Before Dracula, before Frankenstein, before the Universal Pictures Corporation understood there was money to be made scaring the bejesus out of its audience, there was the Phantom. He is the unholy spawn of three mismatched parents: a French writer who claimed his fiction was fact-based, a brilliant actor whose career was built playing villains and outcasts, and a studio head who—like a torch-wielding villager—feared and almost destroyed the monster he never understood. The roots of the Phantom movie lie in Gothic fairy tales like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard,” in films such as the 1913 Fantômas serial, and even in the disfigured veterans of World War I. He anticipates both superheroes and psychotics, with future shock purveyors like Hitchcock and William Castle endlessly reworking his monstrous reveal, the moment of unmasking, that makes the unwary jump.
In 1924 the Phantom was just a means for Universal to get one more picture out of money-maker Lon Chaney, who had been a box-office smash in The Hunchback of Notre Dame the previous year. When studio chief Carl Laemmle announced at a sales convention that he’d booked Chaney again, his audience gave him a standing ovation. No one cared what the as-yet-unnamed picture was; Chaney meant profits. Gaston Leroux’s Phantom was a last-minute, second choice, according to Philip J. Riley’s book on the film, picked by Chaney after Laemmle’s planned adaptation of The Man Who Laughs fell through.
Leroux invented the Phantom in 1909 shortly after he retired from journalism to write potboilers like the 1907 locked-room mystery The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Inspired by a tour of the extensive cellars beneath the Paris Opera, Leroux spun a fantastical tale of a disfigured musical genius living in the bowels of the Opera who stalks a young singer. The novel is soaked in late-Victorian decadence, its preoccupation with the heroine’s purity in the face of her obsessed stalker-kidnapper a transparent veil for titillation. Laemmle’s former protégé Irving Thalberg purchased the book for Universal just before ditching penny-pinching Uncle Carl for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “That ungrateful little bastard is leaving me with a million dollar picture that has a misshapen freak as the main character!” Laemmle wailed, according to Riley.
After Thalberg’s departure the studio shelved the property as too morbid. Even when the idea was revived, the studio proposed turning it into a historical swashbuckler called The Phantom Swordsman, but Chaney insisted on a script that followed Leroux’s story. Costar Mary Philbin, who plays the Phantom’s virginal victim Christine, later recalled that Chaney distributed excerpts from the novel to his castmates. The studio, however, never stopped tinkering with the story. After a contentious shoot the film went through a torturous string of rewrites, reshoots, and re-edits before—and after—its 1925 release.
The problems began with the director. Chaney wanted Erich von Stroheim, but the studio picked Rupert Julian, an actor/director who, like Stroheim, had made his reputation playing evil Germans (he specialized in Kaiser Wilhelm). Julian, who had rescued Merry-Go-Round from Stroheim’s budget-breaking extravagance, seems to have had all of Stroheim’s ego with little of his talent and, on the Phantom set, he swiftly alienated cast and crew. Cameraman Charles Van Enger later said that by the end of the shoot Chaney refused to speak to Julian; it became Van Enger’s job to relay Julian’s instructions to which Chaney would reply, “Tell him to go to hell.” According to film historian Scott MacQueen, Norman Kerry, who plays Christine’s love interest Raoul, once charged the director on horseback. Kerry also provoked the dedicated Chaney with his lack of seriousness—for him, movie-acting was a means to pick up actresses. Mary Philbin, just twenty-one at the time, was one of his targets. She told Riley that Kerry kept groping her during their scene on the Opera roof: “I finally had to take his hand and hold onto it to prevent it from wandering.” When she wasn’t fending off Kerry, Philbin had to contend with her director, whose approach was to shoot take after take of her fainting, using the retakes as an excuse to rearrange her skirts and adjust the position of her legs. Philbin’s on-screen stalker turned out to be the most sympathetic member of the cast, giving her subtle direction while shooting their scenes together. “You couldn’t see his lips move under the mask and there were no mikes to pick up his voice,” Philbin said years later of Chaney.
