I should probably state upfront that I was kinda doomed to dislike this movie.
I tried to read The Phantom of the Opera in high school when the library finally got new books. I can’t say I gave it a particularly fair shake, just realized I was bored and didn’t really like anybody and quickly moved onto all the other new books. Much later, I tried out Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera, and boy, did I HATE it. It seemed to take forever, I despised basically every character that wasn’t Minnie Driver, and while I freely admit to not knowing much about music, some of the singing seemed, ah, not great? I’ve always felt like I should I see the musical in theater at some point to see if the sheer spectacle can pull me in, but even if that was a possibility at present, I’m reluctant to part ways with that much money over a story that, traditionally, has made me wanna stab people every time they open their mouths.
Alas, I must inform you that even in the silent version, I still hate all these motherfuckers.
Director: Rupert Julian
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
The Phantom of the Opera is almost a hundred years old, and there are several cuts of it, none of which are the exact version that audiences saw back when the film premiered. The version I watched is an hour and forty-five minutes long; I can assure you, it does not need to be. In the very beginning, we see–well, we can make out–a man with a lantern who appears to be talking, except there are no title cards to indicate what dialogue might be taking place. Is he talking to himself? Us? I can’t rightly say, especially since it’s not entirely clear who the old man is, as you can barely see his face. We watch him hide from a shadow (the titular Phantom), reemerge to silently talk some more, and then hide from the shadow again. I can tell you right now it’s not particularly riveting to watch a barely visible man make vague jaw movements and then huddle in the darkness for, oh, almost a solid two minutes. In general, the movie is oddly paced, with some scenes taking considerably more time than needed: for instance, when Carlotta sings on stage for eighty years before the Phantom finally strikes.
But like I said, this is a very old movie. You kinda expect some shit like that. The real problem (for me, anyway) remains the main three characters, who are all just The Worst.
Raoul, a snob, is in love with Christine. We know this because he proposes to her in the most romantic way possible: quit your dream career and become my full-time wife. He presents this as a statement, by the way, not an actual question. Apparently, Raoul thinks all Christine ever wanted was to sing this big solo on the stage one time; now that she’s had the opportunity, surely she can’t wait to give it all up and dote on him for eternity! Christine tells him she can never leave the opera and that he needs to move on; this is the first and last time I’ll actually like Christine.
Other than being sexist and a terrible judge of character, Raoul just seems generally unpleasant. He’s a nobleman, see, so he doesn’t understand boundaries as something that apply to him, like when he pushes his way into Christine’s dressing room and downright sneers at another woman (presumably an attendant) until she hurriedly leaves him and Christine alone. Mind you, the woman–unlike Raoul–is clearly allowed in this room. Also, she was literally just standing there, not bothering them at all. Raoul actually puts his hands on his hips, glaring after her for the audacity of existing. Likewise, when Raoul later accidentally runs into Inspector Ledoux, he gives the policeman the most disdainful up-and-down, like, “Foul peasant! How dare you touch me when I bumped into you!”
It must also be noted that Raoul is not exactly what one might call a strategic thinker. Christine wants Raoul to save her; specifically, she wants to run away with him after her next performance before the Phantom can abduct her/force her to be his catacomb wife for all eternity. (Why she wants to wait another day instead of, you know, leaving right the fuck now makes little sense to me, but admittedly, that one’s not on Raoul.) The plan is quickly foiled, however, because the Phantom secretly overhears them talking. Christine tells Raoul this, and Raoul’s response?
My barouche is waiting outside. We leave immediately after the performance! Dry your tears, dear, and hasten–you must make ready for your performance.
Yes, Raoul just offers the exact same plan they had before. Also, he dries her tears with his handkerchief, then kisses the handkerchief like a weirdo, and goes back to patting her on the face with it. And . . . is it just the current pandemic getting to me, or yuck?
Christine, a damsel, is possibly in love with Raoul, but also seems to have a beau on the side. He’s a disembodied voice from behind the walls, one who calls himself her “Master” and apparently is the only reason she got to sing the solo that night. Now, this version of the film doesn’t have the garden scene where Christine apparently explains to Raoul how this mysterious dude has been giving her singing lessons, so to the unsuspecting audience member, it seems that Christine knows full-well that her benefactor is the Phantom, and that she only got the solo because he threatened disastrous consequences if Carlotta, Carlotta’s Mom, and the new opera house owners didn’t comply. Because otherwise, why would Christine nod along when Mystery Dude says he placed the world at her feet?
