Based on the general release version of 1925, which has additional scenes and sequences in different order than the existing reissue print.
The film opens with the debut of the new season at the Paris Opera House, with a production of Gounod's Faust. Comte Philippe de Chagny (John St. Polis) and his brother, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry) are in attendance. Raoul attends only in the hope of hearing his sweetheart Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) sing. Christine has made a sudden rise from the chorus to understudy of Mme. Carlotta, the prima donna. Raoul visits her in her dressing room during the performance, and makes his intentions known that he wishes for Christine to resign and marry him. Christine refuses to let their relationship get in the way of her career.
At the height of the most prosperous season in the Opera's history, the management suddenly resign. As they leave, they tell the new managers of the Opera Ghost, a phantom who asks for opera box #5, among other things. The new managers laugh it off as a joke, but the old management leaves troubled.
After the performance, the ballerinas are disturbed by the sight of a mysterious man in a fez (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who dwells in the cellars. Arguing whether or not he is the Phantom, they decide to ask Joseph Buquet, a stagehand who has actually seen the ghost's face. Buquet describes a ghastly sight of a living skeleton to the girls, who are then startled by a shadow cast on the wall. The antics of stagehand Florine Papillon (Snitz Edwards) do not amuse Joseph's brother, Simon (Gibson Gowland), who chases him off. Meanwhile, Mme. Carlotta (Virginia Pearson), the prima donna of the Paris Grand Opera, barges into the managers' office enraged. She has received a letter from "The Phantom," demanding that Christine sing the role of Marguerite the following night, threatening dire consequences if his demands are not met. Christine is in her dressing room at that moment, speaking to a phantom voice (which the audience sees as a shadow on a wall behind the dressing room.) The voice warns her that she will take Carlotta's place on Wednesday and that she is to think only of her career and her master.
The following day, in a garden near the Opera House, Raoul meets Christine and asks her to reconsider his offer. Christine admits that she has been tutored by a divine voice, the "Spirit of Music," and that it is now impossible to stop her career. Raoul tells her that he thinks someone is playing a joke on her, and she storms off in anger.
Wednesday evening, Carlotta is ill and Christine takes her place in the opera. During the performance, the managers go to Box 5 to see exactly who has taken it. The keeper of the box does not know who it is, as she has never seen his face. The two managers enter the box and are startled to see a shadowy figure seated there. They run out of the box and compose themselves, but when they enter the box again, the person is gone. In her next performance, Christine reaches her triumph during the finale and receives a standing ovation from the audience. When Raoul visits her in her dressing room, she pretends not to recognize him, because unbeknownst to those in the room, the phantom voice is present. Meanwhile, Simon Buquet finds the body of his brother, Joseph, hanging by the strangler's noose and vows vengeance. Raoul spends the evening outside her door, and after the others have left, just as he is about to enter, he hears the voice within the room. He overhears the voice make his intentions to Christine: "Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and will demand your love!" When Christine leaves her room alone, Raoul breaks in to find it empty. Carlotta receives another discordant note from the Phantom. Once again, it demands that she take ill and let Christine have her part. The managers also get a note, reiterating that if Christine does not sing, they will present "Faust" in a house with a curse on it.
The following evening, despite the Phantom's warnings, a defiant Carlotta appears as Marguerite. At first, the performance goes well, but soon the Phantom's curse takes its effect, backstage, causing the great crystal chandelier to fall down onto the audience. Christine runs to her dressing room and is entranced by a mysterious voice through a secret door behind the mirror, descending, in a dream-like sequence, semi-conscious on horseback by a winding staircase into the lower depths of the Opera. She is then taken by gondola over a subterranean lake by the masked Phantom into his lair. The Phantom introduces himself as Erik and declares his love; Christine faints, so Erik carries her to a suite fabricated for her comfort. The next day, when she awakens, she finds a note from Erik telling her that she is free to come and go as she pleases, but that she must never look behind his mask. In the next room, the Phantom is playing his composition, "Don Juan Triumphant." Christine's curiosity gets the better of her, and she sneaks up behind the Phantom and tears off his mask, revealing his hideously deformed face. Enraged, the Phantom makes his plans to hold her prisoner known. In an attempt to plead to him, he excuses her to visit her world one last time, with the condition that she never sees her lover again.
