Lon Chaney set the standard for horror as "The Phantom of the Opera," which film historian Scott MacQueen called one of the great performances of the silent era. Following the success of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), Chaney carved a niche for himself and virtually launched a genre with the 1925 film version of Gaston Leroux's novel. In fact, the Man of a Thousand Faces so understood the potential to shock that he designed his own masks and built into his contract that no shots of him in hideous make-up could be shown in pre-publicity.
This classic film was previously released several times on DVD, and savvy collectors know enough to take packaging hype with a whole shaker full of salt. But the Milestone two-disc set really is "The Ultimate Edition," as it's billed—offering a beautifully restored 1929 version, the original 1925 version, and more extras than have ever accompanied this film.
It's a story within a story, really. At the famed Paris Opera House, the troupe is performing "Faust," an opera by Charles Gounod that takes place in 16th century Germany. Faust, an old philosopher who admires Marguerite, a village girl, wishing he were young again, makes a pact with Mephistopheles so that he might get his wish. The company's prima donna, Carlotta, is scheduled to play Marguerite, but understudy Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) has an admirer who occupies Box 5 and lives beneath the landmark in a centuries-old labyrinth of catacombs and sewers that once housed a medieval torture chamber and dungeons. Like a poltergeist, or the curses that supposedly keep Boston and Chicago from winning the World Series, the phantom is oddly accepted as a haunting part of everyday life, as someone who lives deep below and rises only to watch performances far out of sight from the other patrons. But his passion for Christine shakes him out of his opera-loving status quo and drives him to somehow try to make her his bride. He threatens Carlotta (Mary Fabian) with harm if she takes the stage as Marguerite again, thus paving the way for Christine to rise as a singer. At first, he calls himself an admirer, but then he refers to himself as her "master," the one responsible for her voice and her career, and offers to make her a great star (and you thought Hollywood casting directors originated that line!) if she'll grant him her affection and devotion, sight unseen.
Like Faust, Christine is seduced by the promise of being able to attain her heart's desire, and Philbin's excellent portrayal has her first flattered, then curious, mesmerized, and finally (as with Andrew Lloyd Webber's whitewashed version) hypnotized as she eventually follows the Phantom down into the caverns and catacombs to his elaborate apartment. More underworld imagery follows, as he poles her along in a gondola-style boat through the black sewer waters of Paris to a lavish apartment, complete with pipe organ.
Chaney is fun to watch, his gestures so dramatically exaggerated that we begin to think we understand the Phantom and even sympathize with his loneliness. After the Phantom drops a chandelier on the audience to punish the opera for Carlotta's insistence on performing, and after he kidnaps Christine during another performance, police tell Christine's real suitor, the rather dull Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), that they suspect "Erik." They show him the equivalent of a 3x5" notecard with "Erik" scrawled at the top, and this additional information: Born during the Boulevard Massacre, self-educated musician and master of black art, exiled to Devil's Island for the Criminal Insane. ESCAPED, NOW AT LARGE is added to this hand-written file, a hoot now, really, for lovers of crime capers. Along the way, there's an interesting cast of minor characters, operatic and ballet diversions, and several moments of color-tinted footage that are fascinating documents of cinema's transition from black and white to full color.
In "Faust," when Marguerite dies, she goes to heaven, but Mephistopheles accompanies Faust to hell. That's the price he pays for his heaven-on-earth. But it's the Phantom who pays a price in the film, not Marguerite. Somehow she survives the ordeal, and in a scene reminiscent of Emperor Ming's insistence that a horrified Dale Arden agree to marry him in order to save Flash Gordon and friend, her suitor and a sinister figure who turns out to be a detective are trapped in an old torture chamber. Then it was absolutely frightening; now, there's still plenty of credible tension, but it's also great fun. Could this be the end of Erik?
