Many of the iconic scenes from the silent era which still hold power in the minds of the general public are from the silent comics. Some that come to mind are Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in Safety Last; Buster Keaton riding the cowcatcher in The General; and Charlie Chaplin maneuvering through the gears, and later walking off into the sunset at the closing of Modern Times.
There are fewer enduring images from silent dramas, but they do exist. One such scene comes in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, which celebrates the 85th anniversary of its general release today. The scene I refer to is the one where the disfigured face of the Phantom, played by Lon Chaney, is revealed for the first time.
The Phantom of the Opera takes place in the Paris Opera House where a mysterious masked “Phantom” calls on the owners to replace the prima donna with Christine, the understudy. When they refuse, the Phantom crashes a chandelier, killing several members of the audience. Later, the Phantom whisks Christine away to his lair deep within the catacombs beneath the opera house, where he holds her captive in the vain hope of winning her love. It is here that Christine, overcome by curiosity, tears off the mask of the Phantom, revealing his scarred and disfigured face. Later the Phantom appears to the citizens of Paris in the costume of the Red Death at a masked ball. This primative Technicolor sequence was one of the first significant displays of color in a major motion picture.
The story of The Phantom of the Opera is so pervasive in the world’s collective unconscious that it’s tempting to believe that it’s an ancient story. If fact, it’s less than a hundred-years-old. It’s based on a novel written in 1911 by Frenchman Gaston Leroux.
When Universal came to make their version of Phantom they chose forty-two-year old Lon Chaney for the lead. Chaney was fresh off the hit The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where he played Quasimodo, another deformed character that is motivated by unrequited love.
Chaney learned his pantomime skills from interacting with his parents, who were both deaf. He began a career in vaudeville as a dancer, singer, and comedian in 1902. He married a few years later, and the couple had a son, Lon Chaney Jr., who would also carve out a successful Hollywood career in several classic horror films. Chaney Sr. entered films in 1913 after his wife attempted suicide, which ended his marriage as well as his standing on the vaudeville circuit. He acted in dozens of silent films, including one Western with Newhall’s own William S. Hart, before finding his niche in the horror genre.
Chaney’s career was cut short only five years after the release of Phantom due to lung disease. His condition was worsened on the set of the film Thunder by artificial snow made from cornflakes that lodged in his lung causing a fatal infection.
The Phantom of the Opera has reappeared in several forms over the decades, most famously as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s record-setting Broadway musical.
Amazingly, one cast member from the 1925 film is still alive. Carla Laemmle, who played one of the ballerinas in the film, is still going strong at age 101. She was the niece of Universal head Carl Laemmle.
Part of the set of The Phantom of the Opera is also believed to exist in a corner of Stage 28 on the Universal lot. A rumor exists that this “haunted” set injures every workman who tries to dismantle it.