Released from the underground dungeon, Christine makes a rendezvous at the annual masked-ball, which is graced with the Phantom in the guise of the 'Red-Death' from the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name. Raoul finds Christine and they flee to the roof of the Opera House, where she tells him everything that followed the chandelier crash. However, an unseen jealous Phantom perching on the statue of Apollo overhears them. Raoul plans to whisk Christine safely away to London following the next performance. As they leave the roof, the mysterious man with the fez approaches them. Aware that the Phantom is waiting downstairs, he leads Christine and Raoul to another exit.
The following evening, Raoul meets Christine in her dressing room. She has heard the voice of the Phantom, who has revealed that he knows their plans. Raoul has arranged for a carriage and reassures her nothing will go wrong. During the performance, the Phantom kidnaps Christine off the stage during a blackout. Raoul rushes to Christine's dressing room, and meets the man in the fez, who reveals himself to be Inspector Ledoux, a secret policeman who has been studying Erik's moves as the Phantom since he escaped as a prisoner from Devil's Island. Ledoux reveals the secret door in Christine's room and the two men enter the catacombs of the Opera House in an attempt to rescue Christine. Instead, they fall into the Phantom's dungeon, a torture room of his design. Philippe has also found his way into the catacombs looking for his brother, and a clanging alarm alerts the Phantom to his presence in a canoe on the lake. Phillipe is drowned by Erik, who returns to find the two men in the torture chamber. Turning a switch, the Phantom subjects the two prisoners to intense heat; the two manage to escape the chamber by opening a door in the floor as they are about to perish. In the chamber below, the Phantom shuts a gate, locking them in with barrels full of gunpowder.
The Phantom gives Christine a choice of two levers: one shaped like a scorpion and the other like a grasshopper. One of them will save Raoul's life, but at the cost of Christine marrying Erik, while the other will blow up the barrels in the chamber Raoul and Ledoux are trapped in, in effect destroying the Opera House and killing them all. Christine picks the scorpion, but it is a trick by the Phantom to "save" Raoul and Ledoux from being killed by drowning them. Christine begs the Phantom to save Raoul, promising him anything in return, even becoming his wife. At the last second, the Phantom opens a trapdoor in his floor through which Raoul and Ledoux are saved.
A mob, led by Simon, infiltrates the Phantom's lair. As the clanging alarm sounds and the mob approaches, the Phantom attempts to flee with Christine in the carriage meant for Raoul and Christine. While Raoul saves Christine, the Phantom is pursued and killed by a mob, who throw him into the River Seine to finally drown. In a brief epilogue, Raoul and Christine are shown on their honeymoon in Viroflay.
In 1922, Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Pictures, took a vacation to Paris. During his vacation Laemmle met the author Gaston Leroux who was working in the French film industry. During a conversation they had, Laemmle told Leroux that he admired the Paris Opera House. Leroux gave Laemmle a copy of his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle read the book in one night and bought the film rights as a vehicle for actor Lon Chaney, Sr.. Production started in late 1924 at Universal Studios and did not go smoothly. According to the Director of Photography, Charles Van Enger, throughout the production Chaney and the rest of the cast and crew had strained relations with director Rupert Julian. The first cut of the film was previewed in Los Angeles on January 7 and 26, 1925. The score was prepared by Joseph Carl Breil. No information survives as to what the score consisted of other than Universal's release: "Presented with augmented concert orchestra, playing the score composed by J. Carl Briel, composer of music for "Birth of a Nation". The exact quote from the Opening Day full-page ad in the Call Bulletin read: "Universal Weekly claimed a 60-piece orchestra. Moving Picture World reported that "The music from 'Faust' supplied the music [for the picture]." Due to poor reviews and reactions, the January release was pulled. On advice from Chaney and others, Universal told Julian to re-shoot most of the picture and change the style, as it was feared that a Gothic melodrama would not recoup the film's massive budget. Julian eventually walked out.
Edward Sedgwick (later director of Buster Keaton's 1928 film The Cameraman) was then assigned by producer Carl Laemmle to re-shoot and redirect the bulk of the film. Raymond L. Schrock and original screenwriter Elliot Clawson wrote new scenes at the request of Sedgewick. The film was then changed into more of a romantic comedy with action elements than the dramatic thriller that was originally made. Most of the newly added scenes depicted added subplots, with Chester Conklin and Vola Vale as comedic relief to the heroes and Ward Crane as the Russian, "Count Ruboff" dueling with Raoul for Christine's affection. This version was previewed in San Francisco on April 26, 1925, and did not do well at all, with the audience booing it off of the screen. "The story drags to the point of nauseam", one reviewer stated.