We learn from MacQueen that it wasn't as simple as just restoring the film. There were five separate versions, including the original ragged-edge 1925 black and white release, a color-tinted version, and a 1930 release with "synchronized sound." There was also an abundance of deleted and missing footage to try and locate, and the initial release had different music in San Francisco and New York, so it took more than a little sleuthing to come up with a "definitive" version. But Milestone, via Photoplay Productions, has done just that. Using the best 35mm print available (which turned out to be a 1929 reissue from the George Eastman House) and material from the UCLA Film and Television Archives, the Milestone bunch have cobbled together a stunning blend of black and white footage and color-tinted segments, including the Technicolor Bal Masque scene and a Handschliegl-colored scene showing the phantom atop the opera roof statuary. As if to show how good the restoration process was, in addition to the restored version there's the complete original 1925 feature version for comparison—and, of course there's no comparison. The unrestored version has ragged edges and more flickers than an old 8mm home movie, while the full-frame restored version is shockingly clear throughout most of the film, with but a few scenes that have a sunlight, golden cast to them and another handful of scenes that couldn't be cleaned up. But the color-tinted moments—the ballet, the Bal Masque, and the red-cloaked phantom scaling to the top of the opera house—are clean, with no bleed, and provide the kind of striking contrast that they were intended to provide, with much the same deliberate effect as the cut to Technicolor Oz in that famous flick. Overall, the restored version is a real joy to watch.
Surprisingly, instead of a 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack Milestone opted for 5.0, which is great for the Carl Davis ("Napoleon") score. It's the Davis score, with the composer also conducting The City of Prague Philharmonic, that accompanies the restored version, while the 1925 version features a score by Jon Mirsalis. Sound quality is decent, but, of course, not much rear-speaker action.
The best of the extras is the full-length commentary by film historian MacQueen, which is intelligently researched and presented in language that isn't at all stilted. But the information sometimes comes so fast and furious that it's hard to absorb. There's background on Laroux's novel, the development of the film, the many versions that exist, Chaney's early involvement, the big-budget filming, Carl Laemmle and Rupert Julian's collaboration, Laemmle's niece as the prima ballerina, the Technicolor process, and a dizzying number of additional topics. There's also an excerpt (Faust's bargain with the devil) from "Faust" that appeared in the 1929 sound-film "Midstream" (which, again, gives a sense of a medium in transition). The quality of the excerpt isn't as good as the restored "Phantom," but it's still a fun feature. So are still galleries with deleted and missing scenes, and the 1925 and 1930 trailers for "The Phantom of the Opera." In 1929, dialogue sequences were added to accompany the title cards, which again reinforces how on-the-cusp this production was, given the astoundingly rapid advances in film technology. Of two interviews included, only one is worthwhile. Carla Laemmle recalls her uncle and how she got the part as lead ballerina, and lends photos from her private collection which alternate on-screen with a head shot of her speaking to an interviewer off-camera. But the audio-only interview with cinematographer Charles Van Enger suffers from Van Enger's advanced age. When his memory contradicts, rather than corroborates, basic information about the film, you have to wonder how much of what he says is true. The most informative moment in this brief 1973 interview comes when Van Enger describes how they managed the incredible floor-to-ceiling and side-to-side shots of the Opera House interior.
The Ultimate Edition of "The Phantom of the Opera" is a must-add to any silent cinema or horror collection, but the film also holds appeal for general movie fans and the merely curious. The film quality is clearer than most silent film presentations—for the most part, no worse than B&W films from the Thirties—and the production values are great. This was a big-budget picture for the time, with a completely accurate full-scale reproduction of the Paris Opera House made, along with such real-looking subterranean sets that you'd swear you had just descended into the sewers and catacombs of Paris. And Chaney's performance? Absolutely memorable! As a youngster, I remember loving the old black and white reruns of the original "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Mummy," and "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." But during the Fifties' monster-revival, I can't ever recall seeing the original "Phantom of the Opera"—only the much-later Claude Rains version. Undoubtedly, the networks thought that a silent original wouldn't have any appeal for horror and monster-flick lovers. But with this film, I think they were wrong. Maybe even dead wrong.