Tuesday, October 25, 2016

2016 Blind Spot Series: The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Frankenstein (1910)


Once again, it's time to make my rear view mirror just a tad bit clearer. This is accomplished by wiping yet another movie from my ever-growing must-see list. I fully get that every time I scratch one of these films off the top of the list, I've added a dozen to the bottom. Logic tells us this isn't a recipe for progress. Still, I'm proud of myself anytime I can actually watch one. It's all about small victories, folks. This month, that small victory is finally getting to watch a true genre classic...


Why did I pick it? Have you ever known about, and keep hearing about, a person who runs in the same general circles as you, but never actually met? Everyone keeps saying things to you like "You've gotta meet So-and-So! He's a great guy. I think the two of you would hit it off." For one reason or another, the two of you just never cross paths. In my life as a cinephile, The Phantom of the Opera is that dude. If this were high school, I wouldn't be a full-blown goth, but I'd be pretty good friends with a number of them. Inevitably, whenever I came around, one of them would start ranting about The Phantom. In other words, I've been keenly aware of this movie, including it's most iconic image ever since I could remember. It's affected me in another way, too. I had avoided the various remakes, reboots, reimaginings, and whatnot on the premise I would be seeing this soon. So no, I've never seen any version of this film, at all, nor the Andrew Lloyd Webber play. Finally, I just took it into my hands and arranged a meeting with this guy.

All the happenings take place in and around the Opera of Paris. Big time opera singer Carlotta (Virginia Pearson) is scheduled to take the stage tomorrow. However, she receives a mysterious letter containing a rather vague death threat. Essentially, it says don't show up tomorrow so that her understudy Christine (Mary Philbin) can shine, or else. Not one to take such things lightly, Carlotta indeed calls in sick and Christine does her thing, much to the delight of the letter's author, The Phantom (Lon Chaney, Sr.). At the urging of her (possibly) overbearing mother, Carlotta decides she's taking her spot back the next night. This doesn't make The Phantom happy, as you might expect. He keeps penning menacing prose, and things progress from there.

The first aspect of the film I was checking for was the performance of Lon Chaney, Sr. It's hailed as legendary. I can see why. As a relic of the silent era, it's easy to get caught up in the grand gestures of a more demonstrative style of acting than we're used these days. At least it's more demonstrative when it comes to how a person's body is utilized to convey their character's feelings. Chaney's work goes beyond the typical big arm movements to give The Phantom a tangible pathos. Though he is clearly the villain of the film, there is an inescapable sadness about him. The miraculous thing about this is that for much of the film, we don't actually see his face. It's locked away behind a mask that can only be seen as weird. When he takes that off, he is still hidden behind the prosthetics applied to his mug. On top of that, they don't move much, if at all. Remarkably, Chaney cuts through all that to still make The Phantom more human than anyone else in the film.


Of course, seeing that face is the one thing I knew about The Phantom of the Opera. The first it happens is, perhaps, the most famous reveal in cinematic history. Even without having seen the film prior to this moment, I've come across that moment roughly a cajillion times in my life. I can see why it's revered the way it is. It's a film changing instant. However, there was still some surprise to be held in it. Vaguely being aware of the story, as I had been, and being very familiar with movies in general, I assumed this was something that happened near the end during a climactic moment. Instead, it happens a little before the halfway mark. Thankfully, the film manages to hold our interest beyond this, and continues to absorb us into it's story. The look of the film also aids a lot in keeping us engaged. True, I said the face of The Phantom is largely immobile, however it sits so perfectly it doesn't need to. Additionally, there is lots of wonderful set work as the entirety of the theater is explored. This makes the film fantastic to look at as the perfectly brief seventy-five minutes breeze by.

Watching as a person who cut his teeth on The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th, it was interesting seeing how dread was built in a movie ninety years old. It's done largely through the numerous letters The Phantom pens to warn his potential victims. The movie falls a bit shy, here, because the threat he poses is too seriously, too quickly. After the very first letter, before anyone knew anything of The Phantom, nor had any reason to think this was the real deal, everyone is all in a panic. I just there to be at least a little investigation into this threat before everyone freaked out. Going in the other direction, I would like to have it established why The Phantom fixated on Christine when Carlotta was already famous. I never really got why he was obsessed with Christine. The movie basically asks us to accept it and move on. Whether or not we can depends on our willingness to buy into the seriousness of the initial threat. If we don't quite connect with the fear of the people on the screen, it may not feel quite like a horror flick to us. In that case, it's still a very fun movie that tells a really entertaining story.