The third and final version was the result of Universal hold-overs Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber, who edited the production down to nine reels. Most of the Sedgwick material was deleted, though notably the ending, with the Phantom being hunted by a mob and then being thrown into the Seine River, remained. Much of the originally deleted Julian was reedited into the picture, though some important scenes and characters were still missing. This version, containing material from both the original 1924 shooting and some from the Sedgwick reworking, was then set to be released. It debuted on September 6, 1925, at the Astor Theatre in New York City. It premiered on October 17, 1925, in Hollywood, California. The score for the Astor opening was to be composed by Professor Gustav Hinrichs. Hinrichs' score was not prepared in time, so instead, according to Universal Weekly, the premiere featured a score by Eugene Conte, composed mainly of "french airs" and the appropriate Faust cues. No expense was spared at the premiere; Universal even had a full organ installed at the Astor for the event. (As it was a legitimate house, the Astor theater used an orchestra, not an organ, for its music.)
Following the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, Chaney was once again given the freedom to create his own make-up as the Phantom, a habit which became almost as famous as the films he starred in. Chaney painted his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom. When audiences first saw The Phantom of the Opera, they were said to have screamed or fainted at the scene where Christine pulls the concealing mask away, revealing his skull-like features to the audience.
Chaney's appearance as the Phantom in the film has been the most accurate depiction of the title character based on the description given in the novel, where the Phantom is described as having a skull-like face with a few wisps of black hair on top of his head. As in the novel, Chaney's Phantom has been deformed since birth, rather than having been disfigured by acid or fire, as in later adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera.
Carl Laemmle commissioned the construction of a set of the Paris Opera House. Because it would have to support thousands of extras, the set became the first to be created with steel girders set in concrete. For this reason it was not dismantled until 2014. Stage 28 on the Universal Studios lot still contained portions of the opera house set and was the oldest surviving structure built specifically for a movie in the world until its demolition in 2014 and had been used in hundreds of movies and TV series. In 2014 the Paris Opera House set went through a preservation effort and was placed into storage in preparation for the demolition of Stage 28, which was completely demolished on September 23, 2014.
Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times gave The Phantom of the Opera a positive review as a spectacle picture, but felt that the story and acting may have been slightly improved. TIME praised the sets but felt the picture was "only pretty good".
Despite the production problems, the film was a success at the box office, grossing over $2 million.
After the successful introduction of sound pictures during the 1928–29 movie season, Universal announced that they had secured the rights to a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera from the Gaston Leroux estate. Entitled The Return of the Phantom, the picture would be in sound and color. Universal could not use Chaney in the film as he was now under contract at MGM, and unbeknownst to the studio, Chaney was already sick from throat cancer, the disease which would ultimately kill him the following year.
Universal scrapped the sequel idea, and instead opted to re-issue The Phantom of the Opera with a new synchronized score and effects track, as well as new dialog sequences. Directors Ernst Laemmle and Frank McCormick re-shot a little less than half of the picture in sound during August 1929, while the remainder of the film was scored with music and sound effects, with music arranged by Joseph Cherniavsky. Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry reenacted their roles for the sound re-shoot, and Edward Martindel, George B. Williams, Phillips Smalley, Ray Holderness, and Edward Davis added to the cast to replace actors who were unavailable. Universal was contractually unable to loop Chaney's dialogue, but "third person" dialogue by the Phantom was looped over shots of his shadow. (The voice-overs are uncredited, but are probably Phillips Smalley.) Because Chaney's talkie debut was eagerly anticipated by film-goers, advertisements emphasized, "Lon Chaney's portrayal is a silent one!"
The sound version of Phantom opened on February 16, 1930, and grossed another million dollars. This re-issue of the film is lost, although the soundtrack discs survive.
The success of The Phantom of the Opera inspired Universal to finance the production of a long string of horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy as well as the numerous sequels of all five franchises. Many of the films are now considered studio classics.
Although this particular adaptation is often considered perhaps the most faithful, it contains some significant plot differences to the original novel.