Alas, Christine somehow doesn’t realize that her tutor is the Phantom until about 42 minutes into the movie. Which is unfortunate because a scheming Christine might actually be interesting. A shitty person, to be sure, but at least she’d potentially have some agency. This Christine, however, is always either on the verge of fainting or just straight up actually fainting. Her default expression appears to be set to “vacuous.” And I don’t know why she’s so chill about trusting a “spirit” who lives in the walls, or finding out that he has a secret passage into her dressing room, or the whole “call me Master” bit, but . . . gah.
It should also be said that fair and sweet Christine is secretly a shallow little asshole. Like, I’m not sure exactly what she was expecting when she traipsed through the creepy secret passage to meet the Hidden Stalker of Her Dreams in between the walls of the opera house, but I assume it was something like this . . .
. . . which is definitely not what happened. Christine’s fainting spells and subsequent terror rarely seem to stem from the fact that he’s taken her so far below ground that nobody will hear her scream; in fact, she faints (the first time) well before that even happens. Her horror comes from the mere sight of his creepy mask and, presumably, what hideous visage might lie beneath. (In fairness, it is a seriously creepy fucking mask, like, what is with that part attached at the bottom? Dude, that shit’s weird. Find a mask that covers your whole face, man.) This comes up again when Christine describes the Phantom to Raoul as “a monster–a loathsome beast!” And don’t get me wrong: the Phantom sucks, like, you’re about to read 500 words on exactly how much he sucks–but that word choice is deliberate and telling.
C. The Phantom
The Phantom, an asshole, is in love with Christine, but it’s the kind of love that only an abusive motherfucker can provide. Here he is taking all the credit for Christine’s talent:
“Christine, tonight I placed the world at your feet! To you I have imparted the full measure of my art! You will triumph–all Paris will worship you! But I warn you, you must forget all worldly things and think only of your career–and your Master! Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and command your love!”
Like, I’m sure his lessons were invaluable, but any teacher who swoops in to say, “You’re only worth anything because of ME!” is a dick, full stop. Plus, a dude who’s hot for you and also wants you to call him Master outside any consensual bedroom shit is just gross. And don’t even get me started on “command your love,” like . . .
A list of some of the Phantom’s other bullshit:
A. Threatens to kill people if they don’t replace the lead soprano with the girl HE likes best.
B. Does, indeed, kill people when the lead soprano sings anyway. And, like, not even the soprano herself or the theater managers or anyone who might have actually been involved with the decision–which would still be terrible, but at least, like, vague psycho logic? Alas, no, the Phantom drops a chandelier on a bunch of poor, unsuspecting bastards in the audience. That’s just not cool.
C. Also kills some other dude for knowing too much.
D. Kidnaps Christine, sniffs her dress like a fucking creeper, immediately confesses his love, and insists that everything that’s good in him (which is “aroused” by her purity, ugh) has been impatiently waiting for the opportunity to plead for her love in return. He then quickly pivots from ‘gosh, I hope you like me’ to “You will be free as long as your love for the spirit of Erik overcomes your fear,” which, uh, not actually freedom? And when Christine takes off his mask—which yes, yes, that’s the one thing she isn’t supposed to do, but fuck off with that Bluebeard nonsense; was the Phantom really expecting that he’d just live in his sub-sub-sub-sub basement with her forever without ever needing to take off his creepy ass disguise? Anyway, the Phantom grabs Christine by the hair and proceeds to act like a total drama queen before blaming her for pretty much everything. He then decides to prove his love by allowing her to leave for, like, the weekend, so she can sing at the opera once more before returning to be his prisoner-wife forever. But she has to remember that she is his, and if she sees Raoul again, the Phantom will kill them both.
Wow. True love right there.
E. Kidnaps Christine again when he discovers that she (shockingly, oh so shockingly) does not make good on that promise.
F. Tries to kill Raoul and Inspector Ledoux. I mean, I’m okay with him murdering Raoul, obviously, but the Inspector? Nope, absolutely not, fuck you, sir.
I’m relatively sure the Phantom has a more sympathetic backstory in other versions; in this one, though, it’s pretty much pared down to a single line about how he became a monster because the world treated him like one. Likewise, this version also cuts the “redemptive” death where the Phantom lets Christine go at the eleventh hour and then dies of a broken heart, or whatever. I’m sure this is disappointing to many people, but I can’t say I’m one of them. For starters, about the last thing I want from my media is the sob story of a homicidal incel. (Though I’ll freely admit that some level of backstory might have been appropriate here.) And as always, lazy ass redemptive deaths do very little for me. Redemption needs to mean more than “I helped someone once after I put them in danger in the first place and then immediately died without having to make amends for every other shitty thing I did, so, you know, GOOD GUY AT HEART.”
