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|Phantom of the Opera, The (1925)
by Scott Weinberg
The following is not so much a traditional movie review (as I'm woefully undereducated in regards to Hollywood's Silent Era), but a soup-to-nuts look at the superlative new 2-disc DVD set released by Milestone Films.Film scholars and those fascinated by some of the oldest movies still left in existence should sit up and take note: this Special Edition is like a fascinating museum exhibition stored on two shiny discs - and it's one of the finest representations of classic silent cinema yet to be produced for DVD. If I didn't know any better, I'd assume this set had the Criterion Collection stamp on it somewhere...and that's just about the highest praise a DVD release can earn.
"A very old classic presented via very modern means."
Everyone remembers the horrific "unmasking" scene from the 1925 adaptation of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera; indeed most who've seen the sequence have seen it only as an excerpt and not part of the film as a whole. Even where the true classics are concerned, the Silent Film has not endured a whole lot of popularity over the years. Chalk it up to muddy presentations, outdated sensibilities or the general inaccessibility of films over 80 years in age - but there hasn't been much reason to get excited over the old-school silent films.
Until the introduction of the DVD, that is. While the Hollywood studios are generally content to regurgitate last year's blockbusters onto the Best Buy shelves, a few "high-end" outfits have been utilizing the DVD's technological marvels to unearth some of Hollywood's most infuential films. Usually it's the aforementioned Criterion Collection that earns the most praise from hardcore movie maniacs, but they're not the only company focused on bringing Hollywood's past glories back to digital life.
Although their restoration of The Phantom of the Opera marks my first introduction to Milestone, only a cursory glance through their website will illustrate their devotion to the classics, the avant-garde, the obscure and the eclectic.
And while clicking through their most recent release, it becomes instantly clear that a stunning amount of care and craftsmanship go into their productions.
The movie at hand seems almost secondary to the startling amount of supplementary and archival material that's been packed onto the two discs.
Disc 1 delivers the 'Restored' version of the film, which was released four years after the original silent edition. The 1925 release was a traditionally silent film; the musical score was the sole aural accompaniment. The 1929 version includes a soundtrack full of (clearly audible yet somewhat muffled) dialogue (usually delivered over the still-remaining 'dialogue cards' that appear throughout) and sound effects.
One can choose between the 1929 'synchronized soundtrack' or original orchestral score by Carl Davis. The third audio track consists of an audio commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, which is just about as addicitively fascinating as an audio commentary can be. MacQueen starts out explaining the differences between the five (!) different incarnations of the film and offering a few of the inspirations of Leroux's source material...and for the next 90 minutes, film school is in! Fans of the movie will of course devour MacQueen's commentary - though I suspect that just about any curious movie fan will find this audio track both elucidating and hypnotic.
In addition to the film and the trio of audio options, Disc 1 also features a host of special features: theatrical trailers for both the 1925 release and the 1929 reissue, several audio-only dialogue sequences recorded for the re-release, and a resoundingly expansive stills gallery that offers up a brilliant amount of archival material: stills from the Los Angeles and San Francisco premieres, reels of promotional material, glimpses of scenes both deleted and missing, several posters and lobby cards, a look at the original press kit, photographs of the opera stage during construction, backstage snapshots, publicity portraits, early concept art and even a collection of cover art and illustrations from various renditions of Leroux's novel!
And that's just Disc 1!
Switch to the second disc and you can compare the original 1925 version to the "audio-inclusive" edition that was to follow. Though purists may scoff, the 1929 version seems preferable in most respects - but the most important thing is this: both versions were included and both are now forever frozen in flawless form. (Well, not flawless, but if you can find a 1925 film that looks better than this, please let me know what it is.)
Though most of the special features are to be found on disc 1, there are still a trio of worthwhile goodies to be found on the second platter: an interview with Carla Laemmle (niece of legendary Hollywood Honcho Carl Laemmle) brings some old-school Tinseltown anecdotes as she reminsices on her part in the film; an excerpt from "Faust" restored from the 1929 film Midstream; and an audio discussion from 1973 between interviewer Richard Koszarski and Phantom cinematographer Charles Van Enger.
As far as the technical end goes, I'll cede to the back of the DVD cover, which clearly indicates the care given to the restoration: "Using the best 35mm print of the 1929 reissue...as well as additional material from UCLA Film and Television Archive, Photoplay Productions created the finest existing version of the film, featuring a magnificent orchestral score by composer Carl Davis. The Photoplay team was also able to restore the stunning Technicolor bal masque sequence and has painstakingly re-created the Handschiegl color process used in the famous "Apollo's Lyre" scene on the roof of the opera."
Oh, and the DVD cover is a rendition of original poster art. A terribly minor thing, but something always worthy of praise.
As you dig through both discs full of history, you'll begin to hear a lot of familiar notes: The producers thought it was too long so they chopped it up in an effort to make it more fan-friendly. Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame was a big success, which sped "Phantom" into production. The movie was delayed several times and was feared to be in big trouble.
In other words, the same exact things we hear about movies today. Listening to the director of My Boss's Daughter explain why his film was delayed and beset with set problems might not be all that compelling, but when you learn that even the earliest of productions suffered these sorts of maladies, it lends a fresh perspective to a movie that's almost 100 years old.
So keep it up I say. To the Criterions and the Milestones (and also Image Entertainment for distributing!) we should offer high praise and much respect. This wondrous 2-disc set may not cause a stampede to Wal-Mart like the "Special Edition" of Daddy Day Care inevitably will, but a legion of passionate film freaks (both present and future) certainly appreciate what you have to offer.Watch it just as a "movie" and "The Phantom of the Opera" may seem dry and dull and more than a little outmoded. Watch it as a piece of cinematic history and you'll find yourself captivated. The new facelift and the truckload of supplementary materials serve to keep the film both timeless and accessible - while affording a true classic of the Silent Era the immortal respect it certainly deserves.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=6985&reviewer=128
originally posted: 09/25/03 12:39:12
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