“The Phantom of the Opera” Starring Lon Chaney

United States - Scott #3168 (1997)
United States – Scott #3168 (1997)

When I was a teenager, my favorite piece of classic literature was Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra or The Phantom of the Opera. I was also a big fan of the 1925 American silent horror film adaptation directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney in the title role of the deformed Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, causing murder and mayhem in an attempt to make the woman he loves a star. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time and is most famous for Chaney’s ghastly, self-devised make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film’s premiere. The film was released on November 25, 1925.

The picture also features Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis and Snitz Edwards. The last surviving cast member was Carla Laemmle (1909–2014), niece of producer Carl Laemmle, who played a small role as a “prima ballerina” in the film when she was about 15.

Lobby card for the American horror film The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Lobby card for the American horror film The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

In 1922, Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Pictures, took a vacation to Paris. During his vacation Laemmle met the author Gaston Leroux, who was working in the French film industry. Laemmle mentioned to Leroux that he admired the Paris Opera House. Leroux gave Laemmle a copy of his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle read the book in one night and bought the film rights as a vehicle for actor Lon Chaney, Sr..

Production started in late 1924 at Universal Studios. Producer Laemmle commissioned the construction of a set of the Paris Opera House. French artist, Ben Caray, whom had worked at the Paris Opera House, was brought in to design the backstage and cellars which Universal could not replicate; and although his English limited, Caray was able to speak clearly with his charcoal drawings depicting the descent into the Opera which Universal replicated exactly. Because it would have to support thousands of extras, the set became the first to be created with steel girders set in concrete. For this reason it was not dismantled until 2014. Stage 28 on the Universal Studios lot still contained portions of the opera house set, and was the world’s oldest surviving structure built specifically for a movie at the time of its demolition. It was used in hundreds of movies and television series. In preparation for the demolition of Stage 28, the Paris Opera House set went through a preservation effort and was placed into storage. Stage 28 was completely demolished on September 23, 2014.

Following the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, Chaney was once again given the freedom to create his own makeup, a practice which became almost as famous as the films he starred in. Chaney painted his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly, deformed look of the Phantom. When audiences first saw The Phantom of the Opera, they were said to have screamed or fainted during the scene where Christine pulls the concealing mask away, revealing his skull-like features to the audience.

The famous unmasking scene from The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925) with Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. Image is a composite of 2 frames from different prints of the film, both of which are public domain. The unmasking scene which was said to have made theater patrons scream and faint in 1925. The Eastman House version is on the left, the original 1925 version on the right.
The famous unmasking scene from The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925) with Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. Image is a composite of 2 frames from different prints of the film, both of which are public domain. The unmasking scene which was said to have made theater patrons scream and faint in 1925. The Eastman House version is on the left, the original 1925 version on the right.

Chaney’s appearance as the Phantom in the film has been the most accurate depiction of the title character based on the description given in the novel, where the Phantom is described as having a skull-like face with a few wisps of black hair on top of his head. As in the novel, Chaney’s Phantom has been deformed since birth, rather than having been disfigured by acid or fire, as in later adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera.

Production did not go smoothly; according to director of photography, Charles Van Enger, throughout production, Chaney and the rest of the cast and crew had strained relations with director Rupert Julian. The tension got particularly hostile between Chaney and Julian that Van Enger would serve as the go-between and report to Chaney of Julian’s directions to which the actor would simply remark the director to go and “screw himself!” Chaney ultimately directed much of his own scenes.

The first cut of the film was previewed in Los Angeles on January 7 and 26, 1925. The score was prepared by Joseph Carl Breil. No information about the score survives other than Universal’s release: “Presented with augmented concert orchestra, playing the score composed by J. Carl Briel, composer of music for Birth of a Nation”. The exact quote from the opening day full-page ad in the Call-Bulletin read: “Universal Weekly claimed a 60-piece orchestra. Moving Picture World reported that “The music from Faust supplied the music [for the picture].” Due to poor reviews and reactions, the January release was canceled. On advice from Chaney and others, Universal told Julian to re-shoot most of the picture and change its style, as it was feared that a Gothic melodrama would not recoup the film’s massive budget. Julian eventually walked out.

Edward Sedgwick (later the director of Buster Keaton’s 1928 film The Cameraman) was then assigned by producer Laemmle to direct a reshoot of the bulk of the film. Raymond L. Schrock and original screenwriter Elliot Clawson wrote new scenes at the request of Sedgewick. The film was then changed from the dramatic thriller that was originally made into more of a romantic comedy with action elements. Most of the new scenes depicted added subplots, with Chester Conklin and Vola Vale as comedic relief to the heroes, and Ward Crane as the Russian Count Ruboff dueling with Raoul for Christine’s affection. This version was previewed in San Francisco on April 26, 1925, and did not do well at all, with the audience booing it off of the screen. “The story drags to the point of nauseam”, one reviewer stated.

Poster for the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera.
Poster for the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera.

The third and final version resulted from Universal holdovers Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber editing the production down to nine reels. Most of the Sedgwick material was removed, though notably the ending, with the Phantom being hunted by a mob and then being thrown into the Seine River, remained. Much of the cut Julian material was edited back into the picture, though some important scenes and characters were not restored. This version, containing material from the original 1924 shooting and some from the Sedgwick reworking, was then scheduled for release. It debuted on October 17, 1925, at the Astor Theatre in New York City. It premiered on November 25, 1925, in Hollywood, California. The score for the Astor opening was to be composed by Professor Gustav Hinrichs. However, Hinrichs’ score was not prepared in time, so instead, according to Universal Weekly, the premiere featured a score by Eugene Conte, composed mainly of “french airs” and the appropriate Faust cues. No expense was spared at the premiere; Universal even had a full organ installed at the Astor for the event. As it was a legitimate house, the Astor theater used an orchestra, not an organ, for its music.

The general release version of 1925 has additional scenes and sequences in different order than the existing reissue print. The film opens with the debut of the new season at the Paris Opera House, with a production of Gounod’s Faust. Comte Philippe de Chagny (John St. Polis) and his brother, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) are in attendance. Raoul attends only in the hope of hearing his sweetheart Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) sing. Christine has made a sudden rise from the chorus to understudy of Mme. Carlotta, the prima donna. Raoul visits her in her dressing room during the performance, and makes his intentions known that he wishes for Christine to resign and marry him. Christine refuses to let their relationship get in the way of her career.

At the height of the most prosperous season in the Opera’s history, the management suddenly resign. As they leave, they tell the new managers of the Opera Ghost, a phantom who asks for opera box #5, among other things. The new managers laugh it off as a joke, but the old management leaves troubled.

Arthur Edmund Carewe & Mary Philbin in The Phantom of the Opera - publicity still (original image damaged, modified & cropped)
Arthur Edmund Carewe & Mary Philbin in The Phantom of the Opera – publicity still (original image damaged, modified & cropped)

After the performance, the ballerinas are disturbed by the sight of a mysterious man in a fez (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who dwells in the cellars. Arguing whether or not he is the Phantom, they decide to ask Joseph Buquet, a stagehand who has actually seen the ghost’s face. Buquet describes a ghastly sight of a living skeleton to the girls, who are then startled by a shadow cast on the wall. The antics of stagehand Florine Papillon (Snitz Edwards) do not amuse Joseph’s brother, Simon (Gibson Gowland), who chases him off. Meanwhile, Mme. Carlotta (Virginia Pearson), the prima donna of the Paris Grand Opera, barges into the managers’ office enraged. She has received a letter from “The Phantom,” demanding that Christine sing the role of Marguerite the following night, threatening dire consequences if his demands are not met. Christine is in her dressing room at that moment, speaking to a phantom voice (which the audience sees as a shadow on a wall behind the dressing room.) The voice warns her that she will take Carlotta’s place on Wednesday and that she is to think only of her career and her master.

The following day, in a garden near the Opera House, Raoul meets Christine and asks her to reconsider his offer. Christine admits that she has been tutored by a divine voice, the “Spirit of Music,” and that it is now impossible to stop her career. Raoul tells her that he thinks someone is playing a joke on her, and she storms off in anger.

Wednesday evening, Carlotta is ill and Christine takes her place in the opera. During the performance, the managers go to Box 5 to see exactly who has taken it. The keeper of the box does not know who it is, as she has never seen his face. The two managers enter the box and are startled to see a shadowy figure seated there. They run out of the box and compose themselves, but when they enter the box again, the person is gone. In her next performance, Christine reaches her triumph during the finale and receives a standing ovation from the audience. When Raoul visits her in her dressing room, she pretends not to recognize him, because unbeknownst to those in the room, the phantom voice is present. Meanwhile, Simon Buquet finds the body of his brother, Joseph, hanging by the strangler’s noose and vows vengeance. Raoul spends the evening outside her door, and after the others have left, just as he is about to enter, he hears the voice within the room. He overhears the voice make his intentions to Christine: “Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and will demand your love!” When Christine leaves her room alone, Raoul breaks in to find it empty. Carlotta receives another discordant note from the Phantom. Once again, it demands that she take ill and let Christine have her part. The managers also get a note, reiterating that if Christine does not sing, they will present “Faust” in a house with a curse on it.

Lon Chaney Sr. and Mary Philbin in
Lon Chaney Sr. and Mary Philbin in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925)

The following evening, despite the Phantom’s warnings, a defiant Carlotta appears as Marguerite. At first, the performance goes well, but soon the Phantom’s curse takes its effect, backstage, causing the great crystal chandelier to fall down onto the audience. Christine runs to her dressing room and is entranced by a mysterious voice through a secret door behind the mirror, descending, in a dream-like sequence, semi-conscious on horseback by a winding staircase into the lower depths of the Opera. She is then taken by gondola over a subterranean lake by the masked Phantom into his lair. The Phantom introduces himself as Erik and declares his love; Christine faints, so Erik carries her to a suite fabricated for her comfort. The next day, when she awakens, she finds a note from Erik telling her that she is free to come and go as she pleases, but that she must never look behind his mask. In the next room, the Phantom is playing his composition, “Don Juan Triumphant.” Christine’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she sneaks up behind the Phantom and tears off his mask, revealing his hideously deformed face. Enraged, the Phantom makes his plans to hold her prisoner known. In an attempt to plead to him, he excuses her to visit her world one last time, with the condition that she never sees her lover again.

Released from the underground dungeon, Christine makes a rendezvous at the annual masked-ball, which is graced with the Phantom in the guise of the ‘Red-Death’ from the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name. Raoul finds Christine and they flee to the roof of the Opera House, where she tells him everything that followed the chandelier crash. However, an unseen jealous Phantom perching on the statue of Apollo overhears them. Raoul plans to whisk Christine safely away to London following the next performance. As they leave the roof, the mysterious man with the fez approaches them. Aware that the Phantom is waiting downstairs, he leads Christine and Raoul to another exit.

The following evening, Raoul meets Christine in her dressing room. She has heard the voice of the Phantom, who has revealed that he knows their plans. Raoul has arranged for a carriage and reassures her nothing will go wrong. During the performance, the Phantom kidnaps Christine off the stage during a blackout. Raoul rushes to Christine’s dressing room, and meets the man in the fez, who reveals himself to be Inspector Ledoux, a secret policeman who has been studying Erik’s moves as the Phantom since he escaped as a prisoner from Devil’s Island. Ledoux reveals the secret door in Christine’s room and the two men enter the catacombs of the Opera House in an attempt to rescue Christine. Instead, they fall into the Phantom’s dungeon, a torture room of his design. Philippe has also found his way into the catacombs looking for his brother, and a clanging alarm alerts the Phantom to his presence in a canoe on the lake. Phillipe is drowned by Erik, who returns to find the two men in the torture chamber. Turning a switch, the Phantom subjects the two prisoners to intense heat; the two manage to escape the chamber by opening a door in the floor as they are about to perish. In the chamber below, the Phantom shuts a gate, locking them in with barrels full of gunpowder.

Scan of still of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Scan of still of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom gives Christine a choice of two levers: one shaped like a scorpion and the other like a grasshopper. One of them will save Raoul’s life, but at the cost of Christine marrying Erik, while the other will blow up the barrels in the chamber Raoul and Ledoux are trapped in, in effect destroying the Opera House and killing them all. Christine picks the scorpion, but it is a trick by the Phantom to “save” Raoul and Ledoux from being killed by drowning them. Christine begs the Phantom to save Raoul, promising him anything in return, even becoming his wife. At the last second, the Phantom opens a trapdoor in his floor through which Raoul and Ledoux are saved.

A mob, led by Simon, infiltrates the Phantom’s lair. As the clanging alarm sounds and the mob approaches, the Phantom attempts to flee with Christine in the carriage meant for Raoul and Christine. While Raoul saves Christine, the Phantom is pursued and killed by a mob, who throw him into the River Seine to finally drown. In a brief epilogue, Raoul and Christine are shown on their honeymoon in Viroflay.

Although this particular adaptation is often considered the most faithful, it contains some significant plot differences from the original novel.

In the movie, M. Debienne and M. Poligny transfer ownership of the opera to M. Montcharmin and M. Richard, while in the novel they are simply the old and new managers.

The character of Ledoux is not a mysterious Persian and is no longer a onetime acquaintance of the Phantom. He is now a French detective of the Secret Police. This character change was not originally scripted; it was made during the title card editing process.

The Phantom has no longer studied in Persia in his past. Rather, he is an escapee from Devil’s Island and an expert in “the Black Arts”.

The “Bal Masqué” scene was highlighted by using the Technicolor process.

The filmmakers initially intended to preserve the original ending of the novel, and filmed scenes in which the Phantom dies of a broken heart at his organ after Christine leaves his lair. There was also a short scene showing Christine and Raoul on a honeymoon. Because of the preview audience’s poor reaction, the studio decided to change the ending to a more exciting one. Utility director Edward Sedgwick was hired to provide a climactic chase scene, with an ending in which the Phantom, after having saved Ledoux and Raoul, kidnaps Christine in Raoul’s carriage. He is hunted down and cornered by an angry mob, who beat him to death and throw him into the Seine.

Initial critical response for the film was mixed. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times gave the film a positive review as a spectacle picture, but felt that the story and acting may have been slightly improved. TIME praised the sets but felt the picture was “only pretty good”. Variety wrote, “The Phantom of the Opera is not a bad film from a technical viewpoint, but revolving around the terrifying of all inmates of the Grand Opera House in Paris by a criminally insane mind behind a hideous face, the combination makes a welsh rarebit look foolish as a sleep destroyer.”

After the successful introduction of sound pictures during the 1928–1929 movie season, Universal announced that they had secured the rights to a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera from the Gaston Leroux estate. Entitled The Return of the Phantom, the picture would have sound and be in color. Universal could not use Chaney in the film as he was now under contract at MGM.

The exterior of Soundstage 28 at Universal Studios Hollywood, commonly called the
The exterior of Soundstage 28 at Universal Studios Hollywood, commonly called the “Phantom Stage” after the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera which was filmed there. Photo taken by Kevin Dooley on October 6, 2007.

Universal later scrapped the sequel, and instead opted to reissue The Phantom of the Opera with a new synchronized score and effects track, as well as new dialog sequences. Directors Ernst Laemmle and Frank McCormick reshot a little less than half of the picture with sound during August 1929. The footage reused from the original film was scored with music arranged by Joseph Cherniavsky, and sound effects. Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry reprised their roles for the sound reshoot, and Edward Martindel, George B. Williams, Phillips Smalley, Ray Holderness, and Edward Davis were added to the cast to replace actors who were unavailable. Universal was contractually unable to loop Chaney’s dialogue, but voiceovers by the Phantom were looped over shots of his shadow. The voiceovers are uncredited, but were probably done by Phillips Smalley. Because Chaney’s talkie debut was eagerly anticipated by filmgoers, advertisements emphasized, “Lon Chaney’s portrayal is a silent one!”

The sound version of Phantom opened on February 16, 1930, and grossed another million dollars. This version of the film is lost, although the soundtrack discs survive.

The success of The Phantom of the Opera inspired Universal to finance the production of a long string of horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy, as well as numerous sequels to all five movies. Many of the films are now considered studio classics.

Modern critical response for the film has been more positive, with many considering it the best adaption of Leroux’s novel.

Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars, writing “It creates beneath the opera one of the most grotesque places in the cinema, and Chaney’s performance transforms an absurd character into a haunting one.” Adrian Warren of PopMatters gave the film 8/10 stars, summarizing, “Overall, The Phantom of the Opera is terrific: unsettling, beautifully shot and imbued with a dense and shadowy Gothic atmosphere. With such a strong technical and visual grounding it would have been difficult for Chaney to totally muck things up, and his performance is indeed integral, elevating an already solid horror drama into the realms of legendary cinema.” Time Out London gave the film a mostly positive review, criticizing the film’s “hobblign exposition”, but praised Chaney’s performance as being the best version of the title character, as well as the film’s climax.

TV Guide gave the film 4/5 stars, stating, “One of the most famous horror movies of all time, The Phantom of the Opera still manages to frighten after more than 60 years.” On Rotten Tomatoes, The Phantom of the Opera holds an approval rating of 91% based on 46 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 8.4/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “Decades later, it still retains its ability to scare — and Lon Chaney’s performance remains one of the benchmarks of the horror genre.”

In 1998, The Phantom of the Opera was added to the United States National Film Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. It was included, at #52, in Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

In the United States, the film is in the public domain because Universal did not renew the copyright in 1953.

United States - Scott #3172a (1997)
United States – Scott #3172a (1997)

The Postal Service issued five 32-cent Classic Movie Monsters commemorative stamps on September 30, 1997, in Universal City, California (Scott #3168-3172). The stamps feature five legendary movie monsters and pay tribute to the actors who portrayed them. Featured on the sheet are Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney, Jr., as The Wolf Man, and Boris Karloff as both The Mummy and Frankenstein‘s monster. The selvage also contains a photograph of each actor and his signature.

Designed by Derry Noyes of Washington, DC, and illustrated by Thomas Blackshear of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the stamps were issued in a pane of twenty and printed by Stamp Venturers, Inc., in the photogravure process, perforated 10.2. There were 29,000,000 copies of each stamp printed.

Flag of the United States, 1959-date
Flag of the United States, 1959-date

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