Image Entertainment // 1925 // 114 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // October 31st, 2011
Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men!
This is a real treat for silent film fans, as few as those numbers may be. Image Entertainment presents us with three versions of The Phantom of the Opera (and not a one of them mentions Michael Crawford or Sarah Brightman), giving us the definitive disc for this 1925 silent cinema landmark that no fan should be without.
At the Paris Opera House, the height of the season brings out the most well-to-do and important music lovers in the area, but not all is good with the current production. Management has been receiving mysterious notes advising them, at the threat of tragedy, to place young understudy Christine (Mary Philbin, The Man Who Laughs) in the lead role. Their refusal to supplant the current lead causes those threats to become reality. The rumors about a phantom in the opera house are true; the horribly disfigured Erik (Lon Chaney, The Unknown), a beleaguered soul with a heart set on Christine, will stop at nothing to make the young singer his own forever.
The Phantom of the Opera was my first silent movie experience and the only one (to date) I've ever seen in a theater. I love the early days of cinema and have this film to thank for it. I wish I could say the movie is really great, but I just can't. The Phantom of the Opera has its moments, but half of it is pointless melodrama of the worst order. Aside from some very cute turn of the century ballerinas that flit around scared, there's not very much good to say about the first half of the film. After The Phantom makes his first appearance, the action picks up a little, but even with Chaney's incredible performance, the film just isn't that interesting.
There are plenty of better silent movies, but The Phantom of the Opera has some great things going for it. The set pieces are large and intimidating, especially the giant black pool that separates the rest of the world from The Phantom. The big reveal of Erik's face seems cheesy by today's standards, but I'm sure was quite effective at the time. It's a moment that's set up extremely well, with a great deal of tension and an excellent makeup job.
The best thing about the film is Lon Chaney's performance which, along with his role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, made him an icon of the silent era. Though, in many ways, these gimmicky roles undermined Chaney's abilities as an actor (which were profound), they are what keeps his legacy alive. Even with a great role, he only amasses a few minutes of screen time, which helps to highlight how dull the rest of the film truly is. He and the ballerinas can only help so much, as most of the other performances are ridiculous. Mary Philbin and her terrible opera diva wig barely go through the motions, and her love Raoul (Norman Kerry, Merry-Go-Round) is as milquetoast as you can get.
I may not love The Phantom of the Opera, but there is no doubt it's one of the most well-remembered silent films and has saturated the home video market. Of its many public domain releases, this new Blu-ray from Image is the only one you want to buy. There are three full versions here, giving fans a chance to view The Phantom of the Opera in very different ways. The first is the original 1925 cut, running nearly twenty minutes longer than the commonly seen print, which is also available here. The problem with the original is that it's presented in standard definition. That might be troublesome to some, but for me it's the real version of the film and harder to find. It only exists on copies struck from a "for home" rental print and doesn't look great, but it makes a whole lot more narrative sense; more slowly paced and far stronger overall.
The 1929 reissue was made for sound and runs just over ninety minutes. There are a few character changes, several omitted subplots, and a few other alterations, but Chaney is there in total and it moves much faster. This HD print is much cleaner and the one most often viewed. It can be viewed in two different formats, one at 20 frames per second, and another at 24 fps. The faster speed is more natural to our eyes, but makes reduces the film to mere 75 minutes. All three versions are color tinted, but the 1929 reissue contains the Technicolor bal masque sequence, which looks as sharp as ever. There's a fair bit of ugliness present throughout, due to incurable nitrate damage, but this is as clear as The Phantom of the Opera possibly could be.
Each version has its own audio selection. The 1925 release features a simple piano score by Frederick Hodges, which is nothing special. The slower 1929 edition has a score composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau for full orchestra that compliments the movie well, but didn't really grab me. The quicker version, though, has a great score by the Alloy Orchestra that works well both as its own piece and as an underscore for the film. This version also features Gaylord Carter's organ score, which didn't do a lot for me either, but I'm happy to have the option.
The slate of Bonus Features begins with an excellent commentary track by Chaney scholar John Mirsalis, who goes in depth about the film, the actor's career, and silent film in general. He's quite knowledgeable and it's well worth listening to. There's also a short, locally produced interview with composer Thibaudeau about scoring silents, especially when he has to do it on the fly at a live screening; a copy of the script, which is interesting to look at; a production photo gallery; and a visual representation of an original souvenir program.
The Phantom of the Opera may not be the best example of silent cinema available, but it is one of the most well-preserved and a film very much worth studying. This Blu-ray release from Image is the best way to do just that, with the most extensive and valuable edition ever to reach the market. Every silent film fan should have this release in their collection. And for those who have yet to enter the realm of silent film, this is an excellent place to start.
Review content copyright © 2011 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* Full Frame
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Silent)
* English (Intertitles)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1925
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 1929 Version (20 fps)
* 1929 Version (24 fps)
* Photo Gallery
* Souvenir Program