Chaney’s Phantom

I am intimately familiar with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1986 musical “The Phantom of the Opera”, in fact, I saw the Canadian production in 1989 with Rebecca Caine and Colm Wilkinson and sat directly underneath its famous chandelier when it dropped. But I am bragging… I have yet to read the novel by Gaston Leroux. I had also never seen the classic 1925 silent film adaptation starring Lon Chaney as the Phantom, until now.

The story is a classic forbidden-love story with a supernatural twist. It was actually inspired by a very grisly event in the Paris Opera House but I shall get into that in a review of Leroux’s book. The story has been made over and retold in various ways, some more successful than others – I wish I could forget that dreadful 1974 “Phantom of the Paradise” rock opera with Paul Williams as the Phantom, and appropriately narrated by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) – and some that I’d like to see, like the 1990 TV movie starring Charles Dance as the Phantom.

This is not the first silent film adaptation of the book, that distinction belongs to the 1916 film “Das Phantom Der Oper”, of which no prints are known to exist today. That makes this 1925 movie the earliest existing silent film of the Phantom. The majority of Chaney’s work from 1912 to 1930, both in short films and feature films, has also been lost with no known prints of the films existing.

The Lon Chaney version of Phantom, however, is considered by many to be the definitive film adaptation. Chaney’s ability for character acting and his incredibly expressive face made him the perfect choice for the role, and actors have struggled to top his protrayal ever since. Chaney is to the Phantom what Heath Ledger has become to the Joker. You won’t be able to do it better, you will have to do it differently, and differently doesn’t always work.

The Internet Archive has three copies of the film available for free viewing or download. Do yourself a favour and watch one!

The first is the original 1925 1 hour and 46 minute print, and is the print that was shown at the Astor Theatre in New York. The score provided in this copy is not a synchronized score, but is a combination of Mozart and Schubert works. Many fans consider this to be the best print, as it contains a lot of contextual narrative cards that enhance the viewer’s ability to know the characters and follow along the story line if you are unfamiliar with the book.

The second is a 1929 edit which features a cleaner print, but fans of the film consider it a lesser edit as it is missing a lot of the contextual narrative.

The third is perhaps the easiest to watch and the most commonly available. It is shorter at 1 hour and 34 minutes, but a well-restored version of the 1929 print. The print is also tinted to convey information about the settings (blue was a night time shot, yellow was to denote warmth and comfort, red to denote danger, etc.) and also features an extremely detailed tinted masquerade ball scene with the Phantom in his Red Death robes which comes very close to colour cinematography.

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