Phantom of the Opera
Laurel & Hardy
February 3, 2007
Despite the accolades of modern critics, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was a movie that almost never got made, as it was plagued from the start by production problems. Rupert Julian, an actor and director who had worked at Universal since the teens, was selected to direct. Julian had previously worked as an actor with Chaney in THE SMALL TOWN GIRL and THE KAISER, THE BEAST OF BERLIN, a performance that made him famous as the most villainous of villains. Julian was so effective as "The Beast of Berlin," because he was, in reality, an autocratic director who reveled in bullying everyone on the set, including Chaney. The script went through numerous rewrites before and during production. Unconfirmed rumors have it that Chaney directed some scenes while Julian was storming around the set.
After shooting was completed, the picture was previewed in Los Angeles in January, 1925. Carl Laemmle was unhappy with the preview, and ordered that additional footage be shot. The original ending had the Phantom found by the mob, lying dead at the keyboard of his subterranean organ. Edward Sedgwick, better known as a fast-paced comedy director, was assigned to direct a new climax in which the Phantom escapes the mob by commandeering a carriage with a subsequent chase on foot through the Paris streets to the bank of the Seine. Astute observers will notice that the Phantom is chased past the Notre Dame cathedral set, still standing from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.
The film finally premiered on September 6, 1925 and achieved a tremendous popular success. The film cost $632,357 by the time the final print was previewed, including about $50,000 in retakes. The expense was worth it, as PHANTOM would go on to earn $2,014,091 in revenues, one of the largest figures for any silent film. The film earned Universal a profit of $539,682.
Several sequences of PHANTOM were originally shot in the early two-color Technicolor process, but only the famous Bal Masque color sequence survives. One striking scene with Chaney on the rooftop in black and white, with his cloak hand-painted in bright crimson survived only in black-and-white, but in 1996 was reconstructed with the cloak computer-colored red.
The impressive sets of the Paris Opera House and the catacombs, the color footage, and the lavish costuming all add to the atmosphere of the film, yet they pale next to Chaney's performance. This was truly the masterpiece of Chaney's career and ranks as one of the greatest tour-de-force performances of the silent era. Chaney spends most of the first half of the picture wearing a mask, and for a silent picture, this meant that all his emotion had to be conveyed with body language. Simple gestures with his hands and fingers take on ominous meaning as the Phantom leads Christine through the catacombs to his hidden chamber. The unmasking scene may seem tame by today's blood-and-guts standards, but it delivered quite a jolt in 1925. Several press reports told of patrons fainting in the theatres during the famous scene. Chaney had an agreement with the studio that no images of his makeup be used in any of the promotional materials, so as to better shock the audience when they finally saw the movie.
Made in 1929, LIBERTY is perhaps one of the best of Laurel and Hardy’s silent comedies. Well known for their “mixed up” derby gag, the “boys” do a variation of it using pants. While escaping jail, the two mix up their pants in a get-a-way car. Only afterwards do they realize what they have done that they seek a place to change pants. This leads the two to find themselves high above a construction site where they are several stories high. Many claim that this piece shares similarities to the daredevil or “thrill” comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. While the daredevil comedy is not really Laurel and Hardy's strong suit the "boys" turn this into a hilarious comedic ride.