The Phantom of the Opera
“Silent films” were far from silent—especially in the case of The Phantom of the Opera, which has been scaring movie audiences out of their wits for about a hundred years. In addition to our own screams as we watch, this fabulous feature cries out for the kind of compelling musical accompaniment that organ virtuoso and film scholar Dennis James provides. The burden of silence was borne by the actors, who had to convey their characters’ innermost emotions without speaking. How did they do it? “We had faces then,” says silent star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. And Lon Chaney, star of this seminal version of Phantom, was “the man of a thousand faces.”
Set mainly in the eerie, catacomb-like passageways of the Paris Opera, Phantom was conceived to showcase Chaney’s unique talents as an actor and make-up artist. For early viewers, the film’s horrific scenario and Chaney’s ghastly appearance create an unprecedented experience in shared terror: Never before had so many people crowded together in dark theaters for the pleasure of being frightened. Yes, there were other examples of horror in cinema, notably the daringly surreal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, the early vampire drama. But the combination of Gaston Leroux’s 1908 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra and Lon Chaney’s special skillset provided an opportunity for a more sensational movie experience, and those behind Phantom‘s creation at Universal Studios knew it.
The early signs for The Phantom of the Opera didn’t augur well for its eventual success. There were numerous problems on set, delays during shooting, and troublesome re-edits. But the finished product was undeniably compelling, and for the buildup to its public premiere, the early Hollywood promotion machine shifted into high gear. At the center of the media storm was Chaney’s innovative make-up artistry, which Universal managed to publicize in thousands of words while keeping its particulars a strict secret. The strategy was especially potent at a time of high public interest in carnival “freak shows” and biological anomalies that were dubbed “monsters.”
Now, cut to 1926. The Phantom of the Opera played in all the major movie palaces, and when the villain’s face was fully revealed in the film’s climactic unmasking sequence, the response was pandemonium. Newspaper accounts of the film’s first run describe women shrieking, children crying, and men leaving their seats “for a breath of air.” Yet despite all the Hollywood craft and hype, this early dramatization of Phantom hews closer to Leroux’s original story than subsequent adaptations for stage and screen. Chaney’s appearance seems lifted from Leroux’s pages, which describe the phantom’s deformed face as skull-like and topped with thin, wispy hair.
From the beginning, the Hollywood dream purveyors understood the centrality of music to Phantom‘s impact. For 1925 previews in Los Angeles, a score for full orchestra (now lost) was prepared by successful Hollywood composer Joseph Carl Breil, a favorite of D.W. Griffith; but even with 60 instruments in the pit, an organ was employed to enhance the dramatic effect of the music. For the movie’s official premiere in New York at the Astor Theatre, a full organ was installed in the auditorium at great expense. In these early showings, the organ’s sepulchral power and haunting depth proved their special affinity for the horror genre.
“Considerable hard work is involved in terms of research, scoring, practice, and timing in order to create a musical accompaniment which is both appropriate and unobtrusive while enhancing both the action and the mood of what is taking place on the screen,” notes organ soloist Dennis James. He is considered by many to be the foremost scholar and performer of silent movie musical accompaniment—the living embodiment of the photoplay music tradition. Practitioners of this art must combine enormous musical skill and flexibility with a sure-footed sense of cinematic drama.
To give us some idea of the scope of the enterprise, James cites a 1922 survey of American movie theaters by the industry publication Motion Picture News. He warns that the data are not ironclad; still, based on his best estimates, well over 20 percent of the moviegoing audience attended an orchestrally scored film on any given night, with 250 theaters presenting orchestras larger than ten players. Well over 1,000 boasted ensembles of six to ten players. Even those numbers don’t include the large majority of theaters, roughly seven out of ten, that used a theater organ or piano for movie accompaniment. Every one of these ensembles was tasked with expressing a full range of emotion—especially for the sophisticated, full-length features such as Phantom.
The Phantom of the Opera poses a special challenge for scorer and performer: In addition to the complexity of the plot, which teems with romantic incident and suggestions of the black arts, the story is rooted in specific music. Its setting is an actual opera house—the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera—and the story is built around rehearsals and performances for the most popular opera of its day, Gounod’s Faust. Opera lovers will take a special interesting in hearing how James works many of the familiar melodies from Faust into his dramatic accompaniment.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.