In the movie, M. Debienne and M. Poligny transfer ownership of the opera to M. Montcharmin and M. Richard, while in the novel they are simply the old and new managers.
The character of Ledoux is not a mysterious Persian and is no longer a onetime acquaintance of the Phantom; he is now a French detective of the Secret Police. This character change was not originally scripted. It was a change made entirely during the title-card editing process.
The Phantom no longer has a history of having studied in Persia. Rather, he is an escapee from Devil's Island, who is an expert in "the Black Arts."
The filmmakers initially intended to preserve the original ending of the novel, and filmed scenes where the Phantom dies of a broken heart at his organ after Christine leaves his lair. There was also a short scene showing Christine and Raoul on a honeymoon. Because of the preview audience's poor reaction, the studio decided to change the ending to a more exciting one. As a result, utility director Edward Sedgwick was hired to provide the climactic chase scene, with an alternate ending where the Phantom, after having saved Ledoux and Raoul, kidnaps Christine in Raoul's carriage. He is hunted down and cornered by an angry mob, beaten to death and thrown into the Seine.
The finest quality print of the film existing was struck from an original camera negative for George Eastman House in the early 1950s by Universal Pictures. The original 1925 version survives only in 16mm "Show-At-Home" prints created by Universal for home movie use in the 1930s. There are several versions of these prints, but none is complete. All are from the original, domestic camera negative.
Because of the better quality of the Eastman House print, many home video releases have opted to use this as the basis of their transfers. This version has singer Mary Fabian in the role of "Carlotta". In the re-edited version, Virginia Pearson, who played "Carlotta" in the 1925 film, is credited and referred to as "Carlotta's Mother" instead. The majority of silent footage in the 1930 version is actually from a second camera, used to photograph the film for foreign markets and second negatives- careful examination of the two versions shows similar shots are slightly askew in composition. In 2009, ReelClassicDvd issued a special edition multi-disc DVD set which included a match-shot, side-by-side comparison between the two versions, editing the 1925 show-at-home print's narrative and continuity to match the Eastman House print.
For the 2003 Image Entertainment/Photoplay Productions two-disc DVD, the 1930 soundtrack has been re-edited in an attempt to fit the Eastman House print as best as possible. However, there are some problems with this attempt: There is no corresponding "man with lantern" sequence on the sound discs. While the purely silent "music and effect" reels seem to follow the discs fairly closely, the scenes with speech (which at one point constituted about 60% of the film) are generally shorter than their corresponding sequences on the discs. Also, since the sound discs were meant for a projection speed of 24 frames per second (the established speed for sound film), and the film on the DVD is presented at a slower frame rate (to reproduce natural speed), the soundtrack as edited has been altered to run slower. A sound reissue trailer included for the first time on the DVD runs at sound speed with the audio running at the correct pitch.
On November 1, 2011, Image Entertainment released a new Blu-ray Disc version of Phantom, produced by Film Preservation Associates, the film preservation company owned by David Shepard.
On January 10, 2012, Shadowland Productions released the Phantom of the Opera: Angel of Music Edition, a two-disc DVD set featuring a newly recorded dialogue track with sound effects and original musical score. The film was also re-edited, combining elements from the 1925 version with the 1929 re-release. A 3D anaglyph version was included as an additional special feature.
No one knows for sure what the negative used to strike the Eastman House print was produced for, due to footage from the 1930 re-issue placed in it and its lack of wear or damage.
To add to the confusion, an opening prologue of a man with a lantern has been added, using a single continuous take, but no title cards or dialogue survives. It would seem that this shot was a talking sequence, but it shows up in the original 1925 version, this time truncated and with a different, close-up shot of the man with the lantern. To further confuse the issue of the 1930 re-issue, the opening title sequence, the lantern man, and the footage of Mary Fabian performing as Carlotta and Mary Philbin's opera performances are photographed at 24 frames per second (sound speed), and therefore are all new footage. It is possible that the 'lantern man' is meant to be Joseph Buquet, but the brief, remaining close-up footage of the character from the 1925 version does not appear to be Bernard Siegel, who plays Buquet. The man who appears in the re-shot footage could also be a different actor, but since there is no close-up of the man in this version, and the atmospheric lighting partially obscures his face, it is difficult to be certain.
