The story behind the 1925 adaption of The Phantom of the Opera is far more interesting than the film itself. Although, I may not be saying that with total objectivity; I've long been a fan of the musical, both the 2004 film starring Gerard Butler and Emily Rossum as well as the Broadway production, which I was fortunate to experience once. I was immediately perturbed at the idea of a silent film based around a story that I associate with so much music, and I often found myself humming or full-on signing Andrew Lloyd Webber's songs during my viewing of the Lon Chaney flick. Of course, I kept the film on my list knowing that the story would be familiar and mostly unchanged, but the challenge here was to know whether the story is just as enjoyable without sound? And yes, yes it was. Although hardly my favorite of the 1920's silent movies so far (The Phantom Carriage and The Last Laugh are currently tied for that position), I was very impressed with the Paris Opera House replica and studio sets and, of course, The Man of a Thousand faces struck again. This is my second Lon Chaney film and the man is truly a master of disguise.
That being said, what captivated me more than Lon Chaney's horrible disfigured facade as Erik, the criminally insane ghost of the opera house with a crush on young ingenue Christine Daae, was the story of how this film even came to be. Then president of Universal Pictures Carl Laemmle was on a holiday in Paris where he met Gaston Leroux, who worked in the French film industry at the time. Laemmle commented to Leroux how much he admired the Paris Opera House and Leroux gave him a copy of his novel, The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle read the novel in one night and immediately bought the rights to make a film out of Leroux's book. I love stories like that. Sharing your art with someone who then makes more art with it? This happened almost a century ago; it was a different time. You can't just send your manuscript to a Hollywood producer in the hopes that he'll love it so much he'll pay you to make a movie out of it... But, one can dream.
There are more interesting stories behind the making of The Phantom of the Opera, like Lon Chaney's tense relationship with director Rupert Julian which led Chaney to direct most of his own scenes, or the replacing of Julian with director Edward Sedgwick to re-shoot the bulk of the movie due to poor reviews and reactions to the film's original cut after Julian refused and left the project. The movie would be re-edited a third time, keeping some of the scenes removed from Julian's cut but keeping Sedgwick's ending in which the Phantom is seemingly killed by an angry mod led by the brother of one of his victims. I found this interesting because the later half of the film did show evidence of some wonky editing; at one point, I saw the Phantom perform the same menacing movement toward Christine, who was laying sprawled over the steps that led into the Phantom's lair. She had her arm poised protectively over her and she seemed to be pleading with the Phantom but no intertitles provided any context to this moment or why it was included thrice in the edit.
Much like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this iteration of The Phantom of the Opera is at a disadvantage in that it's story was familiar and other, more modern adaptions (both of which are musical, and I'm a sucker for a good musical) would improve upon the limitations of the technology of the mid-1920's. On the other hand, both succeeded in the casting of Lon Chaney; his performance made both films quite enjoyable, and as lovely and talented as Gerard Butler and Tom Hulce are, Lon Chaney was an irreplaceable talent in both films.
The second film of the evening is a standout; Battleship Potemkin is unique in that it was based on the real mutiny aboard a Soviet battleship in 1905 and the film itself, directed by Sergei Eisentstein, was film as revolutionary propaganda. From what I read of both the confirmed and alleged events that took place aboard the Potemkin in the summer of 1905, the film got the events mostly right. As the story goes, the crew of the Potemkin refused to eat a borscht made from rotten meat and Senior Officer Giliarovsky (called Commander Golikov in the film) decides that those who refused to eat are guilty of insubordination and orders them to be executed by firing squad. At the last minute, one of the sailors, Vakulinchuk, who was seen in the opening shot of the scene discussing the need to support the revolution in Russia, protests the execution and pleads with the firing quad. The officers hear him and refuse to fire their weapons. Chaos ensues and the mutiny is successful but Vakulinchuk dies as a result. Those are the first two of five acts of the film.
Although Eisentsein meant the movie to be primarily propaganda, he also used the film to test his theory on montage. Montage refers, of course, to a composition of images and, in creating cinema, montages rely heavily on editing. For some context, Soviet filmmakers of the 1920's disagreed on how to view montage, but Eisenstein asserted that montage is "the nerve of cinema" and Eisenstein's views on montage became the most widely accepted. He said that "montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots" wherein "each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other." In other words, in cinema a series of images can and should be used to communicate the complexity of an idea as well as the driving philosophy of the entirety of the film to an audience. You may or may not agree with this perceived importance on montages, but hell if Eisenstein didn't knock it out of the park with Battleship Potemkin.
There are several moments in the film where the editing is nothing short of spectacular. Early in the film, there is the scene in which Commander Golikov ordered the "insubordinate" soldiers to be executed via firing squad. The montage starts almost as soon as the Commander steps out onto the deck and the film cuts from an eagle-eye view of the deck, to the Commander, to row after row of petty officers and sailors, back to the Commander who hasn't yet spoken, and so on. This montage does a great job of building some suspense; what is the Commander going to say; why have they all been summoned to the deck? When the Commander announces his intention to execute the mutineers, the film goes through another montage; it cuts from an enraged Golikov, to the masts of the ship where Golikov plans to hang the men, to the satisfied smirk of a petty officer who's off the hook, to the shocked expressions of some of the sailors, and so forth, thereby communicating just who is okay with this and who isn't. This does an amazing job of directing the audience's sympathy for the condemned sailors, our outrage and the commander and his officers, and our hopes that the crew will do something to stop this massacre.
However, it was the montage that happens when the mutineers are covered with canvas and are being faced by the firing squad that really showcases Eistenstein's eye for it; the film cuts from the firing squad, to the ship's turrets, to the ship itself, quietly floating on calm waters, to the ship's priest reading the last rites to the condemned, and after the order to shoot the sailors is given, we see a shot of the rest of the crew taking a mortified step back and averting their eyes, among them is Vakulinchuk. The montage continues with the men under the canvas falling to their knees, their fellow crew members solemnly bowing their heads, the firing squad pointing their guns, the senior officers watching carefully, and so on. The entire sequence, from the moment Commander Golikov threatens to hang the mutineers to the moment Vakulinchuk successfully pleads with the firing squad to spare the men under the canvas (and they do), is around 8 minutes long... and what a suspenseful 8 minutes it is! How the crew and the officers felt about the prospect of shooting sailors over a bowl of bad borscht was clearly communicated and as the audience, you get the feeling that what you're watching is completely wrong and unjust, which was no doubt the goal of that scene.
As great as this early montage is, we can't talk about Battleship Potemkin without talking about the scene on the Odessa steps. However, rather than describe it to you as I just did above, why don't you watch it for yourself? You won't regret it:
It's a heart-wrenching, shocking scene that truly depicts the cruelty and inhumanity if soldiers "just following orders," an idea expertly communicated through Eisenstein's intellectual montage and it's a theme that I find compelling whenever writers and directors attempt to display it in their films. All in all, Battleship Potemkin is unique in both it's use of various montages to communicate continuity of story as well as ideas and themes present throughout the story, and it is unique in it's subject matter; this is the first of the 1920's films that not only take place predominately on a ship, but also the only one to tackle politics and war. Of course, it'll hardly be the last film to do so. Still, it was a joy to learn some world history as well as some cinematic history.
Next on my list is a F. W. Murnau double feature: Tartuffe based on a play by the same name, and Faust featuring Emil Jannings (the star of Murnau's The Last Laugh) as Mephisto. Can't wait! I hope to see you then.
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