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Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

As I prepared to watch The Phantom of the Opera, I realized I had a conundrum on my hands. The DVD set I purchased contained two different cuts of the film. One was the original 1925 version; the second was a restoration of the 1929 version which featured new footage, sound and some color, which to choose? So, I looked to the internet for advice. The majority recommended the 1929 version, but those that preferred the 1925 made a strong case for it. I tried to imagine having only seen the special editions of the Star Wars movies without having ever seen the originals, and I just couldn’t, so I decided the best approach was to watch both versions, and I’m glad I did.

For future viewings, I wish I could somehow combine what I liked best about the two. There’s no arguing that with the restoration, the later cut certainly looks better, yet some of the revisions are rather awkward. I could have done without the dubbed over dialogue. I don’t know how much of the original cast was brought in to add vocals, but it doesn’t matter when they can’t possibly sync up with the mouth movements (if any) onscreen. Worst of all, as Lon Chaney was contracted to a different studio when the revisions were made, a different actor is heard when the Phantom speaks, and I don’t particularly care to see Chaney’s performance tarnished by someone else’s. On the plus side for the later version, the rearrangement of some scenes makes them work better dramatically, for example: the murder of a stagehand occurs much later in the ’29 than in the ’25, and as this death is the catalyst for the mob in the film’s climax, the flow of murder to mob is more organic than the broken up series of events in the ’25. Best of all visually, is the early Technicolor sequence, particularly the scene where the young lovers plot their flight from Paris on the roof of the Opera House unaware of the disguised Phantom watching from above as his bright red cloak flaps in the breeze against the night sky.

There is a third way you can watch the film in this set. There’s an alternate orchestral score, written more recently, to accompany the ’29 version. This replaces the entire soundtrack and therefore eliminates the clunky dialogue, but it also eliminates the operatic performances that were added. Ideally, I would want to keep the singing, but lose the dialogue, but that’s not possible. I guess there’s no perfect way of watching the film, so I guess in the future I will settle for the ’29 cut with the newer score.

But those are just my thoughts on the edition of the film, on to the film itself. Phantom is one of those films I wish I could experience the way the original audiences did. The scale of the film itself is a remarkable for the time it was made in with its enormous sets and hundreds of extras, but most of all I wish I could feel the thrill the early audiences felt when Mary Philbin unmasks the Phantom to reveal Lon Chaney’s grotesque make-up. When promoting the film, Universal kept Chaney’s make-up a secret, (see the trailer in my previous entry) so when that mask came off people were seeing it for the first time. I remember seeing that clip when I was very young and finding it frightening, but by then photos of the Phantom were in wide circulation. I’m sure little compares with the impact the unmasking had on those first audiences.

A great performance by Chaney is adequately supported by Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry as Christine and Raoul. Arthur Edmund Carewe as the mysterious secret policeman Ledoux is another notable performance. There’s a bit of gasping for breath as Kerry and Carewe find themselves ensnared in some of the Phantom’s death traps.

Oh, and since I’ve often discussed clichés: according to Michael Mallory’s Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, this film marks the first use of the angry mob, which would become a horror movie staple.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny in Herr Meets Hare (1945)

The Our Gang short The First Seven Years (1930)

Next week’s film:

Frankenstein (1931) starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and Mae Clarke

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