Turning the Scorpion: Love Without Redemption in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera has always needed a sequel, even its author believed that. Gaston Leroux was alive when Universal Studios released its 1925 adaptation, and he was allegedly happy with the film, or at least happy with the popularity. He even offered to write a sequel called The Return of the Phantom, which was never completed. This later work promised to be more global, an adventure in Madrid, and would focus on the Opera Ghost’s continual hunt for Christine Daaé. My question is, why does a narrative like Phantom warrant a sequel? Is it because the story has the potential to continue? Or is it that the novel and films have always been popular and thus demanded more?

Better still, what about Phantom needs to be redeemed? Why does our culture habitually return and reenact a story which already has multiple adaptations?

“Call for me when you will. I shall be waiting.”

There is an adaptation of Leroux’s work for nearly every decade since its publication, which suggests that there is something distinctly unfinished about Phantom. Each reproduction takes its characters, rearranges its formula, and watches, as though something else, something new, will happen. That instinct arose prior to the 1925 adaptation, as the novel ends with a strange ambiguous note about Christine and Raoul. Cinematic adaptations have tried to orchestrate that note by adding new events and details to the story, essentially adding new chords to this unsatisfying tone. Despite this urge to continue the Phantom story, there have been several cancelled sequels since 1925, meaning that there are multiple adaptations which were designed for a follow up which never arrived. Andrew Lloyd Webber tried to make a sequel for his famous musical, called Love Never Dies, and it received extremely poor reviews. They have reworked the production multiple times, but it’s never been successful. It’s not necessarily bad, there is a taped version you can watch, but it’s nothing compared to Webber’s Phantom and it makes some strange character choices. It is also not a traditional film, so it exists somewhat outside of this discussion.

Adaptations of Leroux’s work have always been somewhat popular while also being vaguely similar to one another. These adaptations remain relevant because each is a direct commentary on the Phantom film which preceded. The 1943 commented on the 1925 production by moving away from its black and white silent format. I should note, there was a 1916 film which was lost and destroyed, and a film called Song at Midnight from 1937 which is often credited as the first Chinese horror film. While each of these adaptations share a general plot, but the way in which they display that plot is different. I would argue that these adaptations thus act as indirect sequels, working off Leroux’s original work and the format of previous versions. We have seemingly replaced this urge to create a sequel by creating a remake: taking the characters and reforming them for a new era, rather than a new location. Leroux’s vision for The Return of the Phantom came true, as the Phantom always returns, no matter how many times he dies at the end of one project.

“If I am the phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so.”

The 1925 version has a complicated history, which several authors have spent years documenting. I can’t really do justice to that in this short blog post, so forgive me if I skim over some details. Suffice to say, the film was hugely popular upon release, and has remained deeply formative for the horror genre, not to mention it’s monumental influence on contemporary directors like Guillermo del Toro. This enduring influence is largely because the film is public domain, as is Leroux’s original work. Anyone can make a Phantom adaptation, so long as they don’t try to replicate Webber’s version, which is copyrighted. The 1925 version still belongs to Universal, but you can stream it for free on YouTube. It’s also played on TV during the Halloween season, as it’s cheap to do so. It’s hard to tell how much the film’s legacy is a direct result of this accessibly, but it’s certainly connected. There are a few copyrighted versions of the film, but that depends on its soundtrack. Although the film is entirely silent, they are several versions with scores, some officially released, others by random composers online. I find this absolutely fascinating, because you can watch the same scene twelve different ways and hear how one person focuses on a certain thing while another does something completely opposite. It’s like the film opens itself to further adaptations, not just film adaptations, but adaptations inside its original format. You could even listen to it without sound, and that would create a specific and alternate experience.

