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Image Entertainment presents
The Phantom of the Opera: The Ultimate Edition (1925-1929)

"His eyes are ghastly beads in which there is no light. Like holes in a grinning skull."
- Joseph Buquet (Bernard Siegel)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: November 19, 2003

Stars: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry
Other Stars: Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, Mary Fabian, Virginia Pearson, Carla Laemmle, Bernard Siegel, Ward Crane, Snitz Edwards
Director: Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick, Ernst Laemmle

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:20m:38s
Release Date: September 09, 2003
UPC: 014381020922
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-A-B+ A

DVD Review

Originally shot as a silent film in 1925, directed in broad strokes by Rupert Julian, The Phantom of the Opera is probably best remembered as containing what many consider one of filmdom's most memorable performances in the form of Lon Chaney, in the title role as the tortured catacomb-dwelling phantom. During the late 1920s, and into 1930, as sound and "talkies" came into vogue, the film had a storied history, being re-edited and released in a number of slightly altered versions. This splendid two-disc set from Image collects a marvelously restored version of the 1929 sound release (which includes an amalgam of narrative cards, sound effects and some dialogue), as well as the original 1925 feature version, and as far as film history is concerned, this is a treasure trove just waiting to be explored.

Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, the story of The Phantom of the Opera is yet another in the grand line of disfigured misfits yearning for an unobtainable love (think Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast or The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and here we have Chaney as Erik, the mysterious masked figure living deep in the subterranean bowels of the Paris Opera House. He desires the hand of the beautiful Christine Daaé (an angelic Mary Philbin), but her love for the ramrod straight Raoul (Norman Kerry) stands in the way. The lovelorn phantom, who spends a good chunk of the first half appearing only in silhouette (in fact, played by an actor other than Chaney) sends furtive warning messages to opera house management. lobbed out from behind a series of secret panels, urging that Christine be given the lead role in the production of Faust, or else. And one of the big 'or elses' is a massive chandelier that plummets down during a performance in one of this film's signature sequences, one that was made even more famous by Andrew Lloyd Webber and his lavish stage production that made the chandelier drop its centerpiece.

But this is really Chaney's film, and much in the same way that Peter Cushing could steal a sub par Hammer film, The Phantom of the Opera is all about him. When he's not onscreen, Chaney's presence is undeniably felt, and as the story dips into the final act in his underground lair, in the catacombs, it is startling to see how effortlessly Chaney out acts and outclasses the gushing, over-the-top stage performances of his costars. Stalking about in his garish Red Death getup during the big masked sequence, or cradled in the lap of a massive statue atop the theater as he listens to Christine and Raoul plot against him, Chaney's Erik is a balance of all things romantic and horrific. Even with his disfigured face hidden under his trademark mask, with that tiny and delicate strip of linen dangling over his mouth, Chaney's body language still is able to exude all manner of emotion without the benefit of any facial expression whatsoever, building to the payoff when Christine finally does unmask Erik, in a scene that has become the stuff of legend.

The 1929 restored version (01h:34:35s), which incorporates a blend of sound, dialogue, and the traditional silent-movie narrative cards, is made even more amazing not just by the mood-enhancing array of hand-tinting done throughout, but by the painstaking restoration done to the film's big Technicolor sequence (during the masked ball where Chaney struts in his Red Death disguise), as well as the Handshiegl color process used for the aforementioned scene on the roof of the opera house.

It should also be noted that this set is not simply a collection of two copies of the same film lumped together. In fact, the films are edited quite differently, resulting in a slightly altered narrative, depending on which you view first. The 1925 original (01h:47m:03s) actually runs just over ten minutes longer than the restored version, though the additional footage does not include anything from Chaney.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The 1929 restored version, from a 35mm print, has been issued in a 1.7 wide to 1.0 high aspect ratio, resulting in a very narrow black border around the presentation. It is not true full-frame (doing so would have cropped the print somewhat), but it comes very close to filling 1.33:1 constraints, regardless. Looking at this film, the first thing you have to remind yourself is that is from 1925 (originally), and the restoration work done by Photoplay Productions is nothing short of amazing. The Technicolor sequence during the masked ball looks especially good, only to be outdone by Erik's flowing Red Death outfit on the roof of the opera house, as he spies on Christine and Raoul. Bear in mind that there are some frame rate issues that render some of the sequences (the opening ballet performance) a bit blurry, and of course there are some obvious age-related flickers and flaws that are seemingly unavoidable in a film over 75 years old. Even with its imperfections, this one looks outstanding.

