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DVD SAVANT

The Phantom of the Opera


The Phantom of the Opera
Milestone / Image
1925/29 / B&W with tints and Technicolor sequences / 1:37 anamorphic flat / min. / Street Date Sept. 9, 2003 / 24.99
Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards
Cinematography Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, Charles Van Enger
Consulting Artist Ben Carré
Art Direction Charles D. Hall, E.E. Sheeley
Film Editor Maurice Pivar, Gilmore Walker
Makeup Long Chaney
Written by Elliott J. Clawson from the novel Le Fantome de l'Opera by Gaston Leroux
Produced by Carl Laemmle
Directed by Rupert Julian

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

There were several Phantom laser discs back in the 90s, offering different versions and levels of quality that made figuring out this puzzle picture hardly worth the while. I'd seen pieces of the show on cable television, with crazy over-tinting and sometimes-blurry pictures that didn't help much.

This double disc set of Phantom of the Opera hits really close to the Definitive mark. The shows on view and the voluminous extras give us an understanding of the half-baked circumstances of the production of this classic-by-default. Then there's a dazzling restored Technicolor sequence. Thank heaven that experts like Scott MacQueen And David Skal are on hand to fill in the informational gaps - the commentary on this one is fascinating.

Synopsis:

The Paris Opera House is under new management, but and old curse. Somewhere in the vast cellars and catacombs once used as torture chambers, The Phantom, known as Erik (Lon Chaney) plots his own mad-love scenario around the career of understudy Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin). She loves the handsome Vicompte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), but a voice through her dressing room walls implores her to follow 'the Spirit of Music' to realize a fabulous career. Meanwhile, Erik murders stagehands who discover his secret passages, and threatens horrible consequences if diva Carlotta (Virginia Pearson) doesn't call in sick, and allow Christine to sing instead.

Phantom of the Opera should be a classic, but to date nobody's done a version that takes advantage of its possibilities. The old Gaston Leroux story creaks with hammy, unlikely characters, but it has great melodramatic twists and a fairy tale-like simplicity of theme. A deformed, deranged madman uses inspiration and extortion to propel a young singer into the limelight - and then seeks to collect her love in return. Much like Beauty and the Beast, there's a balance between horror and pathos, gratitude and revulsion.

Lon Chaney can't be faulted - his Phantom is of course a magnificent creation and one of the two or three greatest make up creations of all time. His pantomime enlivens the character with nuances, sometimes against the current set up by a perfunctory script and slack direction. Erik the Phantom is only partly explained (I'm still unclear exactly how he came to be) but he's impressive considering that we're told he's both a criminal madman and a practitioner of the Black Arts! As filtered through Chaney's performance, Erik seems more a lovesick ghoul who laughs at restraining orders - a dark exaggeration of the unloved and despised who take out their egocentric rage on the world around them.

Universal's 'Super-Jewel' production surrounds Erik with pricey sets, but not a lot of magic. There are some good designs with light and shadow - ballerinas silhouetted on a wall, a hanging corpse - but they're mostly isolated pictorials that don't build the kind of mood that Paul Leni and F.W. Murnau made famous. Things are just things - the Phantom's coffin bed and Christine's dream-bed don't make an impression any more than the secret passageways or spectral voices from the walls, and the 'fire and water' torture chambers don't have any particular resonance. Hack director (even commentator MacQueen calls him such) Rupert Julien does nothing with actors or atmosphere, shooting events head-on and making Ben Carré's lavish settings look flat. Some of the action is good, with an exciting final pursuit of Erik. But we watch this show now for the isolated pleasure of appreciating Lon Chaney.

The classic unmasking scene is a dilly, still up there above great shock moments in pictures like The Mystery of the Wax Museum. It's a double-whammy, as Erik is first revealed to us, and then to the clueless Christine a couple of seconds later. Chaney understands the searing grandeur of the moment - Erik's madness seems to leap out of his face and take control of his whole body.


Until one listens to the commentary on Milestone / Image's DVD of Phantom of the Opera, even these versions will be confusing. Disc two contains the 1925 general release version, which is longer but of only middling quality. Several generations down, it's soft, contrasty, and badly worn. A lot of scratches appear to be copied from earlier copies with the bad duping stock of the day. Nevertheless, this version will appeal to Phantomphiles who want to see 'more' content like the extra performance scenes of Faust and the two-shot 'honeymoon' coda scene.

