Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Phantom of the Opera

That's kind of a feminine looking Phantom...

I don't know about you, but I spent my Halloween at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo seeing the 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera starring the amazing Lon Chaney. The theater itself is amazing and beautiful and I will definitely be going back to see another film there. I also should note that most of the other people in the audience looked like they were around when the movie first premiered. Just saying. 

Anyway, I have a few opinions on this film and I thought I had shared them on here before, but I was getting it confused with another Chaney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

So, the version we watched was the 1925 version and it had not been remastered, which is great from a historical standpoint, but it a bit of a struggle to watch. The film was blurry and the title cards were hard to read and the notes the characters exchanged between each other? Impossible to read. Like I said, as a silent film enthusiast, I had to appreciate the film for what it was, but I would definitely have preferred a 'cleaned up' version.


Right off the bat, I will tell you that I am not a fan of Mary Philbin's performance in this film. From the first time I saw it I was just not impressed. In my opinion, I think she overacts and not in the standard silent film fashion either. I'm talking, above and beyond that! Her performance just takes me out of the drama happening on the screen and I just don't care for it. I was thinking during the movie of who I would have liked to have seen playing Christine instead of Mary Philbin and Martha Mansfield first came to mind. I think judging by her performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that she would have been great in this film...and then I remembered that she died two years before it was made. Another tragic reminder of what could have been. So, who else could have done it? Mary Miles Minter? Mae Marsh? Mary Brian? Who do you think?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I love Lon's performance. I mean, I am a bit biased because I would watch him do shadow puppets for an hour and still be impressed. Lon Chaney was one in a million, there will never be another like him. When people ask me why I love silent films, Lon's acting and dedication to his roles is one of the things I mention for why I love them so much. That much dedication to your art and that much time, effort, and talent is something to be admired, no matter who you are. 

One of the things I noticed about his performance while watching it again was how much Lon acted with his hands. His face may be hidden behind a mask, but his emotions are channeling through his hands superbly. It got me thinking about his childhood and how he was raised by two deaf parents and how that growing up I am sure he learned how to be expressive and communicate with his hands. I was delighted to see that this was also noted in the Trivia section for the movie on 

Something that surprised me when I first saw the film years ago was my reaction to first seeing the Phantom's face revealed. I had seen pictures of Lon Chaney as the Phantom many times, but there is something about seeing it on the big screen in a dark theater with an organ pounding out music that just amplifies the effect. The first time I saw it, I jumped back in my seat. It definitely makes me believe the stories of audience members fainting and screaming at the sight of his face when the movie first premiered. That just goes to show you how great a job Lon did on his make up and how it still has the ability to shock audiences ninety years later. 

Another favorite part of the film were the ballerinas. I thought it was so cute that when they were frightened and talking about the Phantom a few of them would jump and spin and it just make them look like little fairies. I tried to make out some faces because I knew I would should be able to recognize a few, but because of the film quality it was impossible. When I went home I read that actresses Ruth Clifford, Vola Vale, and Carla Laemmle all had roles as ballerinas in the film. In fact, Carla was the oldest surviving cast member from the film until her death in 2014. 

It was a treat to see Virginia Pearson in the film as well. I know Virginia was one of the top vamps of the silent screen, but I am sorry, she just always looks so nice in pictures! Anyway, Virginia plays the role of Carlotta, the opera diva and she plays it very well. Carlotta doesn't have much screen time but she makes the most of the time she does have. For me, Virginia displayed the perfect amount of overacting to make it over the top but still believable. 

Reportedly director Rupert Julian was not popular among the cast and crew. Apparently he and Chaney really did NOT get along to the point where they had to speak through intermediaries if they were forced to communicate with one another. Also, actor Norman Kerry once charged at Julian on horseback after the two had an argument. And once during filming, Julian stormed off set and was away so long that the scenes being shot that day were directed by Edward Sedgwick, who unfortunately did not receive any credit for his work during Julian's snit fit. 


Aside from Chaney's performance and the epic nature of the film, another aspect that makes this film so special are the technicolor scenes included in the middle of the film. For about 20 minutes the opera house and the attendees of the masquerade ball are in full color and it really is breathtaking. We are so used to watching silent films in black and white and seeing our favorite stars only in black and white so being able to see them in color really is amazing. It helps make them more real somehow and less mythological. At least, that is how I see it. Apparently there was another scene that was also colorized but only the masquerade ball scenes still survive. 

Speaking of breathtaking, how about the famous opera house that the film takes place in? The set remained standing in Stage 28 and was used in tons of other films. I was thinking about having to make a trip to see it, but sadly I read (and saw pictures) confirming that Stage 28 was demolished in September 2014 in order to make room for an amusement park ride...which...I just can't. It was rumored that the reason the set remained standing for so long was because the ghost of Lon Chaney haunted it and refused to allow anyone to destroy it. Guess he finally gave up the ghost!

The opera house set on Stage 28 
As I said earlier, the version that we screened was released in 1925. However, the film was re-released in 1929 with some major/minor changes. At first, the studio was just going to make a sequel, but I can't imagine what the hell that would have been like. Thankfully, the idea was tossed out and a re-issue of the 1925 film was put into the works. This new picture would contain sound, and new scenes with new actors (Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry did return). The Phantom is given a few lines in the film but they are voiced by another actor. Chaney had no part in the remake due to being under contract with another studio at the time. The film was just as popular and did very well at the box office. Sadly, the film is considered lost. The soundtrack used for the talking scenes do survive though, so there's that!

"I am the Phantom, it is because man's hatred has made me so. If I shall be saved, it will be because your love redeems me." ~~ The Phantom


  1. Oh you give a beautiful review of this film. I belong to a group where, every week there is a theme. Last Thursday were films about music but not bios etc.. I picked this film! My review is much shorter and not as good as yours but how I love this film. I just love Lon Chaney!! I have been able to find 2 bios on him. His work in this film stands up even today in my opinion. Poor Mary and Norman. The director sounds like a true idiot. I heard Norman Kerry was one of the nicest people. When you mentioned Mae Murray in the role-I would say she would have been amazing. I always felt her eyes were to her soul. I am just thoroughly disgusted that they tore down this epic theatre that was almost 90 yrs old for a stupid ride. I shouldn't be surprised but I am and disgusted. This is my favourite version

    1. I am very opinionated, what can I say?

      And Lon just deserves so much praise...for everything he did. Such an immense talent, and he didn't have to utter a word!

  2. Great review, Jessica! Lon Chaney, as you know, was born and raised here in Colorado Springs. His parents were instrumental in the building of The Deaf and Blind School here in the Springs (it's a huge facility, and a beautiful old building). We have a theater, downtown, named after Lon Chaney, which I think is pretty cool. I can just imagine how cool it was to see this amazing movie in an old theater with musical accompaniment. Thanks for sharing!

    Anne in Colorado

    1. You are so lucky to have all that Lon Chaney history around you!