that first time, and the various versions I had watched since–they weren’t the 1925 version at all.

And so if they weren’t the 1925 version, what were they?

As luck would have it, Phantom ’25 is one of the most frustrating silent films in history, and the reason has less to do with what’s on screen than with what could have been on screen, if only.

For starters, there are four known, universally-acknowledged versions of the 1925 film:

  1. The Los Angeles Premiere Version
  2. The San Francisco Premiere Version
  3. The New York Premiere Version/Mass Release Version
  4. The 1929 Sound Reissue

What’s the difference between these four versions?  For that matter, why are there four versions?  Which version did my grandmother see in theaters, and which version did we watch on VHS?  You didn’t ask these questions, but I’m going to answer them for you anyway.  Soon.

But before I do, you’ll probably need a bit of information on how and why the movie was made in the first place.

A Brief Look at the Novel

Production on Phantom ’25 started in late 1924, though the wheels of pre-production started in 1922 when Carl Laemmle, then president of Universal Studios, received a copy of the novel Le Fantome de l’Opera from author Gaston Leroux while vacationing in France.  Leroux was a famous French mystery/crime writer who had tried his hand at writing something closer to gothic romance in 1909, and Le Fantome (serialized in pulp magazines at the time and released in full novel form in 1910) was the result of that experiment.  It was a commercial success in France, and was translated into English in 1911 as The Phantom of the Opera.

Considering The Phantom’s deformities, I don’t think a mere domino mask would hide much of anything…

A year after his vacation to France, Laemmle’s studio would release The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which starred silent sensation Lon Chaney in the role of Quasimodo.  Hunchback ’23 was, itself, based on a novel by Victor Hugo–a Frenchman, like Leroux–and was a smash hit on the roadshow circuit (back when every theater was a “select theater,” every release was a “limited release,” and prints made the rounds across the country the long way).  Needless to say, after the money machine that was Hunchback ’23, Laemmle was very interested in cranking out another “French horror.”  Leroux’s novel was the perfect source material for just such a picture.

Before I continue, I feel the need to define just what “French horror” was to folks during Laemmle’s time. To be frank, the early years of cinema were…strange when it came to what was classified and/or marketed as “horror.”  Hunchback, for all intents and purposes, would be considered an historical drama today–but to audiences in 1923, the gothic setting and startling appearance of Chaney as Quasimodo made the tale a decidedly horrific experience.  So, “French horror” is really code for “ugly Frenchman.”  This same term applies to director Paul Leni’s Universal offering The Man Who Laughs (1927), but once again, I digress.

So, what the hell was the novel about, exactly?  If you’re familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, you have a rough idea of the story–rough, because the tale is less about love and more about obsession and madness.  The musical is as though the story were told from the perspective of Harley Quinn, and if you’re not a comic book or Batman fan, you won’t get that reference.  Also, fuck you if you don’t like Batman.

“But, see, she’s like his queen and stuff, so there’s mad respect there.”  This was a real claim made by someone after seeing Suicide Squad.  Read a fucking comic.

Since most people are familiar enough with the story, the “Reader’s Digest” version is that it’s about a creepy psychotic stalker who happens to be deformed and falls in love with a mercurial waif who is far too young and immature for him–and a bunch of rather normal people get caught up in the middle of it.  There’s very little love involved, and a lot of infatuation and murderous obsession.  Again, remember that Leroux was first and foremost a mystery/crime writer, and not a romance novelist–and so to him, this novel was always a mystery with a twist.

If you want a longer summary, I’ve provided that below, but feel free to skip it if you feel you’ve got the gist of everything.


SUMMARY: The Phantom of the Opera is about a mad genius named Erik (which isn’t his real name; we never learn his real name) who lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House.  Erik is severely deformed, but is extremely gifted: By the time he comes to occupy the cellars of the Opera House, he’s an accomplished illusionist, ventriloquist, hypnotist (all three developed as a child while traveling in a carnival freak show run by gypsies), vocalist, violinist, architect (who may have worked on the Opera House itself during its construction as Mr. Black), and assassin (whilst working for the Shah of Persia). 

Erik falls in love with a Swedish chorus girl named Christine Daae and decides to tutor her from behind the wall in her room.  Christine thinks that the voice teaching her behind her wall is an Angel of Music which her late father promised he’d send to her when he was on his deathbed (she was a child at the time).  In addition to teaching Christine semi-anonymously, Erik (who is incalculably old–we genuinely can’t calculate his age and we are never told how old he is) semi-anonymously threatens the new owners of the Paris Opera House with financial ruin via “coincidental” accidents around the opera if they don’t replace Carlotta, their primadonna, with Christine.  At first they balk, but after several mishaps including Carlotta being drugged and the great chandelier falling onto the audience, the owners eventually capitulate. 

