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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Phantom of the Opera (1925/29) (Blu-ray)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925/29) (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // October 13, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 9, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Sometime back in the mid-1980s I had the memorable viewing experience of seeing a 35mm print of Phantom of the Opera (1925), the classic silent film starring Lon Chaney, with a live orchestra performing a reconstruction of the original film score. For that reason I avoided the many home video versions of the film released since, but Kino's deluxe Blu-ray was too good to pass up. Produced by David Shepard, Bret Hampton, and Bret Wood, this two-disc set offers multiple versions of the film, and at multiple "projection" speeds, along with some excellent supplements.

The main attraction is a new high-def transfer of the 1929 re-release cut, significantly shorter than the original 1925 release but in nearly pristine condition. Purists may prefer the softer but complete original cut, sourced from 16mm, the best film elements currently available, but the shorter, later version is so good that even people who normally avoid silent cinema would likely find it terrifically entertaining.

Loosely adapted from Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, the default, 24 frames-per-second 1929 version (on Disc 1) really cuts to the chase, wasting no time teasing the Phantom's appearance in shadow while inter-titles dialogue discuss the "Opera Ghost" from the first scene.

New management has assumed control of the Paris Opera House during a season that includes Gounod's Faust, dismissing rumors that the Phantom routinely occupies Box Number 5 during performances. Elsewhere, the Phantom has taken an unhealthy interest in the career and affections of Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), prima donna Mme. Carlotta's understudy, mostly coaching and tutoring her, unseen behind her dressing room mirror. Like Rasputin's Czarina, Christine is mesmerized by the Phantom's devotion to her career.

The Phantom, later identified as Erik, a criminally insane practitioner of the black arts, begins sending threatening letters to Carlotta's mother and the Opera House management, demanding that Christine take Carlotta's place. When these threats are ignored, the Phantom causes a giant crystal chandelier to crash down on the audience, while the Phantom effectively kidnaps Christine, whisking her to his subterranean lair, in the largely forgotten catacombs beneath the famous theater.

As detailed in Jon C. Mirasalis's excellent audio commentary track, the 1929 version is most likely a silent foreign market release print of the part-talkie version. In addition to cutting a lot of exposition, this version includes a fair amount of new material, mostly alternate takes of opera and ballet numbers, but no new material featuring Chaney, who by then was under contract to MGM. In his place, a new unidentified actor was brought in to do "third person" dialog on the Phantom's behalf. He can be seen in the film's opening shots flapping his gums but is not heard on this release.

The Chaney Phantom remains the best of the three most famous versions. The 1943 remake starring Claude Rains is a dreary, depressing Technicolor extravaganza with far too much singing and not enough Phantom, whose makeup is only briefly glimpsed and very disappointing. For years Hammer's 1962 remake with Herbert Lom was regarded as even worse, but a UK Blu-ray of the film reveals it to be much better than its reputation; it combines elements from both prior versions to good effect.

Both remakes had Phantoms with faces horribly scared by fire or acid, while Chaney's was much closer to the original source material: a physical deformity at birth cursing him with distorted, skull-like features. What's uniquely fascinating is that while there have always been excellent rubber masks, model kits, and so forth of Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, etc., capturing the essence of Chaney's makeup has for some reason always seemed beyond the talents of even the best artists, a testament to Chaney's skill. When James Cagney starred in the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), some of the recreations, such as Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame (in the 1925 Phantom, Chaney briefly runs past the Notre Dame sets built for Chaney's 1923 film) were pretty good, but the makeup for Phantom was awesomely bad.

Chaney's performance overcomes the screenplay's absurdly vague backstory for the Phantom. He's a nutter, but one can certainly empathize with his lifelong suffering. It's an impressively expressive performance.

Video & Audio

I wasn't quite sure which of the three versions found on Kino two-disc set to watch: the silent 1929 recut at 18 frames-per-second, that same version at 24 frames-per-second, or the complete 1925 film using inferior film elements (on Disc 2), nor which of the four musical accompaniment options (all in 2.0 stereo) to choose from: on the 1929 cut performed by the Alloy Orchestra, legendary theater organist Gaylord Carter's performance, or "musical settings" by Gabriel Thibaudeau on both cuts. In the end I opted for the default version, the 1929 cut at 24 frames-per-second with Alloy Orchestra's score. I was very happy with that choice, for the music is great without being too contemporary sounding, while the film elements sourced really pop. This version also comes with accurate original tinting and some hand-colored bits, as well as the famous 2-color Technicolor masked ball sequence, an impressive technical accomplishment.

Extra Features

Supplements include an excellent audio commentary track on the 1929 version by Jon C. Mirsalis that's very accessible, well researched, and interesting. Also included are long excerpts from the 1930 sound reissue version, the original screenplay and trailer, an interview with Thibaudeau, and two travel shorts featuring Paris in 1925, Paris from a Motor and A Trip on the Seine.

Parting Thoughts

Boasting an excellent transfer and lots of good extras, viewing and listening options, Kino's Phantom of the Opera is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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