Universal had put all its resources behind the production. The elaborate opera house set, based on Palais Garnier’s original blueprints, is on dazzling display in the opening montage. It was so lavish and solidly built that it was reused for several subsequent Universal productions, including the 1943 Phantom remake. The Phantom’s subterranean world, with its gloomy Gothic arches and underground lake, is based on drawings by consulting artist Ben Carré, who’d done sets for Alice Guy Blaché. Universal hired Frenchman Carré because he’d actually worked at the Paris Opera, but Carré sketched the Phantom’s lair out of his own imagination. The atmospheric world he created is the film’s real strength, after Chaney. Universal also invested in color sequences, including a ballet number and the masked ball. The studio gave the production all that money could buy—everything except a coherent story.
After a preview in Los Angeles in January 1925, Universal’s PR machinery stopped ballyhooing its latest super production. “Too much spook melodrama” writes MacQueen, summing up the sentiment of the comment cards. Laemmle cancelled the February premiere and turned his efforts to salvaging his half-million dollar investment. The scenarists feverishly rewrote while a new director shot additional footage, including a whole new ending; editors put in comic relief, beefed up the romance, and even added a duel and a barroom brawl while a series of production managers attempted to make Laemmle happy. It was Universal stalwart Lois Weber, according to Riley, who reviewed all the footage and reorganized the movie into a form that finally satisfied the boss. The Phantom premiered in New York on September 26, 1925, seven months after originally scheduled. The studio recut the film again, adding new scenes and actors, for sound and silent releases in 1929, which is the basis for the restoration seen today.
In this streamlined version whole characters from the original shoot disappeared, along with most of the added footage, and large chunks of backstory. Gone is Christine’s visit to her father’s grave, which helped explain her soft spot for the Phantom. Reams of script pages detailing the Phantom’s origin story were reduced to a brief insert of a purported police report, a handwritten card with a few miscellaneous facts that seem to have been culled from different story conferences. Audiences will undoubtedly be confused by intertitles like “the strangler’s work again,” as all reference to the Phantom’s earlier strangulation victims has been cut.
Yet the cuts that undermine narrative logic also refocus the film on the monster at its center. And if the plot holes left by the hasty extraction of so much material are still evident, the Phantom’s obsessive and terrifying pursuit of Christine gains from the very lack of explanation. His menace becomes archetypal; he is every shadow we have started at, every dark fear, every unnamed threat. The perverse curiosity that leads Christine to snatch off his mask becomes part of the dream logic of classic horror, her need to see the monster trumping common sense. The film’s new ending in which a torch-bearing mob pursues the Phantom through the streets of Paris, both delivered audiences from their fears and created another horror film cliché.
In 1924 Universal was stumbling uncertainly toward the horror movie that later became the studio’s hallmark and when we watch The Phantom we are watching a genre in the making. Although critics were often dubious, the film was a hit. Audiences were only beginning to discover their capacity for masochistic thrills, their perverse desire to be frightened, and visceral need to confront their demons. The film’s moment of truth, as horror, comes with the Phantom’s unmasking. When Christine creeps up behind him and pulls away the mask he has forbidden her to touch, the Phantom doesn’t immediately turn on her. He stands up from the organ, hideous face revealed, and glares, instead, at us.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2019 with live music by Berklee Silent Film Orchestra
Conductors: Xiangming Niu, Yiren Wang, Joyce Oh Yong Yue, José Ignacio Santos Aquino, Lex Stout, Roberto Terreiro Prado, and Xiyue “Diana” Lizhao
Players: Rose Hegele (voice), Keren Basbug (flute), Mary O’Keefe (oboe), Issac Sebastian Erb (bassoon), Shannon Leigh (clarinet/bass clarinet), Chia-Hung Lu (horn), Eren Basbug (keyboard), Eunike Tanzil (keyboard), Emilky Gelineau (violin), Nathaniel Taylor (cello), and Denzican Atkas (percussion)
Faculty leaders: Sheldon Mirowitz (artistic director), Rob Hayes (managing director)