And so Erik creeps on Christine like an enmasked Harvey Weinstein through a combination of misrepresentation and mesmerism until her childhood friend Raoul de Chagny comes to the Opera House one evening for a performance.  Raoul is a viscount and thus very rich, so naturally a romance blossoms between Christine and Raoul.  This doesn’t sit well with Erik, so he kidnaps Christine and holds her captive in the catacombs. 

While in the catacombs having a grand old time (seriously), Erik explicitly tells Christine that he will make her dreams come true, so long as she never ever touches his mask.  Like a typical teenager, Christine proceeds to do the opposite of what she is told: She removes Erik’s mask and is shocked by his appearance.  Royally pissed, Erik tells Christine that now that she’s seen his face, she can never leave and must become his bride (pretty much). 

Christine agrees to marry Erik if he’ll let her go back to the surface world to say her farewells, and he agrees, so long as she tells people nothing of what she has seen.  Again, the teen Christine does the opposite: She tells Raoul about her captivity and they decide to run off together to be married instead.  Erik overhears this, really falls off the deep end, and kidnaps Christine again. 

Raoul follows Erik in an attempt to save Christine, and is accompanied by an old friend of Erik’s called The Persian (aka “Daroga,” who is a policeman hailing from a Middle-Eastern country where Erik was a court assassin and architect and pretty much everything else as mentioned above).  Raoul and The Persian fall into one of Erik’s traps, Erik pressures Christine to abandon Raoul, Christine agrees to marry Erik if he lets Raoul and The Persian go, Erik agrees (because that’s worked out so well thus far), Erik has a change of heart when he sees how much Christine and Raoul love each other, and he sends them all on their way.  Erik dies three weeks later, and the whole story was recorded from statements given by The Persian near the end of his life.  The end.


Unmasking Phantom ’25

So, now that we’re all familiar with the story, we can discuss the aforementioned four versions of Phantom ’25. Of these four, which one did my grandmother and I see on VHS?  A great question, indeed.  In order to properly answer it, we will need to take a brief look at each.

Version 1: The Los Angeles Premiere (January 7, 1925)

As mentioned, Universal chose Phantom to follow up Hunchback as its next big thing.  Actor/director Rupert Julian (of The Right to be Happy non-fame) was picked to helm the project, and Lon Chaney was chosen to star as Erik the Opera Ghost.  Stable leading man Norman Kerry was hired to play Raoul, studio darling (and certified looker) Mary Philbin was cast as Christine, and Arthur Edmund Carewe was cast as The Persian.

Right from the start, the production was a bit of a mess.  Chaney and Julian didn’t get along on set, so much so that they couldn’t even be in the same room together at times (leading some to claim that the movie was directed more by Chaney than Julian).  When Julian was on set, he was obsessed with re-shooting scenes over and over, using excuses like “poor lighting” as a reason to do take after take.  Had Julian directed today, he would have been a target of the #MeToo movement, as it is said that he never missed an opportunity to adjust Mary Philbin’s “padding” while on set.  The production was tumultuous, to say the least.

But, despite this turmoil, the LA premiere version as released was possibly the most novel-accurate version of the film released even to this day. Most notably, it contained an important scene from the novel where Christine visits her violinist father’s grave and is followed by both Erik and Raoul. 

Erik plays the violin there, further convincing Christine that he is sent by her father from beyond the grave to watch over her. 

Raoul, following the music, chases Erik to a mausoleum where he loses the slippery Opera Ghost–but not before Erik pelts Raoul with skulls.

It also sported an ending that was much in line with its literary counterpart, where Erik dies at his organ after releasing Christine, Raoul, and the Persian (with apologies to Carl Denham, it was beauty killed the beast–Christine’s kiss, the only kiss Erik ever received in his life, is what convinced him in the film to release them in the first place).

Unfortunately, it was considered too morose and joyless by preview audiences (very little comic relief), with an ending that they felt was unsatisfying for such a monster.  It was also considered to be too long, clocking in at 11 reels (so, almost two hours).  Thus it was deemed a failure by head of Universal Carl Laemmle.  Julian was fired, and the order came down for Phantom ’25 to be recut.

STATUS: Lost.  All that remains of the graveyard scene and original ending are still images.  This was not the film that we saw on VHS, though I wish to God it had been.  Forget London After Midnight (1927); if I had to choose a lost silent film I wish they’d find, it’s this cut of Phantom ’25.

