The Phantom of the Opera
Erik, The Phantom – Lon Chaney
Christine Daae – Mary Philbin
Viscount Raoul de Chagny – Norman Kerry
Ledoux – Arthur Edmund Carew
Florine Papillon – Snitz Edwards
Carlotta – Mary Fabian
Carlotta’s Mother – Virginia Pearson
Cinematography by Charles Van Enger, Milton Bridenbecker and Virgil Miller
Art direction by E. E. Sheeley
Directed by Rupert Julian, with additional sequences by Edward Sedgwick
Reviewed by: Brian Barford
Reviewed: 18 March, 2019
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Roy Budd is probably best known for his soundtrack to Get Carter (1971), with its tingling harpsichord motif, although he composed some forty other film scores. He was also a leading jazz pianist who made his professional debut when he was six years old at the London Coliseum in 1953. He was obsessed since the age of eleven with the silent-film version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and in 1989 paid a large sum of money to buy the only surviving original print from a collector and spent a further considerable sum on having it restored. He composed a symphonic score to accompany the film but died from a brain haemorrhage before he could conduct the scheduled premiere at the Barbican in 1993, which was subsequently cancelled. Over a quarter of a century later the score finally had its Barbican premiere.
The film itself had problems of its own with shooting bedevilled by clashes between the director Rupert Julian and its stars. The story of a disfigured opera-loving Phantom who lurks in the bowels of the Paris Opera House and promotes the career of the ambitious young opera singer Christine by destroying her competition was felt to be too gloomy and humourless. When it was completed studio executives intervened and retakes and additional scenes including a new ending were shot with Edward Sedgwick taking over from Julian. After long delays it was eventually released and became a major box-office hit. In 1929 it was reissued with additional material for the Gounod’s Faust scenes in synchronised sound as well as a new silent version containing the extra opera footage.
In its latest incarnation the film has a new digital print and there is much visual pleasure to be had with opulent designs for the opera and ballet scenes, lavish interiors, sumptuous frocks and elegant shoes. There are many shots that give a sense of height within the Opera House and the film often pays homage to Pre-Raphaelite painters like Edward Burne-Jones. When the film was originally released it contained seventeen minutes of early Technicolour but only the stunning Bal Masque scene survives like this. Some of the other scenes were tinted to suggest mood with blue for the subterranean world of the Phantom, pink for the world of the Opera House and green for Christine’s bedchamber.
The film helped create the horror genre and there are frequent jump-scares, sinister silhouettes and shots from obscure angles. Key scenes such as the fall of the chandelier into the auditorium and Christine pulling off the Phantom’s mask to reveal his disfigured, skull-like face still pack a punch. A personal favourite is the Phantom’s slow descent into the waterway in the bowels of the Opera House whilst breathing through a blow-pipe. The film’s weakness is its ending. Whilst the conclusion supplied by Sedgwick has dynamism with mob scenes, a wild ride in a carriage and a chase past the old Universal Pictures set for Notre Dame Cathedral it ultimately feels anti-climactic.
The film’s stars are impressive. Lon Chaney, who became a star two years earlier in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is both sinister and touching. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and was a master of make-up as well as making great use of his noticeably expressive hands. Mary Philbin fulfils standard scream-queen duties with spirit and beauty. Norman Kerry as her suitor Raoul is a dashing fellow with an impeccable moustache and Arthur Edward Carewe is a splendidly louche Ledoux, the undercover police inspector.
What does Roy Budd’s score add to the experience? The film is most often encountered in Britain with music by Carl Davis which is organ-heavy and draws on the spirit of Gounod as well as providing a brooding sense of doom. Budd does something very different and emphasises the film’s pathos and romance rather than its horror. Interestingly, Budd often creates music that reflects the Phantom’s point of view rather than that of Christine. When he sees Christine for the first time in his dungeon we feel his love for her in the surging orchestra rather than Christine’s fear that she has been abducted. He becomes a more empathetic figure.
Budd’s score was his response to the symphonic offerings of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and he makes full use of a large orchestra with the occasional jazzy touch. Crashing organ chords bookend the film. He skillfully incorporates substantial chunks of Gounod’s Faust. The sensual languor of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is often suggested in the love-theme for The Phantom and Christine. There is also humour when a comic harpsichord comments on the new owners of the Opera House and the mother of the rival soprano being frightened by threats from the Phantom. There is responsiveness to changing mood as, with lacerating strings and growling brass, Raoul and Ledoux slowly start to expire in the intolerable heat of one of the Phantom’s underground chambers. The score is atmospheric, anguished and romantic. It is Budd’s most ambitious work and his best.
The seventy-two-piece Docklands Sinfonia was well- prepared and played with commitment, particularly the stentorian brass section. Spencer Down conducted with passion and coordinated sound and image immaculately. I’m not sure that a twenty-minute interval enhanced concentration but overall the music and the playing had the quality of a fevered dream which suited the film perfectly. With apologies to Andrew Lloyd Webber, this Phantom is definitive.