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Phantom of the Opera (1925/29) Ultimate Edition (DVD-2003)

Image Entertainment

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

 

A Special 2-disc DVD set of the 1925 silent Phantom of the Opera has been released by Image Entertainment.

 

The original silent Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney is one of the most celebrated films in all of cinema.  It is to American films pretty much what the restored Metropolis is to German cinema.  There are a number of other great and arguably more important American silent films: D.W. Griffith’s monumental Intolerance for example.  Yet  Phantom of the Opera has enjoyed unprecedented popularity for over three quarters of a century.  More than ten different film versions have been made, and, when the Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom musical is filmed, that will be yet another one.

 

Based on the famous novel by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera is a grand tale (which incorporates elements of Svengali and Beauty and the Beast) and which tells the story of the Erik, the so-called phantom or opera-ghost--a disfigured, tortured soul who lurks in the dungeons beneath the Paris Opera; who terrorizes the opera-house personnel in his search for love from Christine, the beautiful young diva..

 

Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the opera-ghost marks the pinnacle of his career and it is one of the greatest performances in silent cinema. Mr. Chaney himself designed the horrific Phantom makeup—achieving a ghastly look through a careful application of makeup, appliances and lighting.  The result of his labor, as seen in the unmasking scene, is one of the classic images of world cinema, like Kong atop the Empire State Building, or the Odessa Steps in Potempkin, or the giant Babylon set in Intolerance.

 

Universal Studios executed a spectacular production for Phantom.  The costly and elaborate sets even included a giant replica of the Paris Opera House.  But the film has had an unusual history.  When the film was completed in January 1925, it was previewed to an advance audience.  The audience found the film to be especially intense.  For some reason, this caused the studio to panic.  Instead of releasing the film, they largely rewrote it and reshot it.  This revised edition, completed a few months later, contained extensive, unrelated subplots and lengthy comic relief, and was an absolute disaster when it opened.  The studio withdrew the film and re-cut it yet again.  This time, they went mainly back to the original version that they had rejected the first time and kept only the new ending from the second version.  When this final version opened in New York in September of 1925, it became the instant sensation and blockbuster hit that it has remained ever since.

 

But that is not the end of the story.  With the advent of sound film in the late 1920’s , Universal tinkered with Phantom, reshooting and re-editing parts of the existing film yet again and even adding several bits of sound dialogue. This is the so-called sound version of 1929.

 

So now there were two versions of the same film: the 1925 silent version, and the 1929 semi-sound version.  Unfortunately, during the 1940’s, before the era of film-preservation consciousness, the negative for the 1925 silent version was destroyed when the studio decided to burn all of it’s old nitrate silent films.  The 1929 reworked version survived only because it was mistaken for a sound film.  This 1929 version, an altered version of the original film is the one with which most viewers are familiar today even though it is no longer shown with its sound sequences.  The reason for its being so well known is simple: it is the only version which survived in decent print source material. 

 

Anomalies in the plot of The Phantom are thus more due to the fact that it is an altered version of the original film than to a fault in the film itself.  And even the 1929 version does not exist in a complete form.

 

Somehow, miraculously, a single surviving nitrate print, damaged and already decomposing, of the original 1925 version, was hastily preserved some time ago before it was lost altogether.  Unfortunately, the print quality was not optimal.  And that version too was not fully complete.

 

This explains why it has not been possible to restore The Phantom with the same degree of quality that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis has recently enjoyed.  A good deal of the Metropolis negative had survived and even that exhaustive worldwide restoration is still 25% incomplete.  The film business may necessarily be in part about making money.  Yet the tragedy about lost film is that it is the loss of a visual record of a people--an artistic heritage of a culture.

 

Now, and most welcome, Image Entertainment has released on DVD what it calls the Ultimate Edition of  Phantom of the Opera.  The first disc contains the most recently restored 1929 version coupled with a magnificent symphonic score by Carl Davis which you have been hearing in the background.  The film also includes the stunningly complete restoration of the Two Strip Technicolor Masked Ball sequence.  And it includes frame by frame hand coloring of the Phantom’s cape atop the Apollo Statue on the roof of the opera house—coloring not seen since the film’s premiere!

 

But there is more—you can also choose to see the film with another soundtrack—for the original 1929 music and sound tracks which have been preserved.  You can also hear as isolated supplementals, sound from missing portions of the film. 

 

On the second disc, for the first time ever on DVD, you can view the single surviving print of the original 1925 film, looking sharper than it ever has.   It is absolutely fascinating and rewarding to compare the two versions, both of them classics.  Numerous other extras include behind-the-scenes shots, reconstructions of the various versions, a rare sound-interview with the film’s cinematographer as well as artwork, designs and posters, and the theatrical trailers.  And there is an excellent and informative audio film commentary by historian Scott MacQueen

 

What is lost from Phantom of the Opera may possibly be lost forever.   But the film prints and the material in this set will not disappoint you.  They reconfirm the film’s greatness—and the set lives up to its title of being the Ultimate Edition of the great screen classic The Phantom of the Opera.

 

 

2003 Dennis Kwiatkowski/Celluloid Dreams

 

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