The Phantom of the Opera: BFI Dual Format Edition (1925/9) [Blu-ray]

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Given the economics of funding niche releases for cineastes, it’s rare to find a ‘classic’ film from the silent era receive more than one proper release. Movies in the public domain may well get multiple basic releases under different labels – usually all of them pretty awful – but once a film is properly restored or digitally remastered then that’s usually it as far as it goes for any given medium. The only exceptions I can think of to the rule offhand are FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

That’s why when I saw the 2011 Park Circus release of the 1929 Lon Chaney silent classic The Phantom of the Opera, I was so relieved to find it to be of such a high standard – “a treasure trove and a truly ‘ultimate edition’, a genuine early Christmas present for lovers of classic old films” as I put it in my original review of the Park Circus title here – which was just as well because I knew that this was as surely good as we were ever going to get on Blu-ray, as it wasn’t as if we could hope for anything better to come by in a couple of years. Except, strangely enough, that’s exactly what has happened with this week’s release of the same title by the British Film Institute as part of the BFI’s Gothic Season.

So what’s going on here? Is this just the same thing released under a different label, or something different? And if different, then which version is the better one to go for?

The first question is the easiest to answer: this is not the same print, not at all. It seems to have come from an entirely alternate lineage of restoration from that produced by FotoKem and used by the Park Circus release and is very different from the Photoplay print used by the BFI release. Most obviously, the colour tints used on the film (to represent night time, daylight, interior light, etc.) are fundamentally different, far richer and more full-blooded in the new BFI version. The most dramatic difference comes when the lights go down in the Paris Opera House for a performance: on the Park Circus version the picture grows darker but retains its default golden tint for indoor scenes, whereas in the BFI edition the tint suddenly jumps to the most lurid but deliciously divine violet.

The actual content of the film is also slightly different: the Park Circus version opens with a 90 second sequence of a man with a lantern in the cellars under the Opera House, observing with horror as a masked and caped figure stalks nearby. The BFI disc contains this footage as well, but its own research has found no evidence that it was ever actually used in the released version of the silent film and so here it is shunted off as a curio to the extras section rather than dare take liberties with the actual film.

As for which release is better – here’s where it gets rather more tricky, and significantly more detailed, so apologies in advance. In terms of the options presented to the viewer, the Park Circus would appear to win the battle hands down since it gives the choice of viewing the film either at 20fps (frames per second) or a modern-speed 24fps (see my earlier review for some discussion about why there’s no ‘correct’ choice here) whereas the BFI only presents its version at the latter speed. The 2011 disc also offers three different choices of accompanying music across the two versions of the film, ranging from standard piano to full organ or a modern three-piece modern chamber orchestra. The BFI only provides one.

However while the BFI release might not offer the choice, what it does offer is pretty much the single best presentation: 24fps was the version I preferred on the 2011 disc in any case, and the soundtrack that the BFI provides is a full orchestral accompaniment composed and conducted by the peerless Carl Davies originally for a season of silent classics restored by the UK’s Channel 4 in the 1990s, which is simply the best of all the versions I’ve heard for the film.

While I haven’t yet been able to review the picture quality in detail, what I have seen of the opening minutes suggests that here too the BFI release has the clear upper hand. This may be more a matter of individual choice and preference, however: it’s so good, clean and pristine that it’s almost too polished for a film of its age, whereas the Park Circus edition is impressive in its own way in that it retains considerably more grain in the image that some might find noisy while others will prefer as more realistic. There’s also a little more evidence of print damage in the Park Circus disc (considerably more in the 20fps version for technical reasons) but again it might seem to some viewers that the BFI version is just too unnervingly, preternaturally unblemished to be entirely comfortable with.

Some of this is likely down to more complex reconstruction work on the BFI’s print from Photoplay and could indicate a little too much digital noise reduction that may lose some of the finer detail. I suspect also that those rich tints that I mentioned earlier might also play a part: while they make the Park Circus ones look positively anaemic and insipid by comparison, such strong tints also have their downside if they are allowed to flood the image, which can ‘fill in’ the dark/shadow eras and also start to obscure the finer detail of the picture even at high resolution – with the side-effect that they also make the print damage and grain less discernible as well. I haven’t been able to make in-depth investigations with the same frame side-by-side as my A/V equipment doesn’t allow that sort of thing, but given the overall evident care and attention lavished throughout the BFI/Photoplay restoration it would be very surprising if anything detrimental to the quality had actually been allowed though. In any case I was stunned by the BFI edition on my first inspection as a quantum leap forward in terms of quality regardless of any downside even if others do find they prefer the possibly more naturalistic presentation from Park Circus.

