When you think of “The Phantom of the Opera,” it’s not unusual to picture a masked man, unblemished save for a velvet mask covering one quadrant of his otherwise beautiful face, belting in a spotlight about the darkness of the music of the night.
But up until Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical shattered Broadway records in 1986, the most famous image associated with the fabled Phantom was the haunting visage of Lon Chaney, eyes bulging and crooked teeth bared after his mask is pulled from his head in a 1925 silent feature.
It’s the most iconic scene from one of the most famous of all silents, and you have a chance to see “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Fox Theater as part of the ongoing Spokane International Film Festival. Like previous film events at the Fox, the movie will be accompanied by a live orchestral backing from the Spokane Symphony, featuring pianist and composer Rick Friend.
The evening’s concert will be conducted by Jorge Uzcategui, who previously conducted the music for the symphony’s screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.”
“This is one more of the cool things that the symphony does as part of their program,” Uzcategui said. “It makes it feel like the actors (in the film) are acting live. … This is the perfect example of a movie that only can work with music. If you take the music out and make it completely silent, it wouldn’t work at all.”
As is the case with many silents, the original score for “The Phantom of the Opera” has been lost, and Friend’s composition quotes from Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust” and “Danse Macabre” by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns. Friend has composed original music for many silent films – he last performed with the Spokane Symphony in 2015 during a screening of “Nosferatu” – and he’ll be on the stage behind the piano with a 60-piece orchestra.
His interaction with the symphony will be something of a back-and-forth, Friend explained.
“The orchestra will play their part, then they’ll stop and I’ll continue playing improv piano,” he said. “It’s like that all the way through. There are about 18 orchestral cues evenly spaced throughout the movie, and it’s all timed to go along with the action.”
Based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, “The Phantom of the Opera” concerns a mysterious figure that haunts the Paris Opera House, wreaking havoc when the venue’s new management doesn’t respect his wishes. The Phantom becomes infatuated with Christine, the theater’s newest ingenue, and he becomes determined to make her a star and take her for his own.
Despite its cultural longevity, the film was hardly an instant classic. Multiple directors were hired and fired, and in a silent-era version of studio test marketing, significant portions were re-shot and edited after poor viewer response. The final cut of “Phantom,” which premiered in the late summer of 1925, turned out to be a commercial success, and it’s reported that audiences were particularly horrified by Chaney’s unmasking.
During his career, Chaney developed a reputation for disappearing beneath grotesque makeup of his own creation. His most notable roles (besides the Phantom) include Fagin in a 1922 version of “Oliver Twist,” the title character in 1923’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and a bug-eyed hypnotist in the legendary lost film “London After Midnight” (1927).
The actor may have died young at 47, but his evocative performances made him one of the most revered figures in silent film. Certainly “The Phantom of the Opera” wouldn’t be nearly as effective were it not for his portrayal of the doomed titular character: He’s horrifying, yes, but like his take on Quasimodo, Chaney’s Phantom is a tragic figure.
“Even though he’s a monster, he’s still somebody with a heart and feelings,” Uzcategui said.
“(The film) survives so well because of Lon Chaney,” Friend said. “I’ve seen other versions of it, and to me this is the best performance of the Phantom. There’s an enduring appeal for monstrous characters who also need love. That seems to really appeal to audiences.”
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