Today’s Trillion $ Movie, Phantom of the Opera, is the signature film of Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Both of his parents were deaf and mute, so Chaney developed uncanny, non-verbal communication skills, rivaling comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as the silent era’s most expressive pantomime. Making the most of his mastery of makeup, Chaney gravitated toward horror. He personally created the hideous, skeletal look of the Phantom he portrays here. The original came out in 1925, but this trimmed-down 1929 restoration is less clunky, with fewer distracting sideplots.
Owing to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, and scores of remakes and parodies, most everyone knows the story. A physically deformed, emotionally stunted beast dwells in the catacombs below the Parisian Opera House. The arrival of a radiant understudy named Christine (Mary Philbin) brings the Phantom out from the shadows. He dotes obsessively on her, and is determined to make her a star. But he also wants her as a lover — a prospect that repulses her no end, leading to great melodrama and tragedy.
Although newer versions have boasted more gore and special effects, the Chaney classic remains the definitive screen adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s Gothic tale. It’s not just his macabre performance that towers above all others, but also the spectacular sets — the eight-ton chandelier, subterranean torture chambers and hidden lairs — that still command our attention.
The feature racked up $2 million at the box office, such a boffo hit that its studio, Universal Pictures, became Hollywood’s horror specialists. Truly, without Phantom of the Opera, we might not have Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man or The Invisible Man. Enjoy, and do return again next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.