Phantom of the Opera (1925) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
The thought of centering a pre-sound era movie around something as sound-dependent as opera music may seem counterintuitive to the uninitiated, but the vivid expressionism and opulent theatricality on display in the original 1925/1929 Phantom of the Opera is enough to make you believe you can hear every note and nuance of the symphony. Painfully cobbled together from the efforts of at least four different directors – Rupert Julian (credited), Edward Sedgwick (director of Fantômas, 1920), Ernst Laemmle, and star Lon Chaney, himself – the first and still best adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel remains a haunting masterpiece a solid ninety years after its initial release. The catacombs and stages of the central opera house are awe-inspiring works of industrial art that are then beautifully rescuplted with graphic lighting by a small army of cinematographers, including Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, and Charles Van Enger (note that they are the men credited for their work and that it’s very possible others contributed as well). Like its silent horror contemporaries, The Phantom of the Opera’s ability to chill an audience has endured. As sound, color, digital special effects, and other waves of modern filmmaking roll by, pop culture has matured to a point that the once ridiculed antiquity feels oddly contemporary. These ninety year-old images have the power of legend burning behind them, like a ghost story around the sepia-tone campfire.
This is, I believe, the third Blu-ray release of The Phantom of the Opera, following a very similar, but now OOP version from Image Entertainment and a UK version via the British Film Institute. There are some key differences. The first disc features the 1929 theatrical release version (78 minutes) in two “historically accurate” projection speeds – 24fps or 20fps (this is not an option on the BFI Blu-ray or the Image disc, but was on an earlier UK DVD from Park Circus). I choose to watch the film in its entirety at 24fps for this review, then I did a spot check on the 20fps version, which appears to have been culled from the exact same print (the 20fps version is a bit jittery, of course, but doesn’t have the 24fps version’s problems with speed-up). According to specs, this 1080p, 1.33:1 was restored from archival 35mm elements by Film Preservation Associates. There is, of course, print damage. Hair and chunks of dirt twiddle into the gate, the frames shiver (causing the edges of the film itself to creep into the edges of the frame), grain is prevalent, and every inch of the transfer is lined with fine scratches. There are also a handful of sequences (Christine waking up in the Phantom’s lair, for example) that sport some pretty extensive water/mold damage. Yet, the increase in clarity is lightyears ahead of DVD and streaming versions I’ve seen. Textures and complex patterns show no signs of over-sharpening or aliasing and previously obscured deep-set details are sometimes as clear as a newly-minted 35mm production.
The Phantom of the Opera is often mistakenly listed as a black & white film when, like many films of the silent era, it was chemically tinted for mood. There are a wide assortment of hues used throughout the production, including the typical sepia, searing reds, glowing oranges, oddly minty greens, and chilling blues. These hues are reportedly all based on the tinting specifications that still exist somewhere within Universal Studios’ vault. The Phantom of the Opera also famously included some ‘full’ color sequences/shots. Of these, only the Process 2 Technicolor* Bal Masqué sequence survived. The Process 2 color could not produce true blues, but was good with reds, which are quite brilliant, despite the general fuzziness of the other hues. Originally, a couple of scenes added a splash of red, blue, or orange using the Handschiegl Color Process (a complicated chemical process that involved opaque paints, alternate prints, and stencils). None of the actual Handschiegl shots still exist and their effect has been occasional recreated (the Phantom’s red cape and the fire effect, for example). The promotional specs vaguely state that the process was replicated with hand-coloring techniques, but, based on other releases (and statements made on this collection’s recycled commentary track), I assume Kino has reused Photoplay Production’s 1996 computer-assisted colour restoration. Do note that there are a number of purposefully blurry images throughout the movie.