Fuck that noise.
A Bunch of Random Notes:
1. The Phantom having his own giant oven torture chamber is super extra.
2. Considering that the Phantom is, apparently, an expert in “the black arts,” there is a disappointing lack of magic in this movie. We’re told that Carlotta is under the “spell of his curse” and will never sing again, but since we never see her after the whole chandelier incident, I’m assuming that, in this case, “spell of his curse” basically just means PTSD.
3. Speaking of Carlotta, I was amused to discover that because of additional scenes added in 1929, Carlotta’s already minor role is cut in half between her and an entirely new character: Carlotta’s Mother. Basically, the 1929 version of the film included sound scenes, which meant they needed an actress who could actually sing. Thus they cast Mary Fabian as Carlotta for the big solo, while making a few quick fixes to the inter-titles and crediting the original Carlotta, Virginia Pearson, as Carlotta’s (Random Ass) Mother.
The Eastman House Print, which is the version I watched, included these additional scenes and changes, but without any sound at all. This print also includes one scene in color, although apparently there used to be more. If only one color scene was gonna survive, though, it’s pretty cool that it was the Bal Masqué. Especially because the Phantom is apparently an Edgar Allan Poe fan (natch), and his Masque of the Red Death cosplay really wouldn’t play as well in black-and-white. (It’s genuinely a pretty amazing costume, like, I’d wear that shit immediately.)
4. The Phantom also (sigh) sleeps in a coffin because, you know. It reminds him of “that other dreamless sleep that cures all ills–forever!” Have I mentioned how much I hate this guy yet? Seriously. It’s not like he doesn’t have anywhere else to sleep. There is this crazy ornate boat bed (also seen in Sunset Blvd.) in just the other room, though it’s unclear to me exactly how he brought that fucker all the way down there. (Also, the horse. He has a HORSE.) I’m also not really sure why the Phantom has this bed he doesn’t sleep in at all? Unless it’s for sex reasons. Christine doesn’t really seem like she’d be down for coffin sex.
5. The Phantom’s makeup is a little funny now because of the whole 95-years-later thing, but it’s honestly pretty neat that Lon Chaney made it himself, and that the studio kept it under wraps, so that no one would see him until the Big Reveal shot. (Including the actress, apparently.) And credit where credit’s due: the Big Reveal is iconic for a reason: it’s a pretty great shot.
6. In one scene, the dancers think they may have seen the Phantom (they’re wrong), and one ballerina, like, continuously twirls in her emotional distress. It’s very distracting. She just keeps doing it!
7. This version of the film might make for a decent case study on why editing is so important. The implications of cutting the garden scene, for instance. Also, the Strangler. Who is the Strangler, you ask? Well, it’s the Phantom, of course, but it’s probably over an hour before anyone calls him that, and I’m pretty sure it’s before we see him actually strangle anybody, so . . . it’s very odd.
8. Poor Raoul’s brother gets murdered and then never mentioned again. I’m honestly not sure why they even included him in this movie. We don’t even see Raoul find out.
9. Finally–people, this review is nearly three times as long as I’d hoped, and my ability to focus on writing has been less than stellar in this terrifying Era of Plague and Doom–Inspector Ledoux is easily the best character here. Like, he does decide to work with Raoul for some inexplicable reason, so admittedly, the guy makes mistakes. Still, dude knows what’s up: he puts the clues together, knows how to avoid being strangled, etc. (Personally, I plan to stalk around my house with my arm up all the time now. Shit, I need someone to make that TikTok.) Hilariously, Ledoux has to keep reminding Raoul to maintain this You Can’t Strangle Me pose, all, “Dude, I fucking just told you this. Do you want to die?” Ledoux is the only person in this movie I care about and, very fortunately, he makes it!
Less fortunately, I soon learned all about the shitty history of how this character has been whitewashed or straight-up cut over the years from this Lindsay Ellis video that Mek showed me. (If you have the time–and you might–consider checking it out. I know this isn’t news or anything, but her work is really informative and fun.) While it’s kinda nice to realize they finally gave “the Persian” a name, I hadn’t quite understood that, in this version, Ledoux is supposed to be a white French dude pretending to be Persian. I’d just assumed he was, like, a French-Persian cop pretending to be some theater rando. It’s good, at least, that the actor was Armenian-American, like, this isn’t quite how whitewashing usually goes. Then again, that’s probably because Arthur Edmund Carewe was almost certainly playing “the Persian” until the studio later changed it in editing. Alas, predictably, racism strikes again.
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