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Silents On Sunday At The Cinema: The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)
It's easy and convenient for silent film fans to sit at home and watch these oldest works of the genre. I do this myself from time to time, but I also live by a movie house that sometimes hosts silent films with a live organ accompaniment. In keeping with the spirit of the Halloween season, the theater recently hosted a showing of the 1925 silent horror film The Phantom Of The Opera. Organist Jay Warren from the Silent Film Society Of Chicago returned to the theater to accompany the feature. Instead of bringing the portable organ he used when the brought a quartet of silents to the theater in his March 2017 visit, he played an organ in the theater's orchestra pit. His playing set the perfect tone for the show.
The movie tells the tale of the Phantom (Lon Chaney, Sr.), a mysterious figure who seems to know more about the Paris Opera house than anyone else. He even has his own private box to watch the operas. He even knows that the management has changed hands, and threatens trouble if Carlotta (Virginia Pearson), who sings the role of Marguerite in a production of Faust, is not replaced by Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), a young singer he has come to admire. Undaunted by threats, Carlotta takes the stage, only to have a chandelier fall onto the audience.
The next night, Christine takes Carlotta's place, to the great appreciation of the opera goers. Unknown to all except the Phantom, Christine has been taught and wooed by the Phantom, though she never sees him until Carlotta's last performance abruptly ends. She promises him to devote herself to her career, even though Christine's lover, Raoul de Chegny (Norman Kerry) wants to marry her. She agrees to the deal, though she secretly wants to proceed with the nuptials. At a masked ball at the opera, Christine and Raoul make their plans, not knowing the Phantom knows every detail. Though some think he is the Phantom because of his unclear presence, a police detective named Ledoux (Arthur Edward Carewe), has been working on a way to stop the Phantom, and knows the Phantom's background.
The Phantom Of The Opera, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, is tame by today's horror standards, but it still paints a troubling portrait of a man who knows the opera house's history, and stays one step ahead of snoops and others who could ruin his plans. This bears some resemblance to the 2004 musical version, though the screen musical is safe and boring. The silent Phantom wears a masks that hides a scary countenance, casts a scary shadow, and doesn't hurt those who keep their distance from him. He makes Christine promise to never unmask him. Director Rupert Julien gets directorial credit, but Wikipedia indicates Julien had help from others, including its star, Chaney. The terror of the Phantom is suggested, but never overly graphic. The suspense grows from the opening moments, when the new owners realize their new opera house has its mysteries, to the showdown with the Phantom.
The Phantom is perhaps Chaney's best known role, and Chaney delivers a performance that shows a man who never has terror far from his mind. The Phantom is a man with a troubled past who has a grievance with the world when he doesn't get his way. When Christine unmasks him, he shows himself for the monster he is - and not just physically. He can overpower most men, and has an arsenal of devices handy for his opposition. Philbin does a good job as Christine, a rising star who tries to bargain with the Phantom on the arrangement he asked of her. Kerry and Carewe also add good support as the men who want to address the problems they see.
The Phantom Of The Opera is just one of many silent films that maintains some sense of timelessness. It's also one of the few films of the time that has a color sequence, with the ball getting the full color treatment. Chaney, who was known as the Man Of A Thousand Faces, shows that a face of evil was one of them. Filmmakers these days have sound and other elements available to them, but the silence and the images convey a man who takes his secrets and his love of opera to obsessive levels. The sound of the right musical score - live or not - is the only other element necessary to help create the chilling mood.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Phantom Of The Opera three stars. Take off the mask, if you dare.