Universal Monsters: Phantoms of the Opera (1925 & 1943)
Updated: Apr 19, 2019
The 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera is not really a remake of its 1925 silent version; instead, another version of the story by Gaston Leroux, like so many more that would come in later years. Nevertheless, since they both have legacies as Universal Monsters, it’s difficult not to compare them. Both are rewarding to watch, just in different ways. Both also have flaws, one more than the other.
It's got to be a hard sell these days to get anyone to watch a silent movie. It's nearly impossible to text or play Candy Crush on your mobile device because you have to actually pay attention to what's happening on the screen and occasionally read a card with words on it. However, you quickly find yourself paying more attention because, well, you have to. Once that happens, time seems to go faster and a 93-minute movie is over before you know it.
An excellent silent movie to try would be Universal's 1925 version of It's got to be a hard sell these days to get anyone to watch a silent movie. It's nearly impossible to text or play Candy Crush on your mobile device because you have to actually pay attention to what's happening on the screen and occasionally read a card with words on it. However, you quickly find yourself paying more attention because, well, you have to. Once that happens, time seems to go faster and a 93-minute movie is over before you know it.
The version of The Phantom of the Opera that I watched recently is a 1992 "special edition." I have no idea what frills, if any, an original print of the film would offer. This version has color tints applied to different sections: red for beneath the Paris Opera House, amber for the stage performances and blue for nighttime exteriors. It also has the 2-Color Technicolor Bal Masque scene, but it didn't appear as vibrant as many photos I've seen from the sequence.
I probably don't need to recap a story as ubiquitous as The Phantom of the Opera. Here, it's brilliant in its simplicity. I was a little surprised that the famous revelation of Lon Chaney when Christine (Mary Philbin) removes his mask occurs at only the halfway point of the movie. That naturally makes the second half drag a little more than the first once the suspense about his face is over. Nevertheless, there's a rousing finale as The Phantom is chased through the city.
It turns out that Frankenstein wasn't the first movie to establish the angry, torch-bearing mob staple of the classic horror films; The Phantom of the Opera did it first. With this and other familiar elements, it doesn't feel 90 years old. I particularly like how it leverages the mysterious reputation of The Phantom (he has no nose vs. he has a huge nose) before we see him with his actual skull-like appearance.
He tells Christine, "You are in no peril as long as you don't touch my mask." Curiosity gets the best of her, though, and she pulls it off as he's playing "Don Juan Triumphant" on his organ. In other movie versions, the mask is sometimes the most intriguing part of The Phantom's disguise, it's usually ornate or a work of art. Here, though it's a nondescript face with a flap at the bottom that moves when he speaks.
On the other hand, what lies beneath the mask has not been bested since 1925. This was one of the "1,000 Faces" for which Lon Chaney was famous and most of it is achieved by manipulation of the actor's own features instead of with the use of complicated make-up effects. As horrific as he appears, he tells Christine, "If I am The Phantom it is because man's hatred made me so."
The Phantom of the Opera is mesmerizing to watch. With no dialogue, the actors must exaggerate their movements and facial expressions in a way that's almost balletic. And with no idle chit chat, the storytelling is tight. Few movies offer a shock equivalent to The Phantom's revelation. Imagine what it would be like if you hadn't grown up seeing pictures of him in "Famous Monsters of Filmland."
For their days, each of the two Universal Phantom movies must have been spectacular. The 1943 version remains beautiful today. Filmed in Technicolor, it’s bright and lush. There’s no Bal Masque scene, but each snippet of opera we see is filled with ornate sets and costumes. Even the Phantom’s mask is a lovely shade of lavender. It must have cost a fortune to produce.
Phantom of the Opera (1943), while offering a grander scope and plenty of adventure, is short on actual horror. It’s just not as creepy to see frequent shadows of a caped man moving openly amid all the light and color as it is to watch an occasional shadow of an arm reaching out from the black and white darkness. On the other hand, it is more suspenseful to watch the Phantom slowly saw away at the chain suspending the giant chandelier rather than to just see it fall. In the 1943 version, the music of the opera occurring at the same time seems to mirror and enhance the tension.
That brings up an interesting comparison, as well. In the silent version, you must rely on whatever music is applied to the print of the film. It’s obviously a separate element. In the 1943 version, it’s fully integrated into the action, which engages you in a different way. Perhaps you’re more a participant than a witness.
In many ways, Phantom of the Opera (1943) is constructed like a musical. Not only are there full pieces of opera performed with the lead characters singing, but the non-Phantom dramatic scenes are also written in a light style. This can best be demonstrated by the sometimes comic rivalry between Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and Raoul Daubert (Edgar Barrier) for the affection of Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster).
More so than in the original, you can see in this movie the elements that would make the subject matter appropriate for a Broadway musical, which is of course what the story would eventually become. I resisted at first, but soon found myself mesmerized by watching, although in a different way than I was when I watched the silent version.
The key moment, the revelation of the man behind the mask, comes during the climax of Phantom of the Opera (1943) rather than at the midpoint, as it did in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). This placement eliminates the need for an angry mob to chase the Phantom through the streets of Paris and allows an errant gunshot to bring his lair avalanching down upon him.
But the revelation is not as… well, revealing. First of all, the movie opens with a 30-minute backstory for Erique Claudin (Claude Rains). We see how and why he became the Phantom, so there’s absolutely no mystery to the character. And a face half scarred with acid might be terrifying for Christine, but it pales in comparison to the ghostly visage of Lon Chaney.
I prefer the simplicity in the story of the silent version. When you embellish, there is more room for contrivances and plot holes, and Phantom of the Opera (1943) is full of them. For example, why is there a tray of acid in a music publisher’s office? And how does the identity of the Phantom suddenly and inexplicably change from an unknown ghost to that of Erique Claudin?
I like both movies, but for entirely different reasons. My favorite scenes in Phantom of the Opera (1943) include the exciting chase of the Phantom through the rafters of the Paris Opera House. My favorite scenes in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) include the scary abduction of Christine through the underground lair of the Phantom. For its significance as a horror film, though, I prefer to watch the original.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Written by Uncredited Directed by Rupert Julian Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin US Release Nov. 15, 1925 RT 93 min. Home Video Kino Lorber
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Written by Eric Tyalor & Samuel Hoffenstein, John Jacoby Directed by Arthur Lubin Starring Claude Rains, Susanna Foster US Release Aug. 27, 1943 RT 92 min. Home Video Universal Studios Home Video (DVD)