Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Phantom Of The Opera (1925/2004)

I want your sex: a scantily-masked Gerard Butler gropes Emmy Rossum

On September 23, 1909, on page 3 of the French daily newspaper Le Gaulois, appeared the first installment of the serialized mystery Le Fantôme de l'Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera) by popular novelist Gaston Leroux, who was the French equivalent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Aside from Fantôme, Leroux is best known for a series of mystery novels featuring journalist and amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille). 

Newspaper serials were  popular at the time, and few writers could bang them out faster than the prolific Leroux, who wrote two dozen serials between 1903 and 1927, during which time he also wrote 40 novels and half a dozen plays. For Leroux, Fantôme was just another writing gig. (Archived copies of Le Gaulois dating back to 1868 are available online at the digital library of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France: to see page 3 of the Sept. 23, 1909 issue, click here.)
Readers were captivated by the pathos and the velvet-cloaked horrors of Leroux's tale of a spectral maniac named Erik who terrorizes the Palais Garnier and is ultimately redeemed by a single kiss. The serial was so popular that it was translated into English for republication in British and American newspapers.

Though not written as a novel, the success of Phantom of the Opera convinced Leroux's publishers to release the combined installments in the form of a novella the following year (1910), however uncharitable reviews and disappointing sales made the book a critical and commercial failure. Phantom eventually went out of print unnoticed, and would have remained little more than an obscure footnote to Leroux's career had it not been for Universal Studios founder Carl Leammle, who felt that a film adaptation of the story would be the perfect star vehicle for Lon Chaney, who had previously distinguished himself playing tragic grotesques in such films as A Blind Bargain (1922), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and He Who Gets Slapped (1924). (Download or watch Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame for free at the Internet Archive.)

Directed by veteran silent movie actor/director Rupert Julian, Universal's The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was plagued with production problems and was not well-received during initial screenings. Critics felt the film was overly long and moved too slowly, while test audiences hated the ending in which Erik quietly dies of a broken heart. The denouement, while faithful to Leroux's novella, seemed anticlimactic after the horrors that had gone before. The autocratic Julian quit when Laemmle asked for a different ending; up-and-coming director Edward Sedgwick was brought in at the eleventh hour to shoot a dramatic new finale in which Erik is pursued and destroyed by an enraged mob. 

The critics were unanimously positive about one thing, however: Chaney was spectacular. 

After some ruthless scissoring, Universal released The Phantom of the Opera (1925) to an enthusiastic public, and the film became one of the studio's most successful projects to that date, earning over $2,000,000. That's chump change in Hollywood today, however considering the highest-grossing silent film of all time (Mickey, 1918) earned only $18 million, Phantom's $2 million was a respectable return at the time.  

The Phantom of the Opera has since enjoyed numerous film adaptations. Claude RainsHerbert Lom, Maximilian Schell, Charles Dance, and even Robert 'Freddy Kreuger' Englund have all played the tragic, disfigured antagonist of Leroux's 1910 novella. However, the king of the phantoms remains Lon Chaney, whose startling appearance and bravura performance remains the benchmark by which all other interpretations are measured. No other actor has ever conveyed the level of ferocity and madness that Chaney brought to the role.

Not only was Chaney a commanding actor, he was willing to physically distort his own face by often painful methods, involving the use of wires, collodionfish skinand other materials, without which he wouldn't have been able to achieve such an astonishing level of realism. Chaney's appearance as the Phantom is also the most authentic with respect to the source material: Leroux described Erik's face as resembling a skull, with parchment yellow skin pulled tight over the bones, and almost no nose that could be seen "side-face." Almost  ninety years later, Chaney's face is still a frightful sight. 

In 1925, women reportedly shrieked and swooned during the iconic scene in which Christine (Mary Philbin) unmasks the Phantom as he sits playing the organ. In a masterful piece of editing, Erik's hideous face is abruptly revealed first to the audience, then to Christine, in a couple of shock cuts that redoubles the horror as he turns on her in his fury, exhorting her to glut her soul on his "accursed ugliness."  

(Read Jon C. Mirsalis' excellent article about the Chaney film here)

Next to Chaney, the most memorable interpretation of the Phantom was arguably that of Michael Crawford, who brought enormous pathos and anguish--not to mention a magnificent singing voice--to the role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage production, which would become the most successful show in Broadway history. 

With the success of Webber's stage show, a film version of Phantom was almost a foregone conclusion, however many years would pass before the deals could be hammered out. By that time, the original cast had all become a tad saftig and long in the tooth for Hollywood's tastes. Which could have been gotten around, except that as popular as the likes of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman had become, they weren't exactly household names with the moviegoing public. 

