How many well executed elements does it take for a movie to become more than just good? Can it really take just one fantastic performance from a wonderful actor for the film to transcend so many other ones that came before it?
I believe the answer is no.
I’ve always felt that truly great cinema always has more than one element that makes it worth watching. For example, when I wrote my review of “The Passion Of The Joan Of Arc,” it lead to an interesting discussion about the film and silent cinema where I realized that Maria Falconetti, who played Joan of Arc, did give a performance that changed how acting was pursued from that point on. Yet, even with this revelation, I still couldn’t bring myself to say the film does anything for me. “The Passion Of The Joan Of Arc” may have a revolutionary performance, but that’s about it. That’s not enough for me to recommend the movie to others.
We have another beloved silent film from the 1920s that falls into the same category, “The Phantom Of The Opera.” I can understand why this would be so well received upon its release and could continue to entertain audiences even today, through the makeup and performance of Lon Chaney, also known as “The Man Of A Thousand Faces.” The problem is that once the initial affect of Chaney and his sunken-in eyes and massive jaw have faded away, the film doesn’t have much to offer.
I think most people are aware of the story of the Phantom (Lon Chaney), of a man who was once a great composer and intellect yet became badly scared and was rejected by society, forced to live underground and hide within the catacombs of the opera house.
One day though, the Phantom discovers a new talent of the play, Christine (Mary Philbin), and is smitten by her. He begins to send cryptic and angry messages to the directors, saying to give Christine larger roles or else terrible fates will befall them. As Christine’s fame begins to soar, the Phantom makes his presence known to her and wishes to make her the greatest star in the world, if she promises to accept him as her master.
First off, the performance of Lon Chaney is wonderful. He did his own make-up and design for the Phantom, and it works to keep him intimidating yet mysterious. I can understand why his face in this film has translated to one of the most iconic images of horror. It is a difficult face to forget and the moment of his eventual reveal is suspenseful and perfectly paced.
Also, I enjoy the use of color filters used throughout the film. As you can tell, this is a silent film but it takes full advantage of using filters to add atmosphere and tone to many of the scenes. The brightly lit opera house has a yellow filter, while the dark torture chambers deep below Paris are a dark purple. Though it is strange during the giant party when everything is in proper color, only to go back to filters once the scene is over.
However, outside of those elements, I couldn’t find myself getting drawn into the film. The story is rather unremarkable and the characters, outside of the Phantom, don’t have much going for them. Christine is mostly reduced to playing the damsel in distress, while her boyfriend Raoul is merely set on saving her. Many of the scenes that lack the Phantom just leave me wanting to see more of the only interesting character.
So while Lon Chaney is the vehicle that drives the greatness of the 1925 version of “The Phantom Of The Opera,” it is honestly not enough for me. A great performance and make-up can only take a film so far, especially when the remaining story and characters fail to pull their own weight.
If you enjoy the story of the Phantom, really like great make-up or are interested in learning more about horror icons, try this one a try. If you’re in it for an involving story like me, don’t be surprised if you don’t exactly what you came for.
Final Grade: C