Version 2: The San Francisco Premiere (April 26, 1925)

So, Rupert Julian was out.  Laemmle chose Edward Sedgewick, a prominent Universal western director, to recut the film and shoot new scenes where necessary.  Sedgewick’s solutions for the film’s problems?  Add a little more action, and a lot more comic relief. So Sedgewick tossed out a significant portion of Julian’s footage and went about shooting his own.

Comedic character actor Chester Conklin was hired to play Raoul’s inept valet, and Vola Vale was hired to play the inept maid:

Ward Crane was chosen to play the Russian Count Ruboff, a “human competitor” for Christine’s affections who finds himself engaged in a duel with Raoul at some point in the film:

Sedgwick also changed the ending.  No longer did Erik die of a broken heart at the organ in his subterranean lair; instead, he would experience vigilante justice at the hands of an angry mob who would chase him to the Seine River and beat him to death, tossing him into the river for good measure.

Apparently, this “new” ending scene was one of many aforementioned alternate, multiple takes shot by Rupert Julian originally–but since Julian didn’t like how it flowed with the rest of the film, it was cut and tabled.  When Sedgewick saw it, he liked the ending so much that he added to it to improve pacing and suspense. 

The Phantom’s carriage.  Only silent film nerds will get this joke.

Though this new cut was still 11 reels, the suits at Universal felt it was better paced and more engaging.  Unfortunately, premiere audiences didn’t agree.

It is said that some in the audience booed the film, some walked out, and the general consensus was that the comedic elements were too annoying, the love triangle was too boring, and the film was still too long.  So, Laemmle fired Sedgewick and took the film back to the drawing board.

STATUS: Lost.  All that remains of the scenes with Count Ruboff and Raoul’s servants are still images.  So, this was not the version we saw on VHS, either.  I’m less sad about this version being lost as it sounds like it sucked.

Version 3: The New York Premiere (September 6, 1925)

Sedgewick was dismissed from the project, and Laemmle put Raymond Schrock in charge of recutting the film so that it would be ready for the New York Premiere.  Since Laemmle was firing Phantom ’25 directors faster than Darth Vader “promoted” Imperial Admirals (by choking the old ones to death) in Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Schrock understandably feared for his job.  In a move that was as wise as it was pragmatic, Schrock put Lois Weber in charge of pulling the mess together.  Weber in turn hired Maurice Pivar and Sydney Singerman to help write new intertitles and re-order scenes.

Most of Sedgewick’s new footage was removed (save for the mob justice ending), and much of Julian’s footage was restored.  One whole reel was cut, bringing the reel count down to ten (which in turn shortened the movie to around 100 minutes).  The character of The Persian now became Ledoux of the French Secret Police, on the trail of dangerous Erik, re-written as an escaped Devil’s Island inmate and practitioner of the “black arts.”  Beyond the film itself, the Universal marketing machine kicked into high gear.  The novel was re-released with pictures from the film (often called the “Photoplay” version of the novel), posters were plastered on almost every lamp pole and outer wall, and even lipstick and make-up (in “Phantom Red”) was merchandised to build hype.  When the time came for the premiere, Laemmle and company crossed their fingers.

It’s often said that the third time is the charm, and that’s certainly true of this film.  When the audience saw this version of the film on September 6, 1925 at the Astor theater in New York, they loved it.  This version of the film went on to make $2 million at the box office, and became the highest grossing film that year.

STATUS: This one is still around, though just barely.  The old negative (kept on 35 mm nitrate) is long gone–discarded no doubt by Universal during one of their silent film purges in the 1940s.  What we do have is a working print from a 16 mm “show-at-home” copy purchased by collectors in the early 1930s.  While this print has seen better days, it’s still watchable, and copies of it are available on DVD and blu-ray (through Image, Kino Lorber, and BFI, to name a few).  My grandmother definitely saw this version in theaters in 1925–but this was not the version we saw on VHS.  By process of elimination, that leaves one more version, right? 

Unmasking Phantom ’29

At some point, Universal considered making a sequel to its 1925 box office hit.  Entitled The Return of the Phantom, the film was to be shot in color with sound, and was to star Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, and Mary Philbin, reprising their roles from the first film.  The original novel’s author, Gaston Leroux, was on tap to help write the scenario (and, presumably, tie-in novel).  However, Lon Chaney was under contract at MGM, and MGM was not willing to release him to Universal to shoot the picture.