'Chippendale' Phantom?
Considering how much it costs to shoot a feature film, it's not surprising that producers want bankable stars attached to their projects. In the case of Phantom, Hollywood realized that the show itself was the star. It almost didn't matter who played the parts, as long as the actors were easy on the eyes and could carry a tune. But mostly easy on the eyes.
Lush visuals and grand production values aside, the problem with Joel Schumacher's 2004 film is that it veers perilously into Harlequin Romance territory by making Erik so charming and handsome, it's hard to feel sorry for him. To reinvent the Phantom as a studly rogue denudes the character of its tragedy and complexity. Imagine, for example, how ridiculous it would be to make a film about a young, handsome, more sympathetic Hannibal Lecter. Oh wait, they did that, didn't they? (Re: the dreary Hannibal Rising.)

Awesome dude: Wilson as 'Raoul'
   Schumacher's desire to make the characters 
   sexier is no surprise, coming from the man who 
   who felt compelled to add nipples to Batman's 
   costume--a low point for the franchise--however 
   the cast of this Phantom are so callow and 
   cosmetically perfect, it's a little like watching 
   a Halloween fantasy episode of Gossip Girl.
   Emmy  Rossum's Christine looks about 15, while
   Patrick Wilson's Raoul looks as though he's just 
   come back from thrashing a halfpipe in Encino. 
   The only thing missing is the skateboard tucked
  under one arm. 
With all of the actors that have gone before him, the only novel quality that Gerard Butler brings to the Phantom is a kind of youthful ruggedness that one doesn't usually associate with Leroux's troglodyte villain. Butler appears to be astonishingly fit and tan for a guy who has essentially been living in a sewer.

Perhaps Schumacher wanted a more studly Phantom in order to dispel the "twee" factor. Lord knows, it would be easy to get the wrong idea about a guy who spends his free time poncing around an old theater in evening wear and colorful gowns. Schumacher obviously felt the character needed a little "manning up," however we can be thankful that he chose not to show Butler bare-chested in a mask and Chippendale tie, though I wouldn't have been entirely surprised.

Another problem with Schumacher's Phantom is Erik's underwhelming makeup. 

In his book, The Complete Phantom of the Opera, theatre historian and Phantom expert par excellence George Perry points out a similar problem with Universal's 1943 musical version starring Claude Rains. During the climactic unmasking scene, Perry was sufficiently unimpressed with Rains's makeup to suggest that it looked less like a disfigurement than an "unpleasant skin ailment."

Rains: a bad rash?  
Astoundingly, Butler's Phantom is even less horrific. Webber's original makeup design looked nothing like Chaney's, but it was gruesome nevertheless--the suggestion of a congenital deformity as might be exacerbated by a flesh-eating disease. Unfortunately, Schumacher had the temerity to re-write Webber (with Webber's apparent consent), by inventing one of the least unpleasant-looking Phantoms in the history of the movies. Pior to his unmasking, Erik resembles Antonio Banderas with an oversized white eyepatch. When his face is finally revealed near the end of the film, he's about as terrifying as Simon LeBon with a zit.

With this, the unmasking of Butler's Phantom, Schumacher's glossy, rouged up blimp of a movie finally collapses under the weight of its own flaccid vapidity. Deprived at last of even the promise of a half-assed money shot--a dramatic unmasking scene, for example, that might've somewhat atoned for all of the narcissistic posturing that has gone before--the audience nevertheless is left feeling not so much cheated as baffled. 

We're expected to believe that a guy who looks like this ---------->
was so mentally scarred that he was driven insane,  and became a murderous lunatic, and was forced to  hide himself from the world...on account of a couple of warts and a portwine birthmark?

Ha! The Joker is scarier. Harvey Dent is scarier. I look worse than that, and I have no trouble getting dates.
The Phantom as Jeff Bridges?
I couldn't imagine what Schumacher was thinking. Then I remembered something he had said during an interview in which he attempted to outline his unique vision for the character by explaining--with a perfectly straight face--that he didn't want the Phantom to be so ugly that a woman wouldn't want to kiss him.

Ah, the ignominy! Can the Disney version be far off?


Savine said...

I enjoyed your review. But I thought the movie was beautiful. Butler brings a genuine, emotional depth to the Phantom. Yes he is "dashing" and I think the makeup should have been truer to the stage show. But even in the stage show the "Phantom" is attractive. It's his mystery, his genius, and yes- his tall, dark and half face handsome, dramatic persona. It's a movie- I understand why he is "prettier". But as for the others - the stage actors are even prettier in some cases. Fact is it's really good acting and Butler is beautiful because of his portrayal of the "Phantom" not entirely because he is a dashing figure- though that is part of it. But then again so was Michael Crawford and so is Ramin Karimloo.

Katterfelto said...

Thanks for your comments, Savine. They are a nice counterpoint to my somewhat uncharitable view of Joel Schumacher's film. You are more objective than I am, moreover you may be comforted to know that my opinion is distinctly in the minority. The movie was enormously popular, especially among fans of the original musical upon which it is based. Truth be told, for a film adaptation of a musical it was quite spectacular, and even reverential in its treatment of the source material. Unfortunately, whatever merits the film may have had are overshadowed by my jealousies over the fact that I will never be as dashing or handsome as Gerard Butler.

humbly, Katterfelto