Wednesday, October 23, 2013


A long-standing Halloween tradition on the University of Texas campus was the annual autumnal screening of the legendary silent horror film THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). This Universal Studios production was a mammoth undertaking sporting immense sets, Norman Kerry, Mary Philbin  and, as the poster pictured here says, a cast of 5000 others. Oh, and one other very important player.

The great Lon Chaney starred as Erik, the haunted Phantom of the Paris Opera House in a role that brought the supremely talented Chaney his greatest measure of cinematic immortality. Chaney's performance is full of both menace and pathos and the unmasking scene in which Erik's true face is revealed remains one of the single greatest moments in the cinema of the fantastic. Chaney's make-up creation is nothing short of incredible and his skull-faced visage still retains the power to shock and disturb.

My father used to tell  me about the time he and his brother went to see THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA as a first-run film in a movie palace in downtown Cleveland, Ohio (he grew up in Euclid, just outside of Cleveland). He told me that the moment when Mary Philbin ripped the mask off of Chaney to reveal his face was the scariest thing he had ever seen. According to him, he and his brother literally got under their seats and remained there until the movie was over. That was a mistake because by the time the film was over, night had fallen and they had to walk home in the dark, both of them terrified out of their wits by what they had just seen.

At least, that's the story he told me before he died in 1965. I have no way to confirm this tale but it has the ring of veracity to it and it's a story told by a father to a son that I cherish and one that I will believe to my dying day.

I grew up knowing about THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA thanks to my dad and Forry Ackerman. I read about the film in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS and I bought and built the Aurora plastic model kit of the Phantom. I saw the Hammer Studios version of PHANTOM starring the great Herbert Lom but I went for many, many years without seeing the Chaney version.

Several years ago, Judy and I attended the annual Halloween screening of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on the UT campus. The film was shown in the Bass Recital Hall which is home to an enormous pipe organ. The screening of the film was accompanied by an organist playing the huge instrument. What could be better than a classic silent horror film with live musical accompaniment?

What could be worse was the fact that the print of the film was in horrible condition. It was full of splices and badly scratched and looked as if it had been roller skated upon. This was definitely not a restored print. It was a cheap 16mm version that had been around for who knows how many years and was probably the same one UT rented and showed every year.

To make matters worse, the organist didn't play music that was written for the film, nor did he play music that was appropriate to the film. Instead, he "mickey moused" it up, playing cute little "funny" cues, tunes and themes. When something that modern day audiences might find amusing happened on the screen, he underscored the action with music that encouraged people to laugh at how silly those old time silent movie actors looked and acted.

In short, it was an absolute abomination. The trouble is, Judy and I were probably the only people in the concert hall that were appalled by the desecration of the film. The audience roared with laughter and everyone seemed to enjoy this delightfully "camp" experience. Not us, especially not me.

I would have dearly loved to have seen a pristine fully restored (with hand-tinted color sequences) print of PHANTOM with either an organist or full orchestra playing the original film score or something that was much more in keeping with the times in which the film was made. What I got was one of the most unpleasant movie-going experiences I've ever had.

 Come to think of it, my dad and his brother had the right idea.

 I should have gotten under my seat.

And stayed there.

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