93 Soul-Gluttin' Years of Lon Chaney's Phantom
October 17, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr.
"Feast your eyes — glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!"
That's what Lon Chaney's disfigured Erik cries out to his object of affection Christine when she removes his mask in The Phantom of the Opera, which premiered in Hollywood on this date 93 years ago. It was actually the third version of the silent gem that had been assembled. The first, previewed in January 1925, met with poor reaction and was perceived as too dramatic. Reshoots adding comic relief didn't help as the second edition got a Bronx cheer from a test audience the following April. Finally, Universal Pictures tweaked this mess into the classic cinephiles cherish today. Phantom of the Opera was shown in New York City ahead of its Hollywood debut on September 6th; general release began November 25th.
New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall dubbed Phantom a "well-dressed thriller" with an "outstanding" performance from Chaney. He also noted that "a woman behind us stifled a scream" when the villain was unmasked. Still, in regard to the film's story, Hall felt "too many cooks...spoiled the broth." Universal must have agreed; when they prepped Phantom of the Opera for a 1930 sound release, several sections were edited out and new sequences were plugged in so as to tighten the plot and make with the accursed ugliness already. Since most theaters at that time were not yet equipped for talking pictures, Universal made a silent version of the "speaking" Phantom. This silent edit of the sound Phantom is the copy most prevalent today as the talkie was lost decades ago and the original 1925 release was junked by Universal because no one knew home video would one day be a viable market.
And yet the complete 1925 Phantom of the Opera still exists, albeit in a skewed form. During the original production, a secondary camera was set up to film everything at a slightly different angle. The belief is this was done so the studio could sell copies of the film to foreign markets without jeopardizing original prints or celluloid. Whatever the case, in the 1950s this alternate negative was used to create product for 16mm enthusiasts (home video freaks in an embryonic stage). Thanks to a handful of folks who liked to project low resolution cinema on their kitchen walls during the Atomic Age, we can enjoy the complete original 1925 Phantom — usually included as a bonus feature on Blu Rays and DVDs (the Kino Lorber double disc Blu Ray is considered the current gold standard PoTO release in terms of quality and extras, though the British Film Institute's three disc multiple format offering is nothing to sneeze at).
Let's take a minute now to sit back and reflect on the strange fact that one of the most celebrated silent films in history revolves around opera, a medium that requires complete sound. It's even crazier when you hear Lon Chaney and Phantom director Rupert Julian weren't on speaking terms for much of filming. Julian actually quit after the January '25 preview when the studio told him extensive reshoots were needed. Edward Sedgwick then stepped in, followed by Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber.
And you thought that Han Solo movie had problems!