The Phantom of the Opera (1925/29) [Blu-ray]

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Well, you know how it is: you wait years for a Phantom of the Opera Blu-ray to come along, and then suddenly there’s two in just under a month. Anyone thinking that I’ve forgotten that I had already written about the musical version of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall and am at risk of repeating myself here should have no fear – this is an altogether different affair, although at the same time a strangely intimately connected release.

This is the original Lon Chaney feature film version of the story: originally produced and released in 1925 and then substantially overhauled for a rerelease in 1929, it’s the latter version that takes pride of place on this two-disc set as the original exists only in a very poor quality dupe-of-a-dupe-of-a-print state which is blurry and fairly blown-out. However, that too is provided in this offering from Park Circus – as a standard definition version on the second disc, a DVD – and is watchable and worthwhile seeing for extra scenes and alternate takes.

The importance of this film is that it is one of the legendary Lon Chaney’s best roles, and the “man of a thousand faces” – who was an expert at creating innovative ‘horror’ makeup – stuns with both his performance and in the quality of his self-devised monster visage. The film is also important to the story of Universal Studios, as its success led boss Carl Laemmle and his son to risk further monster movies in the 30s – beginning with Dracula and Frankenstein and eventually to franchises that would last more than a decade and would save the studio from financial ruin. The importance of the film is perhaps best underlined by how sections of the iconic Paris Opera House set still exist on Soundstage 28 at Universal Studios – and even reportedly make an appearance in the upcoming new Muppets movie.

For fans of the modern day musical, obviously the biggest difference between that and this film is that it’s from the silent era. Actually, the 1929 version was retrofitted for the newly emerging sound technology and as a result features longer opera and dance scenes newly shot for the film to take advantage of synchronised music, and duly inserted into the original silent footage. However, the sound recordings have long since been discarded and aren’t included here, and there were always problems syncing the recordings with on-screen action. Otherwise, in terms of story, this film is strikingly similar in structure to the musical – almost to the point where at times it seems that Lord Lloyd Webber was actually adapting this film rather than the book.

It’s a sense that’s heightened by how whole lines of dialogue from the title cards are directly transposed to the lyrics of the musical, and by the similarity of the production design here to that used by the musical on the stage. The cover of the Blu-ray box features a still from the film (the Phantom as Red Death on the main staircase of the Paris Opera House) that you would swear was actually from the modern musical staging, it’s that close. Another example would be the design of the Opera House rooftop, where the Phantom eavesdrops on Christine and her lover Raoul plotting to escape him.

There are differences of course: the chandelier meets its sad demise earlier in the story and the musical excises the character of the 1929 version’s secret policeman Ledoux who in turn is a reworking of the “The Persian” red herring character from Gaston Leroux’s original novel (in the musical his key exposition purpose is reassigned to Madame Giry and his scenes set in the underground torture chambers excised entirely.) The 1929 film also removes all of Christine Daaé’s back story: the story of her deceased father promising to send her the Angel of Music from Heaven is a key element of the novel and the musical’s more sophisticated psychological basis, but a couple of hints of this are still present in the original, longer 1925 version. And ultimately the film goes for an all-action chase finish rather than the ambiguous poetry of the book’s or the stage version’s ending (early focus groups found the film’s original low-key ending a disappointment.) But overall the film makes for a fascinating comparison with the musical and is closer to it than any other cinematic version we’ve seen.

Of course, the standard warning to anyone contemplating seeing this: rather like the 1922 Nosferatu reviewed last month, it’s very much a work of its time, the silent era. It can be slow by modern standards; the acting is very much of a medium in its infancy (although to his credit, Lon Chaney is light years ahead of his co-stars Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry in achieving a more subtle, natural and effective style for the day, and consequently dominates the film.) If you’re not used to the silent movie era then it’s a steep learning curve and no easy adjustment for modern audiences. However, once you get into the spirit of it, this a fine example of its era of filmmaking, with a genuine sense of Gothic horror, real threat and the grotesque.

Now on to the Blu-ray itself: apparently there were major problems with the equivalent US release of this title regarding all sorts of mastering problems with the sound as well as some picture issues, but it seems that these have all been sorted out for this UK release. The US version was also criticised for an incomprehensible and unhelpful menu system, but again that’s resolved here and we have a totally logical, simple-to-use and even elegant menu for the UK. Perhaps moving the 1925 SD version to a second disc along with some of the extras helped. Interestingly, two of the extras (copies of the script and souvenir program) aren’t viewable on a Blu-ray/DVD player and are instead offered as just PDFs for computer viewing. Generally speaking I’d have to say that’s an improvement.

What you get on the discs are three versions of the film, the centrepiece being a painstakingly restored 78-minute/24fps tinted version with a new score by the specialist Alloy Orchestra ensemble which is just wonderful, although there’s also an option to select instead a well-known 1974 organ score by Gaylord Carter. The restored high def visuals really shows off the sumptuous production design of the film and the incredible sets and costumes, heightened by a brief section (the masquerade) shot in an early version of Technicolor. It is as good as the film will ever look, although there are still inevitably a couple of moments with heavy print damage.

There’s also a 91-minute/20fps tinted version of the film (which plays with a full orchestral movie score by Gabriel Thibaudeau that therefore comes closest to the spirit of the musical and even includes a soprano singing; or an option for an information-packed audio commentary by film historian Dr John Mirsalis instead.) While somewhat restored, the usual high-def digital restoration algorithms only work on standard frame speeds so this is appreciably poorer quality with lots of speckles and scratches evident. Even so, it’s still surprisingly good given the age of the material and you quickly get used to it and hardly notice the damage; and it’s in a far better condition than the SD 1925 version, which is the third and final form of the film and the longest at 110 minutes (provided on the second disc – a DVD – with a traditional silent film piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges that’s perfectly pleasant enough, if unspectacular.)

Why the option of/what do we mean by 24fps or 20fps? We’re talking here about “frames per second”, the rate at which the film was originally meant to be put through the projector. Because of the confused nature of the film’s production and retrofitting, and of the times in which both were made, the film used both speeds in its filming so there is no empirical ‘right’ speed to show this any more. Use the now-omnipotent 24fps and sections run the risk of looking unnaturally speeded up – fine for the Keystone Kops, but too unintentionally comedic for serious drama. 20fps might appear to be the safer bet then, but because 20fps isn’t supported by modern equipment it has to be ‘tricked’ by digital techniques into simulating it, and that can mean the end result appears just a little jerky and lacks that natural flow. The slower “frames per second” is also the reason why that version runs for the longer time of 91 minutes, compared to 78-minutes for the exact same film but at the higher frame rate of 24fps.

It becomes a matter of preference, and mine would be for 24fps – the speeding up is rarely noticeable and the restoration overall so much better. I listened with the Alloy score and found this really quite fine, whereas the Gaylord Carter score was simply too organ-heavy by comparison and lacked the same modern subtlety as a result.

But really, with so many options available to play with, this is all a treasure trove and a truly ‘ultimate edition’ – a genuine early Christmas present for lovers of classic old films. If this is remotely your sort of thing, then this is simply a disc you have to have.

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