Blind Spot Bonus:


Frankenstein
(1910)

This silent version of the famed story is set up like the rest. An up and coming scientist named Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) is trying to create the perfect human being. In closer keeping with the novel he documents his progress, or lack thereof, with a series of letters to Elizabeth (Mary Fuller), the love of his life. Of course, Frankenstein doesn't really create a perfect being, but a hideous monster (Charles Ogle). In execution, it plays more like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde than what we think of as the story of Frankenstein. The monster seems to be stalking Frankenstein and represents a darker version of himself. This comes across most because of all the mirror play between the two. This is very interesting, but the film ultimately falls short because The Monster is solely focused on his creator while Frankenstein often pretends his creation doesn't exist. It's a very weird thing to see Frankenstein just leave The Monster wherever and show up someplace else like nothing ever happened. For instance, when The Monster first appears he attacks Frankenstein in his home. Frankenstein just up and leaves the thing there. He never warns anyone or tries to dispose of it. He just travels back to Elizabeth and starts to proceed with their wedding as if all is normal. When The Monster shows up there, Frankenstein just goes somewhere else and still tries to carry on with life as usual. The finale is strong enough to recommend it as a watch, but again, strongly leans towards this being more about man's inner struggles with duality than haphazardly wielding power. The whole thing runs a mere twelve minutes and change. I've included it below, if you're interested.



Check Out My other 2016 Blind Spot Reviews

12 comments:

  1. I haven't seen any of these. I'm really bad at going THAT far back into movies. I did The Passion of Joan of Arc this year, and I think that's the oldest movie I've ever seen aside from some Chaplin shorts.

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    1. Trust me, I have tons of blind spots from that far back. I need to see The Passion of Joan of Arc, as a matter of fact.

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  2. I need to watch the Edison Frankenstein one of these days.

    There are some wonderful moments in that original Phantom of the Opera. Chaney is a wonderful monster--he always was. If you've got a hankering for some other silents featuring him, Laugh Clown Laugh and the Unknown are very much worth your time.

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    1. Go for it. Just need to carve about 13 minutes out of your day.

      There are lots of wonderful moments. I'm woefully deficient in my silents. Thanks for bringing those two to my attention.

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  3. I haven't seen the original Phantom of the Opera as it was on TCM this month. I hope to see it next year as there's just so many other films that I'm seeing at the moment.

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    1. I'm glad I finally caught up with it, but yeah, I totally get what you're saying.

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  4. Enjoyed reading your take on this especially with the anticipatory lead up of the years added in. Chaney was a master of the macabre, his own life story and what lead to his fascination with it is an engrossing tale in itself, and this certainly provides plenty of opportunities for him to flex that aspect but as you mentioned he was able to humanize his characters under mountains of makeup. At least most of the time, he made a film called Mr. Wu that is one of the vilest things I've ever seen. That aside his films are some of the best silents I've seen because of the care obviously taken with not just the makeup but the attention to detail in both story and craftsmenship.

    I strongly second SJ's recommendation of both of those other two films but especially The Unknown-a deeply unsettling movie with the added bonus of a very young Joan Crawford in the female lead. She said later that it was Chaney who taught her respect for acting and really made her commit to improving her work not just pursuing stardom.

    Now that you've crested the initial Phantom wave I'd recommend the 1943 Claude Rains version because well...Claude Rains! The Lloyd-Webber musical version has some nice songs but isn't something I'm very fond of.

    The 1910 Frankenstein was fascinating even if necessarily flawed to modern eyes. It packs an awful lot of story into that one reel. I would guess the time constraint of the length of that one reel was part of the reason for the compactness and lack of logic in some of it-for instance when he just leaves the monster and moves to the next set piece to get to the conclusion. However it has some striking imagery-I have to admit I chuckled a bit when he was throwing ingredients in at first as if he was making a cake, but as the monster materialized it was very creepy. Despite the shortness Edison obviously spent some time on it what with the experimental coloring of some sequences. Just fascinating seeing something that is 106 years old still exists offering up a document of the times. I shows why film preservation is so vital.

    I took a quick look at the film stats of the three lead performers on IMDB and was amazed to see that all of them had over 150 credits and the man playing the monster had 325!! Sadly the actress who played Elizabeth (who had 226 credits before she retired in 1917!) had a breakdown and spent 25 years in an insane asylum before her death.

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    1. Thanks. Chaney did exactly that, and he is a huge reason for my enjoyment. I do need to see those others, especially The Unknown. Can't pass up a chance to see a young Joan Crawford.

      Yes, I do need to see the '43 Claude Rains version, and the more recent versions, too.

      Great point about time constraint and its effects on Edison's Frankenstein. I agree it's existence is a marvel and a testament to the importance of film preservation.

      Didn't look up any of the performers so I knew none of this. That's some fascinating...and sad...stuff.

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  5. I've seen The Phantom of the Opera (1925). What I liked most was the set design and the performance and makeup of Lou Cheney. I agree that it's a haunting moment when he reveals his face.

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    1. Those things are fantastic about it. That particular moment is iconic for good reason. It's still effective ninety years later.

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