Chaney in Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925)

Perhaps I’m becoming silent-filmed out, but I just can’t do Metropolis yet. At least not all 148 minutes of the restored version on Netflix, so I decided to jump ahead to Phantom of the Opera.

Basic premise: rising opera star Christine gets some training and even a little help eliminating her competition from the Phantom, whom initially she only hears as a dreamy voice outside her room. At first, she seems just fine accepting this leg-up and is even willing to give up her beau, Raoul, for it. However, once taken captive by the Phantom and discovering that though he may have the musical talents of an angel, he has a hideously deformed face and a disposition to match it (of course they must match), then Christine suddenly decides Raoul‘s moustache ain’t so bad after all and that she’s a-okay with giving up her career for marriage as long as Raoul can get her the hell away from the creepo who haunts the lower levels of the opera house.

During the 90s, going to see Phantom was a big romantic thing for couples to do, a legitimizing ritual. I don’t know if it still is. I never went, never wanted to, and so never really knew much about the story. I assumed it was a romance and that the love interest was the Phantom, he of the dreamy voice and unfortunate face. Sure, he was a bit stalkery, but when the stalker is attractive, then, according to Hollywood, stalking becomes romantic. Perhaps I got the impression that the Phantom was simply another version of this figure from images like this:

Handsome Phantom
Handsome Phantom

I mean this guy you can deal with, right? Just keep to his left, and things will be FINE. But Lon Chaney in all his hideousness is another matter (see the featured image), and his choice of mask decidedly less sexy.

Lon Chaney's Phantom Mask
Lon Chaney’s Phantom Mask

Ew.

Another surprise: a Poe reference. In the middle of the film, a title card lets us know that every year Paris has a big masquerade party in which all the classes (“castes”) mingle indiscriminately (Bahktin’s carnivalesque, anyone?). The Phantom, aware that Christine has betrayed her promise to never again see her former lover, shows up dressed in a skeleton mask and wearing some feathery red outfit. The scene is an obvious reference to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and apparently the reference goes back to the original 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux.

But I don’t quite get the reference. In “Masque,” the Red Death shows up because a bunch of rich jerks hide themselves in a castle and party while outside the poor die of the plague. To take revenge on the unfeeling upper classes, the disease appears at the party in human form, then disappears when accosted, leaving behind only a pile of clothes (in a sort of Obi-Wan-struck-down-by-Vader-kind-of-moment). Poe’s moral: even the rich cannot cheat death, especially when they’re such dicks about it.

There’s some sort of class critique going on in Phantom, fleshed out more in the novel than this adaptation, I’m sure. After all, the setting itself–a fancy opera house built above “medieval torture chambers” and “hidden dungeons, long forgotten”–  literalizes the view that the luxuries of the rich always rest upon the sufferings of the less fortunate. And the Phantom even makes this point directly; dressed as the Red Death, he says ominously, “Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men–thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment.” But the party at which he appears in Phantom is of mixed class. Maybe the point is to point out that the lower classes are now participating in their own exploitation? But no–because no one gets punished at all except for Christine and her lover (and a nice helpful detective named Ledoux), and their suffering is only temporary. The moralistic punishment inflicted by Poe’s Red Death is replaced by the Phantom’s own selfish motives and the potential for any larger political/ethical statement eliminated.

A few more quick observations:

1) While she is prisoner, the Phantom guarantees Christine her safety as long as she does not touch his mask. The first thing Christine does, of course, is go for it. What I find interesting about the unmasking scene is that we get to see the Phantom’s monstrous face before Christine does. Then, when he turns, see her reaction to him. I’m not sure what to make of this except that it seems to me to place us in a point of view separate from both Christine and the Phantom. I thought this might mean that our sympathies are supposed to be divided, but the film does not allow us to sympathize much with this Phantom.

2) The revelation that the Phantom’s real name is Erik is for me a little absurd, kind of like the introduction of Tim the enchanter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

3) The Phantom of the Opera has convinced me that ballerinas are terrifying, even un-Whedonized ones.

Ballerina-from-Cabin-in-the-Woods
Ballerina-from-Cabin-in-the-Woods
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One thought on “The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925)

  1. Despite having read the novel–yep, the Poe reference is in there–I’d never heard that it was a musical before I went to the early 2000s movie version. The phantom as attractive stalker is decidedly a shift in perception. (I’m going to be cynical and say that modern movie companies are just trying to appeal to taste by casting Gerard Butler in the newer one.)

    Keep to the left of him–classic. It would be possible to love half a man, right? Gerard went for the half face as well. I have read the novel multiple times–I went through a phase where I lapped up the disfigured Parisian types like the Phantom and Quasimodo–and I’m pretty sure the full face was messed up in the original. Chaney was also doing his own makeup and going for more of an obvious horror thrill with his unmasking than the musical versions. Chaney has his ripped off early on, but the audience doesn’t get to see the musical Phantom’s face until the final act. This all affects the sympathy the viewer feels for him, perhaps. Chaney plays the character more for horror value. Even though the phantom is pretty dastardly in the novel he gets a backstory at the end that magically wipes him clean, making him a figure tormented by love and therefore his actions cannot be judged. I mean seriously, when Christine kisses him in the book it’s revealed that he’s never been kissed before–not even by his mother. And when he dies, the Persian (basically Ledoux in the film version) puts an obituary in the paper that reveals Erik died from “a broken heart.” Puhleese. But that also emphasizes how Chaney’s version plays the story for its horror elements, making the Phantom participate in a mad escape scene and being killed by a mob rather than allow Christine her freedom. In the novel he has a turn of heart like the Grinch, his small heart growing 3 sizes to clear him of responsibility for all the bad shit he does.

    So basically a romance novel with mystery elements. And that makes sense in Leroux’s oeuvre–he wrote many mystery stories, including a book called The Mystery of the Yellow Room that one-upped Poe in the locked-room mystery genre, so believe you me the Poe reference is really an homage to the master. That said, I don’t recall there being an excessive amount of critique in the novel against the rich. Your interpretation is viable though, and I fully support it based on the film’s world.

    1) I think that was partly just the director wanting us to be shocked. I’d say don’t read too much into it but…you are an academic, so…Plus, there were stories of people fainting in the theatres at Chaney’s unmasking. It was the Exorcist of its day.

    2) Erik comes out a lot sooner in the novel, but why is that name not appropriate? Tim is a great enchanter name…that’s like you saying Brad couldn’t be the name of a badass dungeon master.

    3) Ballerinas have issues. This may not be as creepy as Whedon’s version, but Degas did a sculpture of a 14 year old ballerina that critics called “monkey-like”: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-7tfU5g8xF5o/UVL_qOG2w5I/AAAAAAAAESg/PhXXpj_Pzsc/s1600/PG03.jpg

    PS – Great call on Raoul’s moustache…

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