Film

 

 

 

 

 

THE IMPOSTERS

 

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Rupert Julian’s classic 1925 silent film


The Phantom of the Opera

 


With simultaneously live performance of Carl Davis’s specially composed score by the Philharmonia Orchestra


Carl Davis Conductor


Music by Carl Davis


Royal Festival Hall


March 27, 2011

 

 

Classic films when screened with simultaneous live musical accompaniment are sheer delight for film buffs and music aficionados alike. But Rupert Julian’s silent film, The Phantom of the Opera occupies a singular place in the horror and filmic firmament. Here, Lon Chaney, aka ‘man of a thousand faces’ weaves his own brand of magic via emotive movements and horrific makeup, rendering the phantom a figure of terror and, pity, as Boris Karloff’s multi-layered performance as Frankenstein in James Whale’s  1931 film would later do. In Gustav Leroux’s original 1910 tale of the Phantom, we feel for Erik, as he was once known, who has been horribly scarred by a fire and subsequently self-exiled in the abandoned dungeons below Paris Opera House sans love. Despite Chaney’s natural skills as a mime, (both parents were deaf), in Julian’s film the limitations of silent acting, (especially as Chaney’s face is masked in most scenes) occasionally tend to inhibit empathy with all but his terrified captive, Christine, played with hand clenched earnestness by Mary Philibin, whose last public appearance was, allegedly, at the L.A. opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera in 1993.

Carl Davis is well known for his filmic scores, among them, over 50 for silent films, triggering a great revival of interest in the genre, with his seminal score for The Phantom of the Opera being the first such silent film accompanying music ever to be conducted for a screening at the Royal Opera House. That comes as no surprise, as in this case, the composer’s work flows so seamlessly along with the action that it moves easily between scenes of operatic performance, revelry, horror and romance, with Davis’ zestful conducting belying his enjoyment of the project.  His music is so in synch with the film that even the opera within the melodrama takes place without missing a beat right down to the eerily accompanied shadow of the Phantom making his way back down to his under opera world.

The film’s text advises us from the outset to beware of the opera ghost, a notion that promises chills, as the scene shifts to the interior of the cavernous opera house where elegantly dressed patrons move to their seats and a bevy of female ballet dancers begin their twirling dance. Notable for the time are the modest, knee length tutus, finger-waved bobs and darkened lips. Backstage afterwards, talk of the ‘phantom’ frightens the ballet girls, who go to stagehand Joseph Buquet who’s actually seen him, but unhelpfully, describes him as, ‘a grinning skull…with ghastly bead like eyes.’

Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe) a tall dark mysterious man in a fur Persian hat and black eyeliner, whose searing eyes stare into those of Christine’s beau - waxed moustached Raoul de Changny (Norman Kerrry) seems to be in league with the Phantom through most of the film, but in a bemusing twist, at just the right moment he reveals that he’s really a policeman who’s been pursing him for years. In true fairytale fashion, with a heap of Hollywood thrown in, Raoul must undergo many trials if he’s to win his Christine. Although director Rupert Julian wished to remain as faithful to the novel as possible, when a preview audience did not take well to the story’s original Beauty and the Beast inspired ending, a more cliff-hanging, murderous one was enacted to replace it in the film.

A tragic and romantic storyline, enhanced by spectacular set designs, makes it easy to see what drew Lloyd Webber to the Phantom, though this tale is first and forevermore a part of Hollywood history, thanks in large part to legendary art director Ben Carre, who had once worked at Paris Opera House. It was Carre’s drawings, many from his imagination, which enabled the recreation of the film’s spectacular subterranean sequences; he is now credited with creating what became known as the ‘Hollywood Gothic’ style, a trademark of Universal’s horror films of the 1930’s. In a truely ironic, art imitating life turn of events, the Phantom’s gilded bed, described in the script as ‘a dramatised bed’ was later resurrected for faded screen queen Norman Desmond, played by former real life silent film star Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Phantom's mammoth opera house interior, with its replica chandelier and rooftop statue of Apollo, the first set ever built with on a ‘structural steel framework, like an office building’ still stands, and can be seen today in Universal City.

This lovingly restored version of the film is tri-coloured in a sense, with black and white for seemingly everyday scenes, a blue cast over moments of romance as if to foreshadow the difficulties therein, and sepia tinged with Technicolor for more kaleidoscopic and/or cryptic scenarios. The pinacle being the Phantom’s stare generating appearance as the Masque of the Red Death at the Opera masked ball and his blood red cape billowing out behind him as he oversees the otherwise blue tinted clandestine meeting between Christine and Raoul on the rooftop of the Opera House.

Resounding applause rightfully greeted conductor Davis and the Philharmonia at the conclusion of the film as ‘Finis’ graced the screen, after I, along with many in the audience, had chuckled with delight at one scene after another which had frightened us no end as children. Still, thanks to the atmospheric artistry of film and live score combined, as we left, the air retained a lingering chill.

The next cinematic event to grace the Royal Festival Hall will be Stanley Kubrick's epic Sci-Fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Philharmonia Voices, which will take place on Thurs. Apr. 7th and Fri. Apr. 8th (7pm) as part of the Southbank Centre's annual Ether Festival.

 

www.philharmonia.co.uk/phantom

http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk


Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
London
SE1 8XX

 

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