Version 4: The 1929 Sound Reissue (December 15, 1929)

Never one to throw away a good idea, Carl Laemmle reimagined The Return of the Phantom instead as a sound remake of the 1925 film.  Laemmle’s nephew Ernst Laemmle was appointed as director, and in August 1929, the partial-production began.

What was changed?  Well, the younger Laemmle reshot about half of Phantom ’25 with a slightly older, slightly fatter Norman Kerry and a virtually unchanged Mary Philbin–and it was their natural voices that were used for the sound sequences.  For sequences involving Erik, a voice-over from “The Phantom’s Servant” was used to narrate the action; this allowed Universal to use Chaney’s old performance without the need for Chaney himself.  Other characters whose actors were unable to return were voiced by new ones–the most creative display of this is the conversion of the original Carlotta (Virginia Pearson) into “Carlotta’s mother,” allowing Universal to hire singer Mary Fabian for a sound solo in the film.

It should be noted though that not all of the film featured spoken dialog, and several scenes remained silent–but with pre-recorded musical accompaniment and sound effects.

Not only was Chaney unavailable, but Universal contractually couldn’t dub over him, either–so the “servant” only “speaks” from the shadows.

How did the re-release do?  It made another $1 million, and is speculated to be the impetus behind Universal’s monster cycle of the 1930s and 1940s.

STATUS: Lost.  That’s right, folks.  This isn’t the version my grandmother and I watched on VHS, either.  The sound discs are still intact (back then, talkies came with sound disc soundtracks that were synchronized with the action on screen), but the actual scenes that were reshot are missing in action, though Kino-Lorber (and Image before them) have released “reconstructions” on DVD and blu-ray.  So with that said, what in the nine rings of hell did we watch?

Unmasking Phantom WTF (19-Who-the-Hell-Knows)

There are actually five versions of Phantom ’25, except no one truly knows what this fifth version is.  Found in a mislabeled canister in the Universal vaults, the 35 mm print of this version of the film seems to follow the continuity of the 1929 sound reissue but uses none of the new shots. Instead, it uses B-roll footage from outtakes and alternate takes.  The Bal Masque scene is blocked differently.  The opera performance of Faust is shot from a different angle.  Even Erik’s unmasking is different; he seems genuinely surprised in this version, but enraged in the original 1925 version.

In some copies, there’s also a shadowy intro sequence that appears to be either the comedic character Florine Papillon or the Phantom’s rat catcher telling the audience…something? It’s silent, and there are no intertitles for this sequence, so no one is truly certain why it’s there. It’s possible that this sequence was a sound sequence filmed in the 1940s for home release copies, or the 1950s as a television intro–but none of this is proven, only speculated.

Known as the “Lantern Man” scene, no one knows why this shit is here.

So, what can this version possibly be?

One possibility is that this is an international cut of the film–possibly a silent international cut of the sound reissue, as not every theater across the world (let alone the country) had sound capabilities yet.  Supporting this theory is the B-roll footage itself, which was often used back in the days of silents to create international release copies of films (it was cheaper to use the flotsam and jetsam and throw them to the foreigners than to make a brand new copy).  No silent version of the sound reissue was announced in the trade magazines of the day, however, and one or two articles covering the reissue even went so far as to explicitly state that no silent version would be made available.

Another possibility is that this version is a continuity cut of the film.  Ernst Laemmle was hesitant to destroy the only copy of the original 1925 version they possessed, and so requested outtakes and alternative takes to compliment his sound reissue during the scenes with no spoken dialogue.  It is within the realm of reason that the younger Laemmle might have ordered a mock-up of his proposed continuity made with this silent footage before shooting the talkie scenes, to make sure that everything would flow properly and make sense (a reasonable precaution, considering the film’s rough history).

STATUS: Available.  For the longest time, this was the only version available, and was passed off as the 1925 version.  No one knew any better.  My grandmother was right; the unmasking scene did hold less of an impact than she remembered–because she originally saw a different unmasking scene entirely.  It’s been a long journey, but this is the culprit, dear readers.  This is the version my grandmother and I watched on VHS.

Conclusion

Phantom ’25 is a classic, no matter which version you get to see. While I would personally recommend either the Ultimate Edition DVD set from Image Entertainment’s Milestone Collection (since it has the WTF version, 16 mm 1925 mass release version, WTF version with 1929 audio synced with it in certain scenes, etc.), or the Kino Blu-Ray (which features a previously missing audio disc from the 1929 sound version), you honestly can’t go wrong with any release–even Alpha Video. If you’re a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to see the film at least once.

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