Being someone who close reads everything, I am interested in the way the 1925 film is screened, and how those conditions impact our viewing experience. Someone in 1925 would view this film in a radically different way than us, even if we saw it at a theatre rather than on YouTube or TV. People were terrified of the film, especially Lon Chaney’s deformed face. It managed to be horrifying without sound, which is such a staple of the horror genre today. Sound is a crucial part to later Phantom adaptations, but the 1925 version was not designed for it. There was a re-release in 1930 with sound, but that copy has been lost. It’s up to the modern viewer how they want to watch the film, whether they want to be as ‘authentic’ as possible or as nuvo as they please. The film might be about music and singing, but it manages to work with and without those features.

“There sounds an ominous undercurrent of warning!”

I recently had a strange viewing experience with this film, as I used some footage for a Halloween concert. Editing my voice with the film felt wrong, like some sort of blasphemy. But then I returned to re-watch the film this month using the first result on YouTube. It included real arias from Faust, fully performed, which matched the singers’ lips. The film includes several staged scenes from Faust and features the traditional costumes and sets from that opera. The first time we see this is when Christine rises to heaven as an angel, which happens in the finale of Faust, but in the prelude here. Her lips stay perfectly still. There is singing, but it seems to be coming elsewhere.

I initially thought the rest of the film would follow this format, as the soundtrack was added after. I even assumed that if other singers’ lips moved, they would be totally out of synch, and it would not resemble an aria from Faust. Carlotta’s performance proved otherwise, as her rendition of the “Jewel Song” matches the imposed score. Her mouth moves, and although it’s not perfectly syncopated, there are moments where the score fits perfectly. It’s strange to see her lips moving but only occasionally catching words. Each time it happened, I felt like Carlotta was looking out at the viewer, like she could transfer between the original format and this new kind. I don’t think I would have had this experience if she had been perfectly matched, or even if Christine had moved her lips in the earlier scene. Her movement in this scene creates a contradiction between her and Christine, as Christine is supposedly the better singer- Carlotta is too body and extreme with her performance- but Christine doesn’t even look like she is singing. We could read this visual two ways, as it either suggests that Christine’s voice is so effortless and supernatural that it moves outside of her, or, and perhaps more intriguing, it visualizes that her voice doesn’t belong to her.  

There are multiple scenes in the 1925 version where the Phantom insists that Christine refer to him as her master, and that her voice belongs to him. The novel Phantom makes similar claims, but he always refers to Christine as his savior, and her agency and choice here is crucial. Their relationship is defined by her decision to return to him and to pay attention to his genius even though she is independently talented. That is not the case in the 1925 version, where the Phantom is entirely self-centric. During a conversation between Raoul and Christine in the film, Raoul notes, “At last you have realized your ambition…now we shall be married”, which suggests that Christine needs an ambition before she can get married, and that she must be confident in herself and her talent, two things which Raoul conflates. Christine’s music and Christine are the same thing to Raoul. Not so for the Phantom. When the Phantom arrives, he tells Christine, “I placed the world at your feet”  and “I imparted my art”, both of which imply that Christine’s talent has nothing to do with her, it wasn’t even her performance, it was his. This compliments the film’s silent nature, as the music does not come from her lips. They are his words, his voice, just placed in her. This likewise works with the subject matter in Faust, which is meant as an extension of Leroux’s characters.

If you are unfamiliar, Charles Gounod’s opera focuses on an ambitious genius who sells his soul to Méphistophélès for youth and vitality. Faust falls in love with a pure woman named Marguerite, who he seduces with vibrant gifts, and then abandons. She becomes pregnant, is accused of witchcraft, and is then sentenced to death. Faust returns and watches her soar to heaven while he is dragged to hell. In the context of Phantom, Christine is Marguerite, gifted with devilish presents from someone she should not trust. Christine is essentially playing a role for the Phantom by performing as Margarete in a production of Faust, especially as he demands that she is cast in this role. He wants to reenact the events of Faust, so to him, Christine is not even a person. She is a symbol for Marguerite, and an extension of himself and his talent. Anytime Christine deviates from this role or characterization in the film, the Phantom becomes infuriated. Raoul is a good example of this, as the Phantom wants to be Faust, but with Raoul around, he just becomes Méphistophélès. Faust is my favourite opera, and that is largely because Phantom film adaptations often stage whole scenes from Gounod’s work, as does Leroux’s novel. I knew about Faust arias long before I had ever seen a version of Faust or even read anything about it. I can’t think of another series which does this, as Faust has a whole alternate existence thanks to Phantom movies. Leroux’s text is a commentary on Faust, as it’s characters actively refer to that work to understand and define themselves, and others. Adaptations have simply continued this task.