While it was common practice to simultaneously shoot footage for prints designed for both domestic and foreign markets with multiple cameras, the film is one of few to survive with footage of both versions available (others include Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr. and Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush). Comparisons of both versions (in both black & white and color footage) yield:
- Footage of most of the same scenes shot from slightly different angles
- Different takes for similar scenes
- 24fps sound scenes replacing silent scene footage
- Variations in many re-written dialogue and exposition cards in the same font
Several possibilities regarding the negative's origins are:
- It is an "International Sound Version" for foreign markets.
- It is a silent version for theaters not yet equipped with sound in 1930.
- it is a negative made for Universal Studio's reference.
International versions were sound versions of films which the producing company did not feel were worth the expense of re-shooting in a foreign language. They were meant to cash in on the talkie craze; by 1930 anything with sound did well at the box-office while silent films were largely ignored by the public. These "international sound versions" were basically part-talkies and were largely silent except for musical sequences. Since the film included a synchronized music and a sound effect track, it could be advertised as a sound picture and could therefore capitalize on the talkie craze in foreign markets (instead of the more expensive method of actually re-filming talking sequences in foreign languages).
To make an international version, the studio would simply insert (on the soundtrack) music over any dialogue in the film and splice in some title cards (which would be replaced with the appropriate language of the country). Singing sequences were left intact as well as any sound sequences that did not involve speaking.
The surviving sound discs of The Phantom of the Opera belong to the domestic release and therefore do not synchronize with the dialogue portions of the film which have been abbreviated on the existing print. There is no record to substantiate what the "international version" of The Phantom was, nor is there any reference that it was even available. Furthermore, one negative was made for all of Europe and sent overseas. The negative was generally left there and the version that is now seen shows no signs of negative wear that would be consistent with that of a negative printed for a number of countries.
During the transition to sound in 1930, it was not uncommon to see a silent and a sound version of a picture playing simultaneously (particularly from Universal, who kept a silent/sound policy longer than most studios). One speculation is that the Eastman House print is actually a silent version of the film made for theaters not yet equipped with sound.
However, according to trade journals of the time, only the sound version was available. Harrison's Reports, which was careful to always specify whether any silent version was made or not, specifically states that "there will be no silent version." Furthermore, by 1930 fewer exhibitors were booking totally silent films and this had forced all the major studios to add soundtracks and dialogue sequences to all of their major releases which had previously been intended for release as a silent picture. Studios did not spend much time or money in making silent versions, which were meant to be played in rural areas whose theaters could not yet afford the conversion to sound. Nevertheless, if the extant print is a silent version, it would explain why Universal still had it and also the lack of wear on the negative.
According to Harrison's Reports, a trade journal, when the film was originally released, it contained 17 minutes of color footage; that color footage was retained in the 1930 part-talking version. Technicolor's records show 497 feet of color footage. Judging from trade journals and reviews, all of the opera scenes of Faust, as well as the "Bal Masqué" scene were shot in Process 2 Technicolor (a two-color system). Prizmacolor sequences were also shot for the "Soldier's Night" introduction. Only the Bal Masqué scene survives in color. The Phantom's cape during the scene on the rooftop of the opera was colored red using the Handschiegl color process. This effect has been replicated in Photoplay Production/Kevin Brownlow's 1996 restoration by computer colorization.
As with many films of the time, black-and-white footage was tinted various colors to provide mood. These included amber for interiors, blue for night scenes, green for mysterious moods, red for fire and sunshine (yellow) for daylight exteriors.
The film has been deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In the United States, the film is in the public domain due to Universal's failure to renew the copyright in 1953, and may be freely downloaded from the Internet Archive. It was parodied in the 1970s film Phantom of the Paradise and by the Terry Pratchett novel Maskerade.
This film was #52 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments The film was one of 400 films nominated to be on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition). The avant-garde jazz ensemble Club Foot Orchestra has written a new score for the film and performed it live in accompaniment to the film.
Universal would be involved in four more Phantom adaptations. They released a remake in 1943, distributed the Hammer Films remake in 1962, distributed the 2004 adaptation of the musical in Latin America and Australia as well as the 2011 adaptation of the same musical.
Universal Pictures is developing a shared universe of rebooted modern-day versions of their classic Universal Monsters, with various films in different stages of development. In June of 2017, producer/director Alex Kurtzman revealed that The Phantom of the Opera is one of the films that will have an installment in the Dark Universe.