It is hard to imagine a Phantom of the Opera without songs. It’s hard to imagine a Phantom of the Opera movie—or any movie—without any sound (apart from background organ music). But that is just what I’ve watched—a 1925 silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney.
So—what can a silent movie do?
Certainly, it has to rely on intertitles. All the dialogue, which could not be recorded (before 1927), had to be written on titles to be shown to the audience. It was awkward at first to watch a soundlessly moving mouth and then read the person’s statement, but it quickly became second nature. Also, since I had both seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and read the book, of The Phantom of the Opera, I had a general idea of what the characters were saying. Meantime—apart from all dialogue, there are various notes that the Phantom sends to the opera-house managers. Like the intertitles, all these notes are neatly presented to the audience on a separate strip of film.
A silent movie relies on color. I had expected to see a black-and-white film, but, in fact, much of the silent Phantom of the Opera alternates between brownish-tinted scenes and greenish-tinted scenes. Thus, the office for the opera-house managers has a brownish tint; it looks prosaic. In contrast, the area backstage and beneath the backstage, where the Phantom comes, has a greenish tint that looks mysterious. In the Bal Masque scene, all the costumes are in color: red, pink, green. Then, dramatically, the Phantom appears robed in red, with a large red plume issuing from his black hat. To highlight all of this (here I bow to Wikipedia), a Technicolor process was used. In the ensuing scene, on the rooftop of the Opera, the Phantom’s Red Death costume contrasts with the blue-tinted statue where he conceals himself (and the statue is tinted blue, because the night scene is tinted blue). All in all, the silent Phantom was not black-and-white.
A silent movie relies heavily on facial expression and arm movement. For instance, in the silent Phantom, there are frequent expressions of shock and alarm; these are shown by very raised eyebrows and an extreme display of the whites of the eyes. Often, arms are pulled in towards the face like a shield. As the much-desired Christine Daae of the silent Phantom, Mary Philbin uses her arms in this way as if to shield herself from the Phantom’s advances. As the mother of the Opera’s leading soprano Carlotta, Virginia Pearson repeatedly uses her arms for emphasis—pointing to her bosom and upwards, pointing at the opera-house managers with her fan, bending her arms backwards over her head as if in nigh-insupportable disgust.
The star of the show, however, is—hands down—Lon Chaney’s make-up. While generally important in horror movies (like A Nightmare on Elm Street), make-up is especially important for the Phantom, who must mask horrible disfigurement. Again, I bow to Wikipedia, which details Chaney’s make-up for the Phantom:
[Chaney] raised the contours of his cheekbones by stuffing wadding inside his cheeks. He used a skullcap to raise his forehead… Chaney painted his eye sockets black, adding white highlights under his eyes for a skeletal effect. He created a skeletal smile by attaching prongs to a set of rotted false teeth and coating his lips with greasepaint. To transform his nose, Chaney applied putty to sharpen its angle and inserted two loops of wire into his nostrils. (from The Phantom of the Opera (1925 film)—Wikipedia)
The effect of Chaney’s make-up was reportedly electrifying at the time (and still is).
As to the 1925 silent Phantom, it is mostly faithful to the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel. With exceptions. An instance: In the novel, there is a major character called the Persian, who initially protects—but then betrays—the Phantom, who had created a torture chamber for the Persian Shah. In this movie, the Persian is replaced by an inspector for the secret police. The Persian, with backstory, is gone—and it’s hardly an irrelevant backstory, since it portrays Persia as a source of terror for Paris, as it is currently a source of terror for the United States. Nonetheless, this Phantom is phantasmagorical!
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.