“Men once knew me as Erik, but for many years I have lived…a nameless legend”

The 1925 narrative is fairly consistent with the original text, but many of its small departures became mainstays in later Phantom works. Some of these changes are understandable, and essentially helped translate the textual into a cinematic form. For example, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the original novel is constructed from different people’s accounts of ‘real’ events, even newspaper clippings and memoirs. Leroux is a character in his novel, a sort of sleuth who investigates the strange events, and ultimately cannot tie everything together. One of my favourite things about the novel is that we get these unknown spaces, places where Leroux has to extrapolate what happens, or just mention that he has no idea. Christine and Raoul disappear at the end of the novel, and although Leroux believes they are fine, he never gets to interview them. Their story is told from other people’s perspectives, even from those who seem to have far more information than is possible. You are never sure if you can believe Leroux or his subjects, and we often get contradictory accounts. There is also some debate around if the events and characters in Phantom actually happened. Leroux allegedly insisted on his deathbed that the Phantom had existed, and it’s true, there is a lake under the Palais Garnier. The novel even includes a few real names. Take of that what you will. It’s one of my dreams to write and direct a Phantom adaptation of my own, as we get one every decade. If I can, and I certainly hope I can, I want to expand on this ambiguous style and legacy. I think it is the most intriguing thing about an already intriguing premise.  

While the 1925 adaptation removes the documentation style for clarity’s sake, it does include characters which have since been removed from later adaptations, particularly Raoul’s brother, Philippe, and the Persian, although he is named after a different character called Ledoux here. The Persian is a complicated character, as his foreignness is foundational to his character in Leroux’s novel, and the French characters are very superstitious of him. Leroux’ text is bogged with the fear of the foreigner, but also an interest in over-simplified and racist ideals around exotic locations. The 1925 version makes the Persian more ambiguous, not necessarily Persian, just from somewhere else. The actor, Arthur Edmund Carewe, was Armenian and wears what looks like a fur fez for most of the film, with dramatic makeup to make him slightly darker than other characters. He is French in the film, a secret detective investigating the Phantom, but there is still some uncertainty around his character. The film uses him as a red herring, suggesting that he may be the Phantom, and that there is some sort of elaborate plot involving him. He does know the Phantom, and has an extensive history with him, but the human aspects of that relationship are removed in the film. The character has likewise been deleted in every adaptation I have seen, except for a short made for TV animated version from 1987. I get the sense that this removal happens for three reasons. First, and it’s the same reason Phillipe disappears, the plot quickly simplified to just focus on Christine, the Phantom, and Raoul. That is one of the reasons adaptations don’t use the documentation style from the novel, as they want to tell this story from the people who experienced it. Second, Webber’s musical drastically changed the way we think about Phantom, and it became the reference piece, rather than Leroux’s text. Most people have no idea that Phantom is a novel, and they just assume that it’s a musical based on this 1925 classic. Although later Phantom adaptations return to Leroux’s text, they often do so just to oppose Webber’s altered narrative. That said, there are certain elements from the musical which we can’t escape from. Meg, for example, is not a big character in the novel, and she is not really friends with Christine. But Webber’s musical suggests otherwise, which is why Meg is so central to adaptations after 1986. She is not even in the 1925 version, although it briefly features her mother, Madame. Giry.

