When the script for The Phantom of the Opera landed in the lap of director Rupert Julian, his first reaction to the notion of production was – ‘Lon Chaney or it can’t be done’. The tale of a beautiful opera singer groomed by a tortured soul living in the depths of the Paris Opera House began as a classic novel and endured film adaptions until finally materialising into a renowned musical scored by Andrew Lloyd Webber. However, the romanticism of a half masked, half-angel, half-demon was not the incarnation Chaney embodied. In the hands of the make-up maestro, the Phantom is a horrifying creation and solidified as a diabolical villain as iconic as figures from The Mummy to Dracula.
‘Don’t step on it; it might be Lon Chaney’. A popular joke of the time poking fun at the impressive make-up skills of the actor which led to the nickname The Man With A Thousand Faces. In this piece, Chaney’s idiosyncratic and self applied exterior was tested on cinematographer Van Enger. He was invited to Chaney’s dressing room without reason and fell flat on his back in horror as Chaney dramatically turned to face him in full Phantom costume. Van Enger yelled in anger to the laughter of Chaney who spit out his grotesque teeth and said ‘Never mind Charlie, you already told me what I wanted to know’.
The results were as powerful in the premier where the make-up was hidden from publicity until the grisly reveal at the hands of the naive Christine Daae (Mary Philbin). The object of desire fainting dead away after a glimpse at her captor’s true face was the consensual reaction of many women in the audience of the time and remains a shocking marvel of make-up today. Chaney’s Phantom is no half handsome hero, he is a skull with staring eyes in blackened sockets, a grinning mouth with warped teeth and rotting skin. This gruesome skull like facade was achieved by placing egg membranes on his eyes to appear cloudy, gluing fish skin pulled back over his nostrils to warp the angle, ears secured back, cheeks padded with cotton wool, and detailed shading to heighten the concave aspects of his own face. The application is horrific, the appearance even more so.
Chaney’s creations are known for grotesque appearances with an undercurrent of pathos. The Phantom may be hideous, but his fate was secured by the ‘hatred’ of men. Born to deaf-mute parents, Chaney learnt the important of expressiveness with the hands and it is an attribute which brings his characters to life, even when buried under a ton of make-up. The Phantom reaches out to his beloved beneath a crude mask and the static face seems to crumble into pain as she initially recoils. Chaney’s movements are full of pain and dashed hopes which transform a cardboard villain of the slasher variety into a broken human being. Even the true, repugnant face of the Phantom is capricious, swinging wildly from murderous hatred to self pitying pain as he observes the young lovers from the roof top of the opera house. Chaney is an excellent villain, terrifying the pitchfork and torch carrying mob to a standstill simply by raising an empty hand, but he is also a heart wrenching example of the damaging effects of prejudice.
The star is so absorbing it is easy to neglect the many other merits of the picture. It is a dream production of a nightmare. The cinematography is intelligent as Van Enger subtly influences our feelings towards the Phantom with extreme lighting and low angles of terror and the pitying soft lighting in moments of hope for reciprocation of love. Detailed is a staple catalogue of rules for the abundance of horror movies to follow. Enger effortlessly basks in the glow of the lavish world of the elite and the macabre expanse of the Phantom’s subterranean lair. The set are of incredible detail and Enger dives into the world with a sense of nervous exploration of underground moats behind hidden doorways. Rupert Julian’s grand vision is truly extraordinary as he unfurls a colossal playground for the devious villain to hang victims and crash chandeliers into audiences.
The opera house was one of the largest set constructions for thousands of extras. Built in 1925 on Stage 28 of the Universal Lot, it remained in place until finally demolished in 2014. Although serving many great films after its initial purpose, including The Raven and Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, there is a stranger reason for such a delayed deconstruction. It was said that whenever crews attempted to dismantle the construction, a terrible accident occurred at the hands of the ghost of Lon Chaney. The master of disguise with a thousand faces of the macabre and evil had finally earned a ghoulish reputation for the true face beneath the facades.
Re-issued years later with sound and remade with countless alternative takes, the operatic demon is at his best in the world of silence.
Classic Moment …
The Masquerade bursts with the jubilant life of jesters, kings, queens, belles and gentlemen revelling in the anonymity and lavish excitement. Slowly, the rejoicing halts. The Red Death, cloaked in a crimson cape brandishing a grinning skull for a face, commands attention. Beneath is a man just as hideous and malicious as the attire. A sequence presented in full technicolour, it commands attention and awe for a powerfully strange and talented being such as Chaney.