Disc one has an almost perfect copy of the 1929 'adapted talkie' version, a not-too-drastic cutdown with selected synchronized effects and dialogue. The opera singers actually sing now. This original track is actually the second audio selection. It's very curious to hear the disembodied voice of The Phantom speak lines, while the old dialogue intertitles come up anyway. But the audio quality is good, so we get to hear things like somebody doing a very bad cat Meow imitation when a cat is on screen. On track one is a deafeningly good Carl Davis score, but I recommend the original 'talkie' track for the first go.

The picture quality on this version is terrific. Some of it looks as good as the classic stills we're used to seeing. The picture is steady and we see much more detail in everything, especially Chaney's makeup. His Erik has an interesting new look for every scene. I only caught one short stretch that reverted to the quality of the 1925 print, doubtlessly to cover a lost section.

The Technicolor sequence is in great shape. The limited color is cleverly designed to take advantage of Erik's disguise as The Red Death, wearing an impressive skull mask. His cloak is indeed jet scarlet, amid a bunch of lesser hues. Immediately following the Masked Ball is an interesting tinted sequence on the Opera roof, with Chaney eavesdropping on the lovers from his perch atop a large sculpture. It looks great; with more expressive angles it would have been a classic scene.

There's a visual drawback to this otherwise splendid transfer, in that for all the action, frames are badly distributed on video. This causes the ballerinas, for instance, to look as if they each have four legs when they dance. As this restoration was done in the UK,I have to think that we're watching a conversion transfer from a PAL master where 24 fps were already redistributed across 25 fps, then re-redistributed back to 30 for NTSC. I've seen the same flaw on things like Criterion's M and it's very frustrating. With sync sound an issue for the disc-makers, it's difficult to make any judgments or point any fingers. I wish I could say I quickly adjusted to the subtle blurring and strobing, but no.

It was easy putting up with the motion problem while listening to Scott MacQueen's commentary. He begins with a high-falutin' opening quote but proceeds to prove his credentials as an expert by making the story of Universal, Chaney, and the Phantom a fascinating listen. He has the goods on everyone and everything, including the 4 or 5 versions of this one film, and tells the story of the shooting right down to the crew's derisive wisecracks aimed at witless director Julian, and Chaney's refusal to talk to him, let alone be directed by him.

The other extras are just as rewarding. Trailers from '25 and '30 contain deleted shots. Still galleries cover every aspect of production and marketing, giving us a look at the fascinating antique sales pitches for the film. One gallery has stills of the constructon of the giant stage 28 where the Opera set was built. Another has brilliant reproductions of the illustrations from an early edition of Leroux's book that were used as a visual guide for the movie - including a half-seen glimpse of Erik that clearly inspired Chaney's makeup. David Skal interviews Carla Laemmle, who plays the first ballerina in the film (gee, how'd she get that part?) and we see photos of the Opera set then and now. A long clip from a 1929 feature has another scene from the Faust opera. And audio extras include a funny 1973 interview with cameraman Charles Van Enger, and soundtrack excerpts of dialogue scenes lost from the 1930 version.

Milestone and Image have decorated their menus and packaging with attractive poster art, well arrayed. I especially like how Carl Davis' credit is added to the original poster graphic for the front cover.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Phantom of the Opera rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good, with reservations
Sound: Excellent - new musical tracks and the 1929 'talkie' soundtrack
Supplements: Commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, Carl Davis orchestral score, Original Vitaphone soundtrack, Stills Galleries featuring deleted scenes from original San Francisco and Los Angeles premieres, 1925 original feature version with a score by Jon Mirsalis, "Carla Laemmle Remembers" a 7-minute video interview with David Skal, 1925 and 1930 reissue trailers, FAUST (opera extract) from the 1929 Tiffany sound feature, MIDSTREAM, Audio Gallery: Additional dialogue from the 1929 Vitaphone disks, and interview with Phantom cinematographer Charles Van Enger, "1929 Version (98 minutes) restored by Photoplay, Productions with original two-color Technicolor, Tints and "Handschiegl" color
Packaging: Double keep case
Reviewed: September 11, 2003 'We shall not forget'





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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