The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Length: c. 78 minutes
About this Piece
Directed by Rupert Julian
Titles by Walter Anthony
Based on the novel Le fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux
|Erik, the Phantom||Lon Chaney|
|Christine Daae||Mary Philbin|
|Vicomte Raoul de Chagny||Norman Kerry|
|Ledoux Arthur||Edmund Carewe|
|Simon Buquet||Gibson Gowland|
|Comte Philip de Chagny||John Sainpolis|
|Florine Papillon||Snitz Edwards|
The presentation of The Phantom of the Opera is by arrangement with Kino Lorber Repertory and Kino Classics.
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
The Sounds of Silents
Even before the advent of Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer in 1927, movies had sound. Of course there were the wonderful Vitaphone shorts and Lee de Forest’s ambitious Phonofilm features. But the darkened theaters in which audiences enjoyed the antics of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the allure of Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo, and the superstar charisma of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, were filled with the sounds of live musicians who accompanied the silent images. From the early days of such film pioneers as Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett, films—comedic and dramatic—were enhanced by the performances of music to augment or comment on the scenes being projected onto what used to be called “the silver sheet.”
Once nickelodeons had superseded the private viewing stations (such as Edison’s Kinetoscope) at which the audience of one cranked the film personally and moviegoing became a group experience, pianists were employed in many theaters when it was discovered that music could mask the miscellaneous chatter of the easily distracted audience. Thomas L. Talley of Los Angeles was perhaps the first theater owner to install a pipe organ in a movie house, in 1905. Larger auditoriums engaged full-size orchestras, with a conductor to organize and direct the proceedings. Sooner or later, however, the musicians would need some sort of break, and the organ that was part of the installation at larger theaters was called upon to bridge the gap. Whenever budgetary concerns led to a reduction in orchestra personnel, the organist was retained; in many cases, the “king of instruments” simply replaced the orchestra entirely.
The “theater organ” as we know it was the brainchild of the Englishman Robert Hope-Jones, whom many authorities include in the same exalted category as the celebrated 19th-century French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. An electrical engineer, Hope-Jones modernized the organ keyboard, replacing the venerable mechanical action with electrical switches and relays. He brought his innovations to the United States, where he started his own firm in Elmira, NY, in 1907. Experimenting endlessly with pipe design and placement, as well as specially designed air chambers, Hope-Jones developed new sounds, such as the rich, mellow “tibia,” perhaps the most distinctive of the stops that immediately signals we are hearing a “theater organ.” He also added remote-access percussion, including such exotica as sleigh bells, marimba, chimes, piano, triangle, castanets, and cymbals. Hope-Jones even devised the familiar curved console, replacing the stop knobs with multicolored keys.
Never much of a businessman, he was obliged to sell his operation to the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., where he continued to work until he took his own life in September 1914. It was just a few months later that Wurlitzer began to manufacture theater organs, eventually producing thousands of them for movie palaces large and small. Wurlitzer’s marketing was so effective that, just as every refrigerator in the 1920s became known as a “Frigidaire,” every theater organ became known as a “Mighty Wurlitzer.”
Music occupies a special role in the film being presented this evening. The celebrated novel by Gaston Leroux exploits the grand setting of the Paris Opéra to dramatize the passion of obsessive love and the calamities it engenders. Many versions of the story, including a musical setting by Andrew Lloyd Webber that has its fans and its detractors, have been attempted, but the 1925 Universal Pictures production starring Lon Chaney is the real “classic.” Chaney’s awe-inspiring combination of horrific makeup, subtle yet emphatic acting, and personal identification with the tormented Erik remains unmatched.
A silent film about an opera house and the horrible enchantment it holds for an aspiring singer might have seemed implausible, but it should be noted that several famous opera singers were also hugely successful as silent-film stars (Geraldine Farrar in particular; Enrico Caruso and Mary Garden made just one picture each). In fact, it turns out that one of the first full-length feature films (1910) was a 46-minute version of Gounod’s Faust (the very opera performed during The Phantom of the Opera) featuring the Royal Italian Opera Company of Paris. Eventually, more than 100 operas would be adapted as films during the silent era. Farrar actually became one of the very first real stars of the silver screen following her sensational 1915 version of Carmen (which also made a name for its young director, Cecil B. DeMille). —Dennis Bade