Phantom Movie Musings

Have you ever watched the original Phantom of the Opera, starring that amazing man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney?  It was made in 1925, a silent film.  I watched it once on YouTube – you can see it in its entirety there.  Lon Chaney himself was co-director of that film.  They made a real effort to follow the book by Gaston Leroux, but the ending, to put it bluntly, sucks.  I suppose that in those days, it was necessary for the bad guy to die violently at the end, rather than allowing Erik the Phantom die of a broken heart as in the book.  Bad guys had to get their comeuppance. So it was contrived that the Phantom would be beaten to death by an angry mob and then tossed in the river.  It’s truly a horrific scene, even in black and white silence.

In the 1925 version, Lon Chaney’s makeup (developed by himself I’m certain) sticks pretty closely to Leroux’s description of someone who resembles a living skeleton.  He’s quite hideous.  It would be awfully challenging for any woman to fall in love with someone who looked that ugly.

Fast forward to 2004, and to another Phantom of the Opera.  Here you have an astonishingly beautiful movie, and a story line that closely follows the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name.  The movie digresses here and there because it can, and shows additional scenes that cannot realistically be portrayed on a stage.  I am thinking of scenes like Raoul jumping on a horse and riding bareback across the fields to reach the cemetery, or of Raoul falling through one of the Phantom’s trapdoors and finding himself in a tank of water.  The additional scenes add a lot to the story.  It is my personal thought, however, that the movie did a disservice to Erik by inventing a life for him that was not true to the story.  He did not grow up and live from childhood beneath the Opera Garnier – where in the world would he have learned all his tricks and rope skills?

What happens to Erik at the end of this movie is a mystery, just as it is at the end of the stage show.  In this case, he breaks one last mirror, steps through it and walks away, we know not where.  And it was this mysterious, unknown destiny that pulled at me until I decided to create for him not an ending, but a new beginning.  In my book, ‘Disfigured’, someone is waiting for him out there, on the other side of the mirror, someone who cares for him and wants to save his life.

Gerard Butler is arguably the best-looking Phantom to come along.  If you go back and look at photos of the Phantom as played by Michael Crawford, who originated the part on stage, his makeup for the maskless scenes is pretty ugly.  Also, he had to wear that cakey white stage makeup. In the 2004 movie the mask itself, a potent symbol, has also been changed.  It is smaller, covering less of the face.  Even though Gerry’s Phantom looks badly disfigured when the mask and wig come off, the rest of him is so gorgeous that you don’t really notice.  Or is that just me?  No, I didn’t think so.

I had a bit of fun when writing my book about Erik and Sylvie, his cook.  Sylvie happens to see Erik as he is just completing his preparations for appearing at the bal masque.  He is dressed in his Red Death outfit, and is putting the finishing touches on his costume.  She takes one look at him in that costume and has to start fanning herself discreetly.  She can’t take her eyes off him, he looks so spectacular.  And hot.  That, my friends, came directly from me.  I did not give Sylvie any attributes that are like myself; she was created specifically to be the sort of woman who could manage Erik, and who would want to manage him.  However, her reaction to the red costume closely mirrors my own.  Whew!

This movie was one of Gerry Butler’s first starring roles, and he was about 35 I think.  Nowadays you see him making all these action blockbusters, always the hero with a gun glued to his hand, frowning and looking worried.  So it’s kind of refreshing to see him as the Phantom, an ambiguous, mysterious, good bad guy.  I know there is a lot of back-and-forth among POTO fans about his singing in the movie, and I had to admit it took a while for me to warm up to his throaty, deep voice.  He seemed to growl at times, rather than sing.  For years I had a CD of the original stage cast performance that I used to love to listen to in the car (and sing along with, but only when alone).  I bought the movie CD and listened to them one right after the other, and I realized that Gerry’s version reveals the anger and despair of the Phantom to a greater degree.  In the Michael Crawford version, the Phantom sounds more mad than angry to me.  Maybe it was his crazy laugh.

I think the 2004 movie is well worth watching, even if you don’t like musicals, or don’t care for the POTO story.  The sumptuous sets and costumes, the attention to detail, the richness of the production make it completely captivating.  Little things like seeing the cleaning ladies put in their earplugs when Carlotta starts to sing make you smile.  And the dramatic scenes of the chandelier falling and the fire starting are stunning.  But mainly, watch it for the Phantom; it’s his movie, after all.

Following are a few photos that I pulled off the internet.  Enjoy!


Michael Crawford

Lon Chaneey