Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Original Phantom of the Opera -- Greatest unmasking scene in cinema history

By Steve D. Stones

The Phantom of The Opera may be the most remade and referenced film in cinema history. The late film historian and archivist Forrest J. Ackerman lists it as one of his all time favorite films. The scene of Mary Philbin removing the mask of Eric the Phantom (Lon Chaney) still packs a punch nine decades later. 

Many accounts suggest that sound was added to the original 1925 film with the start of the talkie era in the 1930s. Some prints even have a color sequence added to the Bal Masque scene about fifty-five minutes into the film.

Lon Chaney was no stranger to playing the face of bizarre, grotesque characters. In fact, he is rightfully labeled "the man of a thousand faces" because of his great talent in playing a variety of strange characters. Chaney was the son of deaf-mute theater performers and learned to apply his own make-up, which is unheard of in today's Hollywood film industry.

Chaney's character is the tortured composer - Erik the Phantom - master of the black arts who lives deep below the Paris opera house in the catacombs. He is infatuated with an opera singer named Christine Daae - played by Mary Philbin.

Erik wishes to possess Christine and control her every move by his expression of love and devotion to her. He orders the opera house to give her the lead singing role. By disobeying this request, Erik brings down the giant chandeler ontop of the opera patrons in one of the most famous scenes in the film.  While chaos ensues, Erik is able to lure Christine into his lair. (While there she sees his face; watch above the scene. It's perhaps the greatest unmasking scene).

Erik releases Christine from the catacombs - on the condition that she not see her fiance Raoul ever again. Raoul and Christine betray Erik and try to flee to London. Christine warns Raoul that Erik watches over them and knows their every move.

The ending of the film may be a blueprint for monster movies to come. Townspeople chase after Erik as he tries to get away in a coach. He drowns himself in a nearby river. James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein film ends with a similar sequence of villagers chasing after the Frankenstein monster with torches.

Of the nearly dozen remakes of The Phantom of The Opera that have been made since the original, this 1925 silent era version remains the best - and the classic by which all following versions aspire to. No one can top the performance of Lon Chaney. His make-up and appearance have become iconic in film and popular culture. Chaney's image of Erik the Phantom can be found in comic books, monster movie magazines, coffee mugs, Halloween masks, posters, t-shirts and just about any printed media you can think of.

Happy viewing. 

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