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The Phantom of the Opera
SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.19:1 Standard
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English PCM Stereo
  • English DTS-HD 5.1 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 3 Discs
FEATURES
  • The original 1925 version, (black & white, 103 mins): with newly commissioned piano accompaniment by Ed Bussey
  • Original 1925 trailer and 1929 sound re-issue trailer
  • Reel 5 from lost 1929 sound re-issue (12 mins): the only surviving element, newly discovered in the Library of Congress archives.
  • The 'man with a lantern' sequence: mysterious footage thought to have been shot for non-English speaking territories
  • Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000, Kevin Brownlow, 86 mins, DVD only): Kevin Brownlow's definitive documentary on the legendary actor.

The Phantom of the Opera

Dual-Format Edition
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Rupert Julian
Starring: Lon Chaney
1929 | 91 Minutes

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: £17.99 | Series: BFI
BFI Video

Release Date: December 2, 2013
Review Date: January 1, 2014

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SYNOPSIS

Lon Chaney, 'the man of a thousand faces', gives his most famous performance in this first version of the oft-filmed tale. Based on Gaston Leroux's novel, Chaney stars as the 'Phantom', living in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera, who falls in love with the voice of a young opera singer. Infatuated, he kidnaps her, dragging her to the depths below where she will sing only for him.

Directed by Rupert Julian, this lavish 1925 production launched the Hollywood Gothic style - which would become the trademark of Universal horror films.

Original prints of the film were fully tinted, with some sequences in Technicolor, and a rooftop scene using a special process that enabled the Phantom's cloak to show red against the blue night sky. This Photoplay restoration carefully re-instates all these effects, and is accompanied by Carl Davis' celebrated score which draws heavily on Gounod's Faust, which is the opera being performed in the film.


PICTURE

The BFI presents the 1929 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera in the aspect ratio of about 1.19:1 on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The transfer is delivered in 1080p/24hz. The disc also includes a high-definition version of the original 1925 silent version of the film (which is covered in the supplements section of this review.) This is a UK release but it is region free so it should play on North American Blu-ray players.

The film has a complicated history and I’ve always been somewhat confused by it. The film was initially released as a silent feature in 1925 to a lukewarm reception after a rather painful production that went through multiple directors and numerous reshoots. When sound came about Universal (the film’s production company) aimed to make a sequel but since star Lon Chaney was under an exclusive contract with MGM they were unable to get him back so the project was quickly abandoned. Instead they decided to take the original film and shoot some sound sequences for it, re-edit it all together, and then release it as a sound feature. A silent version following the new structure and editing of the sound verion was also put together for theaters that couldn’t play sound.

Other than a reel and apparently some audio discs, the sound version is missing so all that is left is the silent version of the 1929 cut, the best looking copy of any version of the film, which is what we get here. Despite the extensive and impressive restoration it should come as no surprise that the source still shows its rough edges. The aspect ratio is incorrect, first off, because of an error that would have occurred when the print was created, where it was treated as a sound film during the duplication process and the part of the frame where the audio track would have been (had it been a sound film) has been cut off. The 2-color Technicolor sequences are a bit blurry in long shots and littered with damage, and computers were used to restore a later sequence that would have been in Technicolor. Throughout scratches and dirt also remain, frames appear to be missing, mold stains pop up, the aspect ratio can shift around in places (it looks like some scenes were sourced from a print that delivers the image in 1.37:1) and the image can go out of focus here and there.

But really, altogether, I still think this presentation looks lovely. A lot of work has gone into the restoration and it’s easy to see this. Despite my list of source problems mentioned earlier the damage is far less frequent than one may expect and the heavier moments are few and far between. The transfer itself also delivers as crisp an image as possible, and the amount of detail is staggering most of the time. The colour tinting looks rather nice with rich blues, purples, reds, and yellows, though I suspect these were probably altered a bit by computer. The first part of the 2-color red/green Technicolor Masked Ball sequence looks surprisingly good as well, despite some heavy damage, with decent reds and greens. The later section of this scene was apparently colourized using computers, as was a scene above the Opera house, which was, as I understand it, hand painted initially. These computer altered sequences, predictably, look very good, almost too good.

The film’s frame rate is probably somewhere between 16fps and 20fps. The transfer is delivered in 24fps, so I suspect some frames are probably repeated. It doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on the image, though, and the transfer still runs pretty smooth.

Despite the film basically being through hell and back, the video presentation delivers a presentation better than what many would think. It shows its age for sure, but the restoration work has been very thorough and the digital transfer itself is about as perfect as one could hope.

