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October 18th, 2014


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11:57 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Phantom of the Opera
Today I joined some friends for Duck Soup Cinema, which is an event held a few times a year at Madison, Wisconsin's Overture Center for the Performing Arts. For about the price of a movie theater matinee, you get an hour of Vaudeville-style live entertainment, followed by a silent movie accompanied by a live performance on the magnificent organ which was first installed in 1928. It's pretty damn impressive, and a nice event to attend on a Saturday afternoon.

Today's movie was the original, 1925 production of The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney . I had seen this version before--at Duck Soup Cinema, no less.

You probably already know the story, but if not, here goes: The legendary Paris Opera House has recently been sold to a couple of brothers who are warned about the Phantom who frequents box 5, overlooking the stage. "Ha ha, good joke!" they say in the intertitles, but sure enough, they witness a shadowy figure in box 5 watching the rehearsals of the new production of Faust. All of the theater staff seem to know about this person, but no one knows who he is. Some have seen his face, and the become weak in the knees when they explain it. Apparently the Phantom is phenomenally ugly, sort of like late-period Don Knotts but with less hair.

Faust is set to open with the prima donna Carlotta singing in the role of Marguerite, however, the Phantom sends a series of nasty notes threatening dire consequences if the role is not given to the understudy, Christine. Turns out that Christine has been receiving singing lessons from the mysterious Phantom, who comes to her in her dressing room, but whom she has never seen. Christine is also admired by the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, but she's much more interested in her career than she is in boys, and she tells him to get lost.

When Carlotta takes the stage anyway, the Phantom pulls makes good on his promise and drops the theater's great crystal chandelier onto the audience. Christine recognizes that she's probably in danger, and makes plans to escape to England with the Vicomte, but the masked phantom whisks her off to the sub-sub-sub-sub basement of the theater where he promises her that they'll live very happily together, and she responds by tearing his mask off, which she immediately regrets doing. In other versions of this story, the Phantom has been burned or disfigured by acid. In this version, he's just a really ugly guy. The Vicomte is approached by another mysterious figure--a guy who has been lurking around the theater for weeks, and has been suspected of being the Phantom; this is Inspector Ledoux, a secret policeman who has been following the Phantom since he escaped from the penal colony on Devil's Island. He proposes that they go deep into the ancient torture chambers beneath the opera house to rescue Christine and bring the Phantom to justice...

I haven't read the novel, but this version of Phantom is considered to be the closest to the original version by Gaston Leroux. A perusal of the the summary of the original plot on Wikipedia reveals that this version is pretty faithful. Interestingly, this film had a notoriously rocky production process, which included edits, re-edits, and resequencing of the scenes, which means that there are a few different cuts floating around out there. As I said, this is my second time seeing it at Duck Soup Cinema, and it differs somewhat from the version that I have on DVD.

It's an interesting presentation: I've seen old movies that had color tinting before, and many scenes in this one are colored to be blue or green or red, but the most striking thing about The Phantom of the Opera is that one sequence--a masquerade ball where the Phantom shows up is as the Red Death from the Edgar Allan Poe story--is in vibrant full color. It's a strange artistic choice, but undeniably effective. I tend to forget that technicolor was available before The Wizard of Oz, but in fact it dates back to 1916 (or so the Internet tells me).

So how does the film hold up? Well, that's a tricky question to answer. As a film enthusiast, I found it engaging and occasionally breathtaking. The production is impressive; it looks as though no expense had been spared. Chaney's Phantom is strikingly ugly, and audience members reportedly screamed and fainted during the film's original run. Do I believe that? I'm not sure, but it makes for a good story, in the same way that riots at the premier of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring make for a good story.

On the other hand, silent films are a tough sell to modern audiences. Everything is exaggerated and weird; the makeup is too obvious, and the actors, mostly recruited from theater, were used to performing on large stages without microphones, which means big, inflated gestures for the benefit of audience members seated in the back of the upper level. Some of the overacting in Phantom inspires laughter (it did in the 1920s, too), and the influence of the silent format creeps into what little dialogue there is, making it seem unnatural. Additionally, the visual language of horror has evolved so much in 89 years that the scares seem trite at best. At worst, they don't even register as failed scares. Finally, the movie drags a bit.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that The Phantom of the Opera is a good film if you want to appreciate the history of the medium, but if you're just a modern moviegoer looking for escapist entertainment, this may not be the silent film for you. In that case, I'd recommend the screwball comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton which are completely watchable and easy to appreciate whether you're interested in film or not. Everyone should experience a silent film with live, musical accompaniment at least once, and you might as well pick one that won't have you constantly watching the clock. Unless it's Safety Last, which actually features a giant clock.

Anyway, the entire movie is available on YouTube.

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31 Days of Halloween: The Phantom of the Opera - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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