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Chris Hicks: The 'Phantom' DVD fans have been waiting for

Silent star Lon Chaney may be the most unfairly maligned movie star of all time in terms of the shabby treatment of his surviving films.

Few movies starring the Man of a Thousand Faces are available to the general public, and only two have been in wide circulation during the home-video years — "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925).

And it's probably safe to say that more editions of the Chaney version of "The Phantom of the Opera" have been issued on various VHS and DVD labels than any other single movie.

When a copyright owner fails to renew a film, it falls into public domain; anyone with access to a print can sell it on video. And that's certainly been the case with this silent classic ever since home video began to flourish in the late 1970s and early '80s.

The downside is that too often public-domain prints are in poor condition, with muffled sound, scratches and pops — and sometimes entire scenes missing.

So it's no small thing that the latest DVD release of "The Phantom of the Opera" is fabulous in its presentation (Image/Milestone, not rated; b/w, with tinted and color sequences; $24.99, two discs).

The main prize here is the restored 1929 reissue version that leads off the first disc. It really is like watching an entirely different movie, pulled together from the best available prints and remastered.

The two-strip Technicolor masked-ball sequence is great, but the scene that follows is even more stunning — as the Phantom eavesdrops on a rooftop, his red cape billowing in sharp contrast to the tinted dark-blue nighttime images.

The first disc also contains an audio commentary (interesting but a little too all-inclusive of information and dates on even the most obscure participants), two original trailers, stills of deleted and missing scenes, dialogue from the sound re-release version and more.

The second disc contains the original 1925 version (a less-than-perfect print), with still more extras, including vintage audio interviews.

This is the "Phantom of the Opera" DVD that fans have been waiting for, and it was certainly worth the wait.

LAUREL & HARDY films are also in public domain and show up on various video labels, though their best classic features and shorts remain licensed. Curiously, the latter have been available on VHS but not on DVD. Until now.

A new collection, simply titled "Laurel & Hardy" (Artisan, b/w, $19.98) was issued last month, and it contains what many critics consider their best feature — "Sons of the Desert" — along with several of their best short films, including their 1933 Oscar-winner, "The Music Box" (in which the boys carry a piano up a long flight of stairs . . . several times).

But what should be nothing but good news has a sad coda; the transfers here, while advertised on the box as "digitally remastered," are actually rather inferior. And "Sons of the Desert" contains several surprisingly long fade-outs, obviously for commercial-television play.

I'm of two minds about this. Die-hard fans will be disappointed. But for those not terribly familiar with the best L&H comedy, this isn't a bad primer.

Still, considering the $19.98 price tag, there's no reason better prints couldn't have been used. (Nostalgia Merchant VHS editions were made from far superior prints.)


E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com