Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

Rupert Julian didn’t have much of a career after the coming of talkies, but his successful silent work reached a peak with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).  This classic melodrama stars Lon Chaney as the menacing/pathetic Phantom who becomes obsessed with a beautiful singer in a Parisian Opera house.  He lives in the catacombs beneath the house, of course, and this metaphor for the subconscious artistic psyche provides Chaney with plenty of opportunity for creeping about and causing general unease in the young lady and the film’s audience.  You know the rest of the story which became immortalized through several film incarnations and the blockbuster stage musical. 

As usual, Chaney provides his own make-up for the film and this disfigured entity is one of his greatest achievements.  The amount of discomfort he endured to bring the Phantom to life is most impressive.  He employed springs in his nostrils to give them that distinctive bestial flare.  Even more amazing, he tightened wires around his eyeballs to make them bug out in a ghastly gaze.  This is a lot of suffering for his art, reminding us of the pounds of clay he carried around to give the impression of a massive hump (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) and his bending his legs and having them tightly bound to create the illusion of being a double amputee (THE PENALTY).  As was always the case, the unpleasantness he endured for THE PHANTOM was well worth it – if only for the unmasking.  It is the most memorable scene in the Chaney cannon and 85 years after it first unfolded before startled audiences it still has the electricity to provide an unmitigated jolt.  As it is the first view we get of Chaney’s incredible make-up, the terror it creates is understandable.  But it is a mistake to underestimate the contribution made by director Julian and the film’s editor, Maurice Pivar.  The staging is so immaculate, the timing of the cuts so astute that the impact is enhanced immeasurably.  As the phantom plays the pipe organ in his underground lair, the opera singer beauty he has kidnapped (Mary Philbin) lets her curiosity get the better of her.  Slowly she moves closer to the enraptured organist, who is unaware of her intentions.  In fact, he does not even notice her sneaking up on him.  She reaches for the mask – then pulls away.  She will try again.  Just as she reaches for it a second time, Julian and Pivar cut to a head on close-up of Chaney.  Instantly the mask is pulled away and the horror revealed – and as he later stated in a television interview – Robert Bloch has a laundry problem.  Bloch, author of PSYCHO, was a small boy in 1925 and was among the people traumatized by Julian’s and Pivar’s expertise.  The experience was a direct influence on Bloch’s work (one thinks of that shower curtain pulling away as an extension of the removal of Chaney’s mask) and his desire to create heart stopping shocks in his audience. 

Rupert Julian is now a footnote in cinema history, his career petering out with the end of the silent era.  But for that one moment, that glorious scene in the catacombs, he was a master of his craft. 

CREDITS: Directed by Rupert Julian.  Supplementary direction (final chase) by Edward Sedgwick.  Written by Raymond Schrock, Elliot Clawson.  Novel by Gaston Leroux.  Photography by Charles Van Enger and Virgil Miller.  Edited by Maurice Pivar.  Art direction by Dan Hall.  Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry and Gibson Gowland.

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August 6, 2010 - Posted by | film directors, film editors, silent film | , , , , , , , , , ,

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