THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) -A movie about disfigured people who don’t know their place

1

Have you ever gone to see a movie that has been raved up for years and then doubted your better judgment when you weren’t crazy about the movie? That’s what happened to me when I viewed the much-revered silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera for the first time.

(Brief synopsis: Erik [Lon Chaney] has been hiding out in the bowels of the Paris Opera House for years because he is ashamed of his disfigured face. However, Erik has designs on an up-and-coming opera singer named Christine [Mary Philbin], and he will do anything to both further Christine’s opera career [rival singers be damned] and win Christine’s love despite his physical appearance.)

Fortunately, I have Fritzi, who runs the blogs Movies Silently, as my blogging “neighbor.” I quickly consulted her entry on Phantom (click here if you’d like to read it for yourself), and much to my relief, she pretty much agreed with me: The movie is good but not a masterpiece, Chaney does an amazing job with both his makeup and his acting, and Philbin is fluttery and just this side of over-the-top.

However, my major hangup with the movie is in one of its major plot points, which I would imagine is a carryover from the original novel. (MAJOR SPOILERS from this point on!)

The movie’s money shot is when Christine surreptitiously removes Erik’s mask (despite his previous command not to do so) and gets a full view of Erik’s face. This is the shot on which the rest of the movie hinges, and when the movie was first released, Chaney was careful not to take any publicity photos that would show him in full Phantom make-up so as to build the audience’s shock at the unveiling. Mission accomplished. It’s still a pretty powerful moment.

th

Surprise!

What really bothers me is that the moment is taken at face value. In other words, Christine uncovers Erik’s face, and this drama queen’s first reaction is basically, “Whew, he ugly! Gotta avoid him like the plague!”, as if she was a high-school cheerleader who just got asked to the prom by the class nerd.

Since I am of the era of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — a movie wherein an initially monstrous figure is shown to be human like the rest of us — Christine’s attitude really puts me off. It’s later revealed that Erik, while a musical genius, is also an escaped prisoner from Devil’s Island. The movie showed Christine as having been fascinated by Erik at first. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Christine smitten with this man and his offbeat behavior and looks, only to find out later how dangerous he is? Instead, the story takes the easy route and instantly equates physical ugliness with supreme villainy.

I suppose movie buffs will chastize me for applying contemporary sexual politics to a 1925 movie. But it makes me think that when modern-day moviegoers scoff at silent film in general, it might not be only the antiquated technology they’re pooh-poohing. Maybe it has something to do with the way those movies look down their noses at the more underprivileged among us.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Addicted to the Live Tweet

As you can probably tell by some of my recent blog posts, I’m getting quite obsessed with movie-based Live Tweets on Twitter.com. (In fact, I now “run” one of my own and am the third wheel on another one.) I have come to the conclusion that, between these Tweets of YouTube and other online-based movies, and Turner Classic Movies on cable, I could happily watch new (for me) movies in my man-cave and never visit a real movie theater again for the rest of my life.

In any case, if you’ve been curious about these Live Tweets, below is the latest schedule of them — there’s literally something for every day of the week. In addition to movies, there are tweets devoted to old TV shows such as “Star Trek” and “Dark Shadows.” And most of the movies and shows referenced on these Tweets are available for viewing on YouTube or elsewhere online for free. It’s a fun habit to get caught up in!

COVc61FUEAAezVz

Review of Gerry Mandel’s novel SHADOW AND SUBSTANCE: MY TIME WITH CHARLIE CHAPLIN

SMALL

(FOR THOSE IN THE KNOW: Before you get on my case — yes, I know that this book is four years old…and I am still coming across people who have never even heard of it. IMHO, this book deserves all the coverage and kudos it can get.)

Are you a Charlie Chaplin buff who wishes that Chaplin was around to make just one more movie?
It can’t happen, of course — but the very next best thing is the novel Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin. And the highest compliment I can pay to author Gerry Mandel is that he does justice to his famous subject.

The story concerns Cooper Thiery, a life-long Chaplin buff who has lucked into a possible Hollywood job. A Los Angeles producer, Kevin McDaniels, wants to create a TV series of muckraking documentaries that bring down the heroes of yesteryear. He wants to start with Chaplin, and he wants to hire Cooper for the job based on a glowing letter of recommendation for Cooper that an Oxford professor sent to Kevin.

The problems start when the niceties end and McDaniels shows his true colors to Cooper. He wants all the dirt on Chaplin, and he wants it yesterday. Cooper is thrown for a loop at having to denigrate one of his childhood heroes in order to make a career for himself.

Luckily for Cooper, he is rewarded a muse — in the form of none other than Charlie Chaplin himself. And this is where Mandel scores his biggest points. He brings Chaplin back to life as an otherworldly conscience for Cooper, and he assists Cooper in meeting some of Chaplin’s contemporaries as well. This is pretty much the ground on which the novel is built, and if the conceit had been presented in a mawkish or cutesy way, the story would have collapsed.

Happily, by the time Chaplin himself is brought into the story, we’ve come to identify with Cooper so much that we feel his shock at meeting the “reincarnated” Chaplin, which goes a long way toward making the fantasy plausible. And after all, the story does take place in Hollywood, where Cooper keeps running into one miracle after another, anyway — why not meet his long-lost idol as well?

Shadow and Substance is rich in detail and characterization, for both the famous (I’d love to meet this book’s version of Chaplin’s beefy co-star Mack Swain!) and newfound (the many underlings who swirl in McDaniels’ orbit). And the reader comes away with a new respect for Chaplin and for celebrity in general. You end up feeling, as Chaplin does here, that maybe it’s time to let sleeping idols lie and to quit callously digging up dirt on them unnecessarily.

My only concern about the book is how it will “play” with non-Chaplin buffs, who might not share in Cooper’s reverence for his subject and instead be eager for the story to move on a little. Conversely, those knowledgeable in Chaplin trivia might be slightly bothered when Mandel slows down the story every so often to explain an “inside” anecdote for those not in the know. (The method reminds me of a condescending moment in Chaplin’s movie drama A Woman of Paris, where the characters were eating champagne truffles and Chaplin felt compelled to include a subtitle explaining the food’s origin.)

But this slight fault should not deter anyone, Chaplin buff or otherwise, from savoring this rich novel. Shadow and Substance brings Charlie Chaplin to life just one more time and makes it seem worth the effort.