A lot of "Phantoms of the Opera" have come and gone over the years. Claude Rains, Herbert Lom, Maximilian Schell, Robert Englund, not to mention the various incarnations by way of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But for many the very first screen portrayal, Lon Chaney Sr.'s, is still the greatest, and Tuesday it was magnificently on view as the initial offering in the Utah Symphony's new Cinema Series.The result was a packed house, there to enjoy the popcorn in the lobby, don its own Phantom masks (courtesy of Kinko's) and alternately laugh and scream at the 1925 silent chiller.
And chill it did, in a print of the 1929 reissue version (which, besides adding some now-silent sound scenes, was resequenced and generally tightened) so sharp as to outclass the Lumavision laserdisc of the same George Eastman House master, at least on my TV.
It also profited from having a live orchestral accompaniment compiled and conducted by the Eastman School of Music's Donald Hunsberger.
Pieces were generally well chosen, particularly the ballet music from Gounod's "Faust" (which was in fact suggested in the film's original script continuity) and the "Meditation" from "Thais," which backs the Phantom's speeches to Christine from behind her dressing-room mirror. Indeed the orchestral outburst triggered by the fall of the chandelier was more frightening than the scene itself - the one incident really done better in the Rains film.
Elsewhere, though, I think Hunsberger's selections could have done with a bit more mystery in a story that is equal parts fairy tale, horror movie and melodrama. Instead he frequently opted to underline the comedy and the romance rather than the darkness that underlies them both.
For the real music of this film remains its visual imagery, and that despite some overly melodramatic acting (especially from Mary Philbin) and choppy direction (credited to Rupert Julian, although reportedly he had help).
The silhouette of a body hanging backstage; Christine being led on horseback then via gondola, her dress trailing in the water, to the Phantom's underground lair; the famous unmasking scene; the Bal Masque (here in color, to Chabrier's "Espana"); a ghostly face appearing out of the shadows to warn off Raoul and Ledoux; and finally the Phantom's coup de theatre as he holds the angry mob at bay with what he then reveals to be an empty hand.
These are the moments one remembers. And significantly most of them are Chaney's.
Because although the unmasking still packs a wallop (aided here by Hunsberger's Verdian climaxes), what I find most remarkable about this film is how quickly one gets used to that living skull of a face as the actor then proceeds to reveal the human being behind it.
Whether sensing his hesitancy as his hand tentatively reaches out to touch Christine backstage, or his agony as, the wind sweeping through his cape, he overhears her betrayal of him on the rooftop, one realizes this is more than a shock figure. He is a person, however bizarre his appearance (and Chaney is still the last word in this department), however warped his psyche.
Rest assured, had it not been for this portrayal there would have been no Andrew Lloyd Webber "Phantom," or the cinematic-cum-theatrical variants that have popped up in between.
Or maybe even a Utah Symphony Cinema Series. Which is to say I don't know how many people will turn out for its more concert-oriented program next March, or even the next Hunsberger-accompanied silent ("The Mark of Zorro") in April. But for now things appear to be off to a deliciously shuddery start.