A rickety film mired in legal, funding, and central errors, The Phantom of the Opera is best known for “enshrin(ing) one of the greatest bits of melodramatic acting in silent cinema, Lon Cheney’s impeccably dressed lovelorn, violent ghoul genius” (Schneider). Having been presented in a variety of formats (with two different orchestrations, with some dialogue, with some technicolor, without, and at different lengths of a final cut), I watched one that the distributor touted containing the original cuts, music, and technicolor sequences. The film was full of easy scares, terrifying dark corners, and was a pleasure to watch even though there are major holes in the production itself.
A beautiful score undercuts this gorgeous early filmmaking enterprise that easily far surpasses many of the early films that I’ve watched in its scale, production value, and overall execution. While there isn’t much that can be said about my experience that completely discounts my thirty-five years of today’s modern filmmaking, it is clear that this film was able to achieve many things that prior films hadn’t even attempted. This is likely due to the backing of the studio and a tremendous amount of money injected into the piece, ushering in the new business of Hollywood as we know it today.
The costumes, the music, the sets, the makeup, everything came together to make a masterpiece of early visual filmmaking in a long, feature-length horror romance. Audiences at the time were evidently terrified of what they saw, and for good reason – the impossible makeup and terrifying sets kept secret throughout the production and into the showing of the film (and it is rumored that when Cheney’s legendary makeup and costuming was finally revealed that some moviegoers were sent screaming into the streets).
I thought the most notable scene was the Bal Masque in Technicolor and the techniques surrounding the water in the gigantic sets at the end of the film. Quite an achievement overall, and a pleasure to watch. It didn’t feel like it was as long as its runtime, and the beautiful orchestration, the mystery around every corner, and precise and expensive execution was a testament to something really special as both a narrative and a historical document.
This will likely be one of the films based on a book that I will not be reading the book. I have heard it is garbage, and that the interpretations are a much better execution of the narrative than the original narrative is – but what this film lacks in narrative (and apparently it lacks less than the book, which isn’t saying much), it easily makes up in a production that creates awe and wonder at its scale and well-executed, albeit cheap, thrills.
This is a public domain film, and you can watch it in its entirety through the Wikimedia Commons here: