Welcome to the first installment of our new monthly feature, Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. To kick things off, we’ll look at a classic silent horror with a storied past, The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
A Timeless Story
The Phantom of the Opera is the first adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel. It was produced by Carl Laemmle for Universal, the studio he founded in 1912. So, what’s the story?
The Paris Opera House is haunted by rumors of an “Opera Ghost.” Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) is a young singer who has risen quickly from the chorus into stardom. She credits a mysterious tutor for her success. Her teacher only appears as a disembodied voice that Christine hears while alone in her dressing room. Her sweetheart, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), is doubtful.
But the flesh and blood Phantom, whose real name is Erik (Lon Chaney), eventually reveals himself to Christine and steals her away to his underground lair. After she discovers his hideous form, The Phantom unleashes chaos upon the entire opera in order to keep his beloved Christine within his grasp.
The Making of a Classic
The inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera came to Carl Laemmle in the summer of 1922. Universal Studios had yet to find its horror niche. What they had found was Lon Chaney. The horror makeup master and actor had just wrapped shooting The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). With its classic story, spectacular sets, and Chaney’s tour de force performance as Quasimodo, Laemmle was confident he had a hit on his hands.
While on vacation in Paris that summer, Laemmle met author Gaston Leroux, who was working in the French film industry at the time. Leroux gave the studio president a copy of his 1910 Gothic horror novel, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Laemmle devoured the book in one night, and by morning he was determined to make it Chaney’s next starring vehicle for Universal. He bought the film rights immediately.
Laemmle’s instincts regarding Chaney were on point. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a massive hit, grossing $3.5 million for the studio. (The equivalent of nearly $90 million today.) In late 1924, production began on Phantom.
Leroux’s novel of behind the scenes drama, horror, and obsession revolved primarily around its setting, the opulent Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris. The iconic home of the Paris Opera features a magnificent grand staircase, rooftop resplendent with statues and a massive dome, and a grand auditorium with a gigantic chandelier. The building sits atop sprawling passages and an underground lake. It was these mysterious features in particular that prompted Leroux to imagine a hideous figure could dwell beneath the Opera House, haunting the theater unseen.
Much like the Notre Dame Cathedral, which Universal meticulously recreated for Hunchback, the studio jumped at the opportunity to create a spectacle with Phantom well worth the ticket price.
Soundstage shoots were the norm of the studio era, thus Universal built massive sets of the grand staircase, auditorium, backstage, and underground catacombs of the Palais Garnier. The results are so impressive to behold, it’s nearly impossible to believe the film wasn’t shot on location. The sets were so large and sturdy, they weren’t fully demolished until 2014!
“The results are so impressive to behold, it’s nearly impossible to believe the film wasn’t shot on location.”
We have production designer Ben Carre to thank for the authentic recreations of the Opera House. Carre worked at the Palais Garnier and was able to accurately map out the layout of the backstage and the watery catacombs beneath for the studio.
To further emphasize The Phantom of the Opera’s epic setting, the filmmakers used color sparingly but with ingenuity. The masquerade ball sequence was shot in two-strip technicolor. This early form of color has a more washed out look than later Technicolor, but its appearance in a film from 1925 is still striking. As soon as the Phantom enters the ball, in his guise as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Red Death,” the effect becomes essential.
Later, Christine and her paramour Raoul, make plans to elope while hiding on the roof of the Opera. The film has returned to black and white. But the Phantom, who is eavesdropping on the couple from the statue above, is cloaked again in red. His costume was hand colored onto the film, and the juxtaposition of the red against his black and white surroundings is a stunning effect.
The visual majesty of The Phantom of the Opera alone makes it worth a watch. The early scenes are glorious, with a breathtaking sequence showcasing the opera’s magnificent grand staircase, auditorium, and ballet corps in performance. The early backstage sequence is perhaps the finest example of the film’s atmosphere. The ballerinas sneak around, with the nervous joy of a group of friends exchanging ghost stories at summer camp. We see them in stretched, looming silhouettes, reacting to the ominous shadow of the Phantom retreating into the cellar. It’s deliciously ominous and atmospheric.
Laemmle and his director, Rupert Julian made a commitment to spectacle with Phantom. And it paid off. Today, the atmosphere and visuals of The Phantom of the Opera hold up as its greatest strength. The setting of the Palais Garnier was the formative ingredient of the original novel. It’s arguably the most essential factor to a successful adaptation. The 1925 Phantom nailed it.
An Iconic Scare
Of course, no monster movie is complete without its monster. And with Erik, Lon Chaney gave Universal a memorable, tortured performance that paved the way for the sympathetic monsters that would define the studio.
Even if you’ve never seen it or even any silent horror film, you’ve definitely seen the most iconic moment of The Phantom of the Opera. You don’t even have to be a horror fan to be familiar with the scene. It’s one of those images that’s embedded itself in popular culture. It’s the moment when Christine unmasks Erik, revealing his hideously deformed face.
While it may not illicit many screams from today’s jaded modern viewer, the shock remains. It’s easy to see why 1925 audiences supposedly screamed and fainted at the sight.
“While it may not illicit many screams from today’s jaded modern viewer, the shock remains. It’s easy to see why 1925 audiences supposedly screamed and fainted at the sight.”
The power of the reveal is due to the brilliant makeup artistry of Lon Chaney. During the silent era, a dedicated makeup artist and makeup department was not yet the norm for most films. But Chaney came from a theater background and was experienced at applying his own makeup. His incredible creations earned him the title “The Man of A Thousand Faces” in the press, marquee billings, and among his fans.
Chaney was arguably the father of modern horror makeup. He improvised techniques to create frightening but frequently sympathetic creatures. In the artistry of his makeup and his acting choices, Chaney paved the way for the complex, iconic movie monsters to come.
In the case of the Phantom, Chaney did his best to recreate the skull-like visage described by Leroux in his novel. He made his eyes appear sunken with dark makeup, pulled his nose back with wire, and wore false teeth. The power of his performance is all Chaney as well. The actor had a contentious relationship with director Rupert Julian and ended up directing himself through much of the film.
The Phantom of the Opera had a rocky journey to classic status. The first screenings were poorly received. Universal canceled the planned opening and ordered extensive re-shoots. Julian left the project and was replaced by Edward Sedgwick, who transformed the story so drastically with re-shoots that Phantom no longer resembled a horror film! Thankfully, the second cut bombed with test audiences as well, and the film was again re-cut. The result was the Gothic horror film classic we know today. The Phantom of the Opera was finally, officially released on September 6th, 1925.
Sadly, one of the victims of Phantom’s many cuts was its ending. Originally, Julian shot the novel’s tragic, sympathetic conclusion. In it, Erik is moved by his love for Christine and frees her. He dies of a broken heart as an angry mob approaches.
But test audiences were hungry for blood. They wanted to see Erik punished for his previous evil. Sedgwick shot a new ending for his action/comedy/romance take on the film. The updated finale had the unrepentant Phantom kidnap Christine, only to be run down by an angry mob and thrown into the Seine. This new ending remained in the final release, and it drains the film of its nuance. Sadly, only still images remain of the original conclusion.
“..the power of The Phantom of the Opera is undeniable.”
Despite its bumpy release and subsequent flaws, the power of The Phantom of the Opera is undeniable. It was a financial hit for Universal and the first entry in a horror catalog that would define the studio for the next thirty years. It pioneered films built around visually striking monsters and the idea that sumptuous, big-budget horror could pay off. Popular modern horror techniques, such as the jump scare, and withholding the monster until the film’s midpoint, were pioneered by The Phantom of the Opera.
If you want to dive into an atmospheric, influential gothic horror film, give The Phantom of the Opera a watch. Be wary, there are a lot of bad quality prints floating around out there. The film is now in the public domain, so just check YouTube for the restored version. That way you won’t miss out on the gorgeous visuals and technicolor effects.
And until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those silver screams!