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Silent Movie Organ Music - The Phantom of the Opera

Updated on July 22, 2014

A Silent Movie Classic

Although many of us know and love the songs to the award-winning Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, "The Phantom of the Opera," we need to realize that there is a precursor that is a classic silent film. "The Phantom of the Opera" is a 1925 American silent film adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel of the same title. The film featured Lon Chaney in the title role as the talented, but defaced Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House and loves the beautiful Christine.

The term "silent film" describes any movie made from 1893 to about 1928. During this time, the only accompanying sound you heard in the movie theater was the live music made by the musicians. The music could be as simple as a piano player in the smaller theaters or as grand as a symphony orchestra or organ in movie palaces. But wherever it was viewed, it was a special event to listen to thrilling music and be awed by moving pictures.

One of these silent films is now considered a classic. "The Phantom of the Opera" was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1998 as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Let's learn what goes into making a classic film.


(photo from Wikipedia)

"The Phantom of the Opera" - Film Versions

Sometimes the road to becoming a classic follows a torturous route. Instead of the sophistication of survey research that precedes studio releases today, the way to see if a picture would be a hit back then was to open in theaters or listen to what people said as they exited the theaters and read the newspaper reviews the next day. If it was a bomb, it was back to the editing room, or in many cases, to re-shoot scenes. "The Phantom of the Opera" experienced many such edits on its path to becoming a horror classic.

Silent Film Version 1. The first cut of the silent film was previewed in Los Angeles on January 7 and 26, 1925. Due to poor reviews, the January release was pulled and plans were made to create a new film version.

Silent Film Version 2. A new director was chosen for the second cut and additional story lines and subplots were written and shot. A new music score was also written. It was previewed in San Francisco on April 26, 1925, but did not do well. It was sent back to the studio for more work to trim away the bulky scenes.

Silent Film Version 3. As the saying goes, "Third time is the charm." The third edited version debuted on September 6, 1925, at the Astor Theater in New York City. No expense was spared at the premiere; Universal even had a new organ installed at the theater for the event. It then premiered on October 17, 1925 in Hollywood. This silent version was a success.

Film Version 4. After the introduction of sound pictures, Universal then re-shot a new cut of "The Phantom of the Opera." Because Chaney was under contract to another studio, another actor's voice had to be dubbed in. The sound version of "The Phantom of the Opera" opened successfully on February 16, 1930. The print has since vanished and is presently considered to be a lost film.

Other sound versions of the classic story have since been filmed. But when Halloween comes around, people still bring out a classic silent version.

The Organ is called the

"King of Instruments!"

Theater Organ Consule

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Silent Films and Music

Silent films were never really silent; they were always a performance medium. It is estimated that 50% of the silent films were accompanied by organ, with the remaining by piano and orchestras or ensembles. Attending a film was an event to be anticipated and enjoyed, where the story and actors' emotions were expressed through music and film.

Film scores of the day were sketches of mood music or compilations based off a cue sheet from the movie studio. Theater organists would improvise from the cue sheets, perform bits of classical tunes, or play their own original music as they followed the action on the screen. The overall design and mechanism of the theater organ with its multiple keyboard manuals, a half circle of stops, foot pedals, and devices to create sound effects allowed a skillful organist to create a truly remarkable theatrical experience.

It took coordination and effort to create a successful theater experience. The showing of a silent film did not entail just running a strip of film through a projector. There were inherent problems at each showing, for the projection speed of silent film was not stable. The projectionist and musician needed to coordinate and tweak the proper speed so the music and film could be synchronized properly.

The pendulum has now swung back to acknowledge that live music is a critical part of the silent film experience. With the advent of "talkies," this concept had been lost. Theaters were torn down or refitted for sound, the theater organs were moved out, and the cue sheets of mood music were destroyed. But now a renewed appreciation of the music of silent films is growing and theater organs are being restored. The tradition of showing "The Phantom of the Opera" for Halloween--accompanied on an organ--is now being re-established in theaters, churches, and even pizza parlors. A new generation of silent film fans are being created through observing the magic of silent movies and music.

Silent Film Music and the Theatre Organ. Thomas J. Mathiesen

The Creative Genius of Lon Chaney

One of the most famous scenes in "The Phantom of the Opera" shows Christine taking off the mask of the Phantom as he plays the organ in his underground lair. Lon Chaney's make-up of the Phantom was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere.

Chaney was given the freedom to create his own make-up as the Phantom. He painted his eye sockets black, glued back his ears, pulled the tip of his nose up, and enlarged his nostrils with black greasepaint, giving a skull-like impression to his face. To complete the horrific look of the Phantom, a set of jagged false teeth was inserted into his mouth. He wanted to shock his audience, and shock he did.

According to fiim lore, actress Mary Philbin's horrified reaction to the unmasked Phantom was real; she had no idea what the Chaney's face would look like until that exact moment in the organ scene when he turned around. When audiences first saw the film, they were said to have screamed or fainted after Christine pulls the concealing mask away, revealing the Phantom's skull-like features.

Thanks to the genius of Lon Chaney, this keystone scene has offered musicians the chance to show off their creative skills, helping the audience to experience Christine' shock of seeing the horrific face of the Phantom. Now that's drama!

photo through Wikipedia Commons

The Unmasking Scene - Silent Film

This is a silent version of the 1925 film -- without background music. Compare it to other examples of the film where music is used to create a layer of emotion.

Film Factoid - Lon Chaney did not share his face make up with anyone but the one man on the film camera. He wanted to get Christine's actual horrified response. Watch closely to see how she reacts.

Remake of the 1925 "The Phantom of the Opera" FIlm - 2003 Release - With Background Music by Jon C. Mirsalis

Reissue of 1929 "The Phantom of the Opera" - 1998 Release - With Music Scored by Carl Davis

"Phantom of the Opera" DVDs

Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Silent) [Blu-ray]
Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Silent) [Blu-ray]

Three versions of the film are presented on this DVD: The original 1925 version (taken from the same old 16mm print used before) and two versions of the 1929 silent film.

The Phantom of the Opera (1929 re-release)
The Phantom of the Opera (1929 re-release)

Carl Davis orchestral score.

Original Vitaphone soundtrack.

Stills Galleries featuring deleted scenes from original San Francisco and Los Angeles premieres.

1925 original feature version with a score by Jon Mirsalis

"Carla Laemmle Remembers" a 7-minute video interview with David Skal

1925 and 1930 reissue trailers

Arachnitect - From the Halloween Carols
Arachnitect - From the Halloween Carols

"Arachnitect" - Vocal

"Blood Waltz" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"The Ghost of John - Bare Bones Version" - Vocal

"The Ghost of John - Dead Composers Version" - Vocal


A Female Phantom at the Organ

Organist Kristen Lawrence was commissioned to write original music & accompany the silent film, playing on the oldest organ in Orange County, CA.
Organist Kristen Lawrence was commissioned to write original music & accompany the silent film, playing on the oldest organ in Orange County, CA.

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