Disc two includes the longer 1925 cut of the film and the footage is in much rougher shape. Apparently, this print has a long and storied past on digital media. I will admit that I am confused by a number of conflicting reports concerning its history. Apparently, it is the same one that appeared on the Image release, as well as the BFI Blu-ray/DVD set (though I’ve also read the the BFI version was only available in black & white…) and was culled from the only known existing print, which is, unfortunately, an inferior 16mm print. Though this is technically an HD-coded transfer, the image quality isn’t much better than SD versions. I assume that the fabled 16mm negative was not rescanned; rather, the old footage was upconverted. It’s important to note that this cut of the film, which includes much more plot and character development, includes alternate takes of some scenes and doesn’t feature all of the shots seen in the shorter version. This made it difficult to gather matching screen caps, so I’ve only included a couple to illustrate the softer details, more extensive print damage, and flatter contrast – as well as the completely different color-timing. As you can see, not only was the majority of the longer cut untinted, but the few tinted scenes are often stained completely different colors. There is also no full-color version of the Bai Masqué sequence here. Note that the Image disc has not upscaled this cut.
* Process 2 Technicolor is a two-color system that predated the more reliable three-strip process. Instead of shooting two separate negatives, the two hues were shot on alternating frames of the same single strip of film. Rumors state that Technicolor rival, Prizmacolor might have been used for some of the lost footage.
The Phantom of the Opera is silent, but was meant to be set to music. As a novice in regards to the film’s musical history, I was surprised (perhaps naively so) to discover that there doesn’t seem to be any ‘official’ score. Imdb.com specs credit Gustav Hinrichs with the compositions used during the 1925 New York premiere and Joseph Carl Breil (who wrote music for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Intolerance) with the compositions used during the 1925 San Francisco premiere. A number of other songsmiths are credited with different interpretations throughout the years – one of which is Gabriel Thibaudeau, whose 1990 orchestration seem to have become the closest thing to a standard for home video versions. Thibaudeau’s rich and theatrical music is used for the 20fps transfer and presented in LPCM 2.0 sound. The 24fps transfer includes two more LPCM 2.0 tracks – one composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra (Roger Miller, Ken Winokur, and Terry Donahue) and the other a theatre organ score arranged and composed by Gaylord Carter. The Alloy Orchestra track is livelier and arguably more screen appropriate than the more buoyant organ version, but the digital instrumentations are slightly off-putting. I’m sure the cost of an orchestra was prohibitive for a Blu-ray re-release, so, given the necessity of limitations, we can appreciate the dynamic range of these keyboard-infused tracks, as well as their warm bass presence. On the whole, I’d still go with the Thibaudeau music (I seriously doubt the difference between frame rates will bother most viewers). It’s unfortunate that Kino (like Image before them) didn’t include the historically accurate synchronized sound effects found on the Milestone Film & Video DVD release.
The 1925 extended cut also includes an LPCM 2.0 track and superior score arranged and performed by pianist Frederick Hodges. The subpar video quality has no effect on this separately recorded, much newer track.
Commentary by film historian Jon C. Mirsalis – This expert commentary first appeared on Milestone Film’s American DVD release. Mirsalis’s track is heavy and full of enough information to be a little overwhelming, but this isn’t really a problem. In fact, it’s a good excuse to listen to it a second time. He covers just about every inch of the production, from the personal lives of the cast and crew to the complexities of Universal Studios’ film preservation practices. His greatest expertise revolves around Lon Chaney’s life and work, so the track doubles as a Cliff’s Notes version of the actor’s biography
Excerpts of the 1930 sound version (54:00, HD) – Five years after its premiere, Universal re-released the film with a synchronized ‘sound-on-disc’ track that included music, effects, and newly-filmed dialogue scenes. This supplemental feature includes all of the surviving music/effects, which are placed over the pertinent footage from the shorter cut. Only nine minutes of the re-recorded dialogue footage exists (it is presented in black & white, rather than sepia), so there are a number of ‘Footage Missing’ title cards. The audio itself is crackly and poppy, but most of the relevant dialogue is discernible. This is not available on the Image release.
Original Screenplay (1:31:00) – A feature-length scroll of the script set to very dramatic music.
Interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau (10:30, SD) – The Montreal-based songwriter discusses his popular silent film compositions and live piano performances in this vintage PBS featurette.
Burton Holmes Travel Pictures – Two French travelogs from 1925, set to Tin Pan Alley and opera music: Paris From a Motor (3:20, HD), A Trip on the Seine (3:30, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and DVD, then sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.