Extras-wise, the BFI certainly has the edge – although even here there’s a caveat, as the Park Circus release contained a rather good audio commentary by Dr John Mirsalis that has no equivalent on the BFI disc. Otherwise the 2011 release contained some trailers, a still frame gallery, an interview with the French composer of one of the three scores and a reproduction of the 1925 souvenir programme and script, which are all rather forgettable if we’re being honest. By contrast, the new release from the BFI contains an 86-minute documentary in standard definition on the life and films of Lon Chaney (originally distributed in the US as part of a 2003 Turner Classic Movies two-disc DVD release and never before made available or shown in the UK) and one reel of the film with its 1929 talkie soundtrack restored, after a usable copy was found in 2012 in the Library of Congress. There’s also the contentious ‘man with the lantern’ sequence and two trailers, a restoration souvenir programme in PDF format and a fully illustrated printed booklet featuring new essays, review and film credits.

The Lon Chaney documentary alone would have lured me in, but it’s the recovered sound reel that will be the truly big draw for genuine Phantom aficionados. My 2011 review has more details but the summary is that the film was originally made as a silent in 1925 and then reedited in 1929 with new filmed sequences after The Jazz Singer heralded the start of the talkies. Sadly the sound elements didn’t survive, and even at the time syncing it with the on-screen action was never completely successful, so it’s been impossible to hear the film with its soundtrack for decades – until now, with this one short 12-minute sequence available.

Despite the loss of the sound elements, it’s actually the 1929 version of the film that we’ve been talking about throughout this review since that’s the only version that’s survived in anything like a usable condition. (The masters of the 1925 copy were literally cut into pieces to make the later movie.) A badly damaged 16mm print of the original 1925 version does still exist and you can view it online from public domain sites. The Park Circus edition included a basic copy of it on a separate DVD in 2011, and the BFI is not about to be outdone and so it, too, includes a copy of the 1925 version – with the twist that this time it’s been remastered from the best available source and put onto the Blu-ray in a high definition format. But don’t let this get you too excited: it’s still very poor quality and with considerable damage. Just because it’s in HD and has been remastered with some basic limited restoration work carried out can’t overturn the simple fact of the physical condition of the badly degraded celluloid. Still it’s nice to see the BFI move the thing along slightly and get the best version yet seen by modern audiences – even if it does show the limits of what can be achieved.

I think you can see where I’m coming to in terms of my overall recommendation: the BFI release is the best version of The Phantom of the Opera yet available (possibly dependent on personal taste) for the home entertainment market and is highly recommended for any fans of 1920s cinema, especially if you don’t have already have any copy in your collection.

But here’s the thing: I would also recommend the Park Circus release as well, almost as highly. It does things differently but with no less validity, and it offers options and material that the BFI edition doesn’t (from multiple soundtracks and frame speeds to that audio commentary.) I genuinely wouldn’t want to do a straight trade of my 2011 disc for the new 2013 edition, because I really want to hold on to both. As such, I can’t even classify this as a “double dip” in the traditional sense because for any student of this period or genre of film, they’re both pretty darn well near-essential releases.

Apologies that this review therefore concludes with an expensive recommendation. But it’s at least an honest one.

The BFI edition was released on December 2, 2013. It’s part of the BFI’s ‘dual format’ range which means that the 1929 and 1925 films are provided in both Blu-ray and DVD format. A second DVD provides the Chaney documentary in standard definition only. The Park Circus Ultimate Edition is also still available from the distributor and retailers, although stocks appear to be running low.

Update (18/1/2014): Here’s some new information that’s come up as a result of a Twitter conversation with Roscoe from the Bodacious Horror Podcast who spotted that the Photoplay print used by the BFI release boasts roughly 40s of additional two-tone technicolor footage more than the Park Circus Blu-ray contains. The sequence in question comes immediately after the hand-tinted scene of the Phantom eavesdropping on Raoul and Christine on the Opera House roof, and is a sequence which appears as monochrome in the Park Circus version. Overall, the colour tinting on the new BFI disc confirms that this uses a remastered high-definition version of the print that was the basis for the 2003 Milestone DVD issued in the US, which despite some interlacing/motion-blur problems had hitherto been regarded as the best available home entertainment release until the Blu-rays came along. As well as a commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, the two-disc Milestone DVD also contained additional audio from a set of phonograph recordings of the 1929 talkie’s soundtrack (dialogue and orchestral) although despite the best efforts of the restorers this was still fairly low quality and inevitably poorly synchronised with the visuals as the print and the phonographs came from different versions of the film. In any case it’s not the same as recovering a proper sound print of the talkie as it was screened, with the BFI Blu-ray containing the single reel of film with a functioning sound element currently known to exist. As far as I’ve been able to tell, the Milestone edition (along with the audio recordings and commentary) was never released in the UK (in Region 2 PAL); the equivalent tentpole release here at the time was Eureka Video’s 2002 Special Collectors Edition which uses an undersized/masked copy of the slightly inferior FotoKem print along with the 1990 Gabriel Thibaudoux score that is therefore comprehensibly improved upon by both of the more recent Blu-ray releases.

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