Disc Two has the original 1925 silent release, and this particular print has not had any major restoration work done to it, apparently. Visually comparing this to the 1929 version, the 1925 release is certainly a tougher watch, and the lack of clarity and image detail makes viewing a bit more challenging. More visual defects are evident on this print, and it looks rougher, all the way around, in terms of flicker, nicks and such.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The 1929 restored version sports a 2.0 surround score from Carl Davis, as well as the original 1930 soundtrack (in mono) edited to the match the film. While purists will have to reach for the slightly scratchy sounding original score for proper nostalgic mood setting, but if nothing else you owe it to yourself to also listen to the Davis track. The score fills the rear channels, and the enhanced fidelity and separation really help to sell the high drama.

The 1925 silent version contains a properly majestic 2.0 stereo score by Jon Miralis, but it is noticeably less vibrant than the Carl Davis score used on the 1929 release.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 53 cues and remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Scott MacQueen
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Still Gallery
Extras Review: Disc One houses the 1929 version, as well as a handful of other extras, including a commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen. And man, oh man, that headful of knowledge MacQueen doesn't just give a commentary, he teaches a whole damn class. Much like his fact-filled dissertation on Universal's The Bride of Frankenstein DVD, MacQueen this time around covers every possible kind of obscure and fascinating fact or quote about Chaney, Laemmle, bit players, production crew, set design, color tinting, directing, writing, as well as an in-depth discussion on the various edits done between the 1925 and 1929 versions. This track is laden with names, dates, and recollections, and while maybe not the most mass appeal commentary out there, it is certainly one of the most bluntly informative. Great stuff.

The Stills Gallery is literally jam-packed with assorted images, broken down into a whopping ten sections (Los Angeles Premier Version, San Francisco Premier Version, Posters and Lobby Cards, Promotion, Press Kit, The Phantom Stage, Publicity Portraits, Backstage Stills, Concept Art, Publishing). The Los Angeles and San Francisco segments manage to reconstruct two brief deleted and/or missing scenes via a series of still images. A bonus audio-only extra collects nine lost dialogue sequences from the 1930 version that are not found on the restored version.

Rounding things out on Disc One are a pair of trailers (one each for the 1925 and 1929 releases).

Disc Two, in addition to the 1925 print, contains Carla Laemmle Remembers (06m:14s), a 2003 interview in which the niece of Carl recalls her involvement on The Phantom of the Opera, and sheds a little light on Uncle Carl's roots. The interview is conducted by film historian (and solid commentator in his own right) David J. Skal, and ends with a shot of young Carla as the lead ballerina from Phantom, morphing into a shot of her today recreating the pose.

Also on the second disc is an audio interview of Charles Van Enger ASC, Phantom's cameraman, conducted by Richard Koszarski, and dates back from July 29, 1973. Van Enger is very open and not particularly reluctant to voice his opinion and memories, making this audio track a must-listen for fans of Chaney, as well as The Phantom of the Opera. Some of the content gets covered by MacQueen in his commentary, but it is worth a listen from the man himself.

For added educational fulfillment there is an opera extract of Faust (09m:57s) from the 1929 Tiffany sound feature Midstream, a James Flood-directed film starring Ricardo Cortez and Claire Windsor. Faust, of course, is the opera that is taking place during the story of Phantom.

The 1929 feature on Disc 1 is cut into 24 chapters, and the slightly longer 1925 version on Disc 2 clocks in with 29 chapters.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

If ever there was an actor who owned a film outright, it has to be Lon Chaney as the tormented Erik in The Phantom of the Opera. Without him, this is a high-handed bit of cinematic melodrama from filmmaking's early days; with him, it becomes a fascinating character piece that easily transcends the decades since it was made.

This smart two-disc set from Image collects a beautifully restored 1929 sound version, in addition to the original 1925 silent version. Film historian Scott MacQueen supplies a thesis-worth of content on the accompanying commentary, making this a required purchase for not just genre fans, but fans of film in general.

Ultimate Edition? You bet it is.

Highly recommended.

 


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