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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1929 version

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1925 version

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AUDIO

BFI includes Carl Davis’ 1996 score for the film, presented here in lossless PCM stereo or remixed in DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. Both sound excellent, with fantastic range and fidelity, but I liked the mix of the surround track, which is more enveloping, gives the illusion of a concert hall, and has better bass. Either track will do, though, and it will come down to personal preference.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

BFI first includes the 1925 version of the film, which runs about 13-minutes longer at 103-minutes. It comes from a 16mm with a piano score by Ed Bussey, newly commissioned for this release and presented in lossless PCM stereo.

Though the basic story remains the same there are still a number of differences. The opening has far more going on in it, characters have changed (or are played by different actors,) scenes like the Chandelier sequence play out a little differently in editing, or completely different takes are used, most obvious in the unmasking scene.

This version was sourced from a 16mm print and doesn’t look anywhere near as good as the 1929 restoration sadly, though it could be far worse. Restoration work was done but it’s still littered with scratches, stains, tram lines, and more. The image is also a bit blurry, but I suspect it is ultimately a copy of a copy of a copy, etc. The transfer itself, which delivers the film in 1.37:1, is also presented in 1080p/24hz and is itself fairly solid. Despite the weaknesses of the source the transfer delivers as sharp and stable a presentation as possible, even cleanly rendering the film grain, which is fairly heavy.

Following this we then get two trailers, the original 1925 trailer and the 1929 sound reissue trailer.

Other than some audio discs (that don’t sync with the known existing elements of the film) reel 5 of the sound version is apparently the only footage that is known to survive for it, and thanks to a restoration and reconstruction where the elements were too badly damaged, we’re treated to part of the sound version. Running less than 12-minutes we get to see and hear the opera sequence (which is one of the sequences shot newly for this version that actually also exists in the 1929 silent version) and Christine’s initial descent into the cellars below the opera. The sound is minimal, though, and further suggests that the creation of the sound version was really nothing but a stunt after the sequel fell through. We hear singing in the opera sequence, Christine speaking briefly, a pre-recorded score, background noise, and even someone speaking on behalf of the Phantom (there were legal issues and the makers could not dub over Lon Chaney’s voice directly. To get around this they invented another character, which we briefly see here, who spoke for him.) The rest of the sequence is still silent in nature, complete with intertitles, and I suspect the rest of the sound version is like this as well. Though it’s a shame it’s not known to exist in its entirety, I’m happy to at least get this so we have another example of how studios attempted to retrofit their silent films into the sound era.

The Blu-ray supplements then close with ”The Man with the Lantern” sequence, which runs just under one-and-a-half-minutes. This sequence was found, to my understanding, with the 1929 silent version of the film and appears between the opening credits and intertitles. It was initially suspected to be a prologue for the film, with audible dialogue, but none of the existing sound elements provide any audio for it. It was removed from the film during the restoration since its purpose was unknown and causes confusion, but is included here for the sake posterity. The sequence presents a man with a lantern entering the scene. He speaks, and then that’s about it. No intertitles, no nothing.

This three-disc set also includes two DVDs. The first DVD features a standard definition version of the film and the supplements found on the Blu-ray. The third single-layer DVD presents Kevin Brownlow’s 86-minute 2000 documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and presenting a number of “1920s filmgoers,” historians, and archival interviews, it goes through his early life, his works, and his make-up. Through surviving elements of his early work (most of which were destroyed) it examines his make-up techniques, its development, and his acting style, and even explains some of the effects, like how he created his legless character in The Penalty, or did the nose in Phantom. It concentrates on specific films, like Shadows, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tell it to the Marines, The Unknown, The Unholy Three and its “talkie” remake, and of course The Phantom of the Opera. There is then, not surprisingly, a bit about London after Midnight, Chaney’s most famous “lost film.” Two recall seeing it and the basic premise is given, but their reactions suggest that the film was silly and very mediocre. Overall it’s an effective overview of the man’s life and career, paying loving tribute.

Unfortunately that feature is presented in PAL, so North American viewers will require equipment that can play back PAL content.

BFI then includes one of their wonderful booklets. Kevin Brownlow offers an excellent essay on the film and his draw to it, followed by an essay on the different versions of the film by Patrick Stanbury, trying to differentiate what sequences were shot for what. A 1975 review by Geoff Brown for the 1925 version of the film is included followed by notes on the supplements by Stanbury.

Though there isn’t much in the way of scholarly material outside of the booklet I was fairly satisfied with the material BFI has included here.

7/10

CLOSING

BFI delivers a nice edition for the film, delivering a sharp looking transfer and some excellent supplements, including the original 1925 version of the film. It comes with a high recommendation.

(As mentioned before the Blu-ray is region free, but the DVDs are PAL encoded. To play the Lon Chaney documentary North American viewers require equipment that can play back PAL content.)




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