Happy Halloween, everyone! This is my final spooky-themed post (until next year of course!) and it’s just in time for The Universal Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes. Could there be a better way to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve than with some of Universal’s classic horror films?
Feel free to indulge in all the great posts over at Silver Scenes, and as always, thank you for reading!
Enchanted by music more beautiful than any she had ever heard, the young woman creeps up behind the mysterious masked organist. She steals a glance at his sheet music; it’s labelled “Don Juan Triumphant.” He turns to her: “Since first I saw your face, this music been singing to me of you and of–love triumphant!…Yet listen–there sounds an ominous undercurrent of warning!” He turns back to his organ-playing. The young woman’s curiosity gets the better of her. She reaches out slowly, hesitantly at first. He continues to play, oblivious to what she’s about to do. She steels herself and quickly snatches away his mask. And then…
One thing that always strikes me about silent horror classic The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is how much Twenties moviegoers remembered it. Out of all the hundreds of releases in that glorious decade, that is the one film that everyone seemed to talk about the most.
And it’s all due to one particular moment that defined “terror” during the Jazz Age, destined to stick in everyone’s minds forevermore: that famous “unmasking” scene.
Before The Phantom of the Opera’s very first release (the film had an incredibly tangled release history), few photos, ads, poster, or lobby card featured Lon Chaney’s gruesome Phantom. (I’ve run across a few, but the bulk of the actual posters and lobby cards seem Phantom-free.) Some advertising didn’t show the him at all. Some depicted him in his red masquerade costume, and at times he was shown in his cape and mask. There was an effort to save the great unveiling for when curious moviegoers were actually in the theater seats.
It’s said that when his makeup was unveiled for the first time onscreen at the film’s premiere, a few adults actually fainted. Publicity stories reported that theaters were advised to carry smelling salts in case their patrons were overcome with fright. And it goes without saying that countless children were scarred for the life by Chaney’s Phantom.
Gregory Peck was one of those children. He recalled:
She snatched his mask off, and he turned his head to a close-up. He had no face, practically…my hair stood on end! I think my grandmother’s hair stood on end, too. I was positively stunned. After the picture we walked home and I held my grandmother’s hand all the way. It wasn’t until we got halfway home that I realized she was as frightened as I was. We were walking right down the middle of the street, terrified of the dark sidewalks.
When you watch the scene yourself (after making an effort to wipe decades of horror trope conditioning from your brain), you can get a sense of why the moment was so startling for audiences back then. The scenes immediately before the unmasking, where the Phantom takes Christine to his lair in the opera house cellars, are filmed at a leisurely pace. The sense of mystery is allowed to linger as Christine explores the strange new place and the Phantom makes his declarations of love. By the time the Phantom is playing the organ you’ve become very relaxed, just in time to be startled by the quick reveal of the most ghastly face you had ever seen (in the 1920s, that is).
In and of itself, The Phantom of the Opera isn’t a terribly strong film. Gaston Leroux’s original tale of a shadowy figure living in the cellars of the Paris Opera House, obsessively in love with an innocent young singer, has drama and excitement practically made to order. However, it’s not always captured very effectively onscreen. Much of the cinematography and lighting is beautiful to behold and there are some very impressive sets, such as the jaw-dropping replica of the Grand Staircase and the atmospheric underground lair. The early Technicolor of the masquerade scenes (with its surprisingly Jazz Age costumes) is a treat to see too. But some of the characters fall flat–Norman Kerry in particular isn’t given much chance to shine–and the pacing can be very matter-of-fact. For example, the set piece of the giant chandelier plunging down onto the crowd is filmed fairly quickly–chandelier plummets like a stone, people panic and run, and it’s on to the next scenes.
I’ve seen some reviewers criticize Mary Philbin’s “theatrical” acting…but I actually disagree with them there. I think she has a fine presence and a face that’s can be expressive without overdoing it–just the right balance for acting alongside Lon Chaney. The supposed “theatrical” acting was a deliberate choice for many of the actors in the film, and fits the flamboyant nature of the story and its opera house setting. (I’ll add that it probably stands out more to people who haven’t watched very many silent films. )
Admittedly, the main reason to watch this film is for Lon Chaney. He completely relishes his role, which might’ve come across as campy in the hands of a lesser actor. It’s said that he helped direct some of his scenes, such as the ones set in the opera house cellars. I’m thinking this must be true since they are by far the best, most effective parts of the movie. Chaney’s acting skills hit home when you remember that much of the time his face is obscured, and other times he’s wearing heavy makeup that you or I could probably barely move in.
Speaking of which, The Phantom of the Opera contained one of Chaney’s most impressive makeup jobs and certainly his most famous one. It was based closely on the corpse-like look of the Phantom in Gaston Leroux’s original novel. Chaney painted his eye sockets and nostrils black and added some large, jagged fake teeth. A skull piece gave him a high forehead and wispy hair. Cotton and collodion, a gooey cellulose solution that toughened when it dried, sculpted his cheekbones (it’s often said that he had discs in his mouth, but this probably isn’t true). His ears were pulled back (possibly glued) to add to the skull-like look. He also did contouring with greasepaint. But the most difficult part–the nearly invisible nose–was most likely contrived with wire hooks connected to a very thin, virtually invisible wire or string that run up his forehead and under his skull cap (the hooks apparently cut into his nose and caused it to bleed several times). Is your face starting to hurt yet?
Oh, and it doesn’t end there–I’ve seen one source claim that Chaney added eggwhite to his eyeballs to make them appear cloudy. (Now your eyes are watering.)
The Phantom of the Opera perhaps not a masterpiece on the level of Nosferatu, Faust or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it’s still an enjoyable classic that aims to both thrill and chill. Unquestionably, Chaney’s Phantom stands shoulder to shoulder with the most iconic figures of horror films. You might say that no Halloween is complete until you’ve seen the Phantom standing over Christine, exclaiming: “Feast your eyes, glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!”
Oh, we will, Lon Chaney. We always will. And we’re delighted to.
There is more than one version of The Phantom of the Opera, and the one we commonly see is the 1929 version, with slightly different editing and shots. This gentleman did a helpful side-by-side comparison of the original unmasking scene and 1929 version:
p.s. The Gregory Peck quote is taken from Gregory Pick: A Charmed Life by Lynn Haney.