The third and final reason that the Persian does not appear in adaptations is that modern reception doesn’t know what to make of his character. I also think they are a little afraid of talking about why he is in novel, what he does in the novel, and the problematic and racist elements of his character. Rather than expanding and complicating his role in an interesting way, even giving him a name, the films don’t include him and feature an entirely white cast. Although he has an interesting and even funny dynamic with the Phantom, his role has been consistently repurposed into white characters like Madame Giry. It’s also noteworthy that every adaptation of Phantom is in English, although it takes place in France, and it has been marketed primarily to an American audience. There is a specific white American gaze on the film, which I am not sure is the case with Leroux’s text, or at least, it could be so much more than that. I also think the Persian was removed from the story because of the Phantom’s newly sympathetic characterization, as he is not nearly as sympathetic in the novel. But regardless, the Persian is a notable inclusion in the 1925 version, although even there, he is just vaguely foreign. I should say, there are a few novel adaptations of Phantom which try to include the Persian, but this is a film blog so I will not detail them here.

“She is singing to bring down the chandelier!”

The Persian isn’t the only foreign character in Phantom; Carlotta is a Spanish diva, and that foreignness is a huge reason for why the Phantom hates her. Most adaptations depict Carlotta as an eccentric, loud, and comically bad prima donna, who has sung with the opera company for decades. She is somewhat different in the novel, as she does throw a few hissy fits, but these are understandable. She is regularly threatened by the Phantom just for singing, which is her job. Her only source of income. The 1925 version introduces a new dynamic to Carlotta, one which I have not seen elsewhere. Carlotta has a mother in the film, and this mother is the one who throws hissy fits for her daughter. She charges into the owner’s office and demands that they continue to employ Carlotta. The mother’s presence implies that Carlotta is around the same age as Christine, or at least somewhat young. She can’t fight her own battles yet and needs her mother to do it for her. This means that Carlotta is no longer some outdated diva, she is just as young and ambitious as Christine. We also spend truly little time with Carlotta, as we don’t see her fall ill and she doesn’t return after the chandelier falls. We spend more time with her dramatic mother than her. This makes Carlotta seem more sympathetic in the film, as we have no reason to dislike her. She just wants to sing, and sure, she makes weird expressions while singing, but that doesn’t make her a bad person. I think this characterization allows the Phantom to appear more dastardly, as he hurts random people at the opera for no reason and destroys Carlotta’s career just because she stood in Christine’s way.

The scene where the chandelier falls in the 1925 version is quite frightening, maybe more so than the Phantom’s reveal. We see the buildup, as the chandelier begins to shake slightly, and then it falls towards the camera, like we are in the seats. Chaos follows, as wealthy and respectable people begin trampling one another to escape. There is no order or propriety here, not even class. Everyone is afraid and in danger, and the Phantom is excellent at this leveling. He unmasks people, makes them drop their guises and show who they really are. That makes him a transgressive figure, someone who forces what was inside, suppressed and controlled, outside very suddenly. It’s not so much what gets exposed, as the actual process of exposure, the unmasking act rather than the face. I spoke about this effect at length in my thesis on Frankenstein, but it’s just as applicable for Leroux’s work. Even the Phantom’s appearance suggests this transgressive mode, as by wearing a mask, the viewer is left to wonder what is underneath. It could be anything, and we do get several descriptions from different people. This unknown face is more frightening that his actual face because it could be anything we imagine, even something impossible. We project onto the mask, and that is one of the things which makes him transgressive. Characters are obsessed with unmasking him, especially Christine. She must know what is underneath, because focusing on her projection is too frightening, it says more about her than him.

“What do you offer for their lives?”

The 1925 film implements a few clever visuals to highlight unspoken things. My favourite of these is that Raoul wears a #2 on his uniform collar, to suggest that he will always be Christine’s second choice, and that he is second in line for his family’s fortune. This fortune is far more important in the novel, as Phillipe dies mysteriously, and Raoul goes missing, leading some to believe that Raoul killed his brother because he wanted to marry Christine, a girl without fortune. Silent films have an incredibly small area and time to verbally communicate with viewers, and so moments like this #2 are crucial. The other way to convey meaning is through title cards. These cards must establish as much meaning as possible in as few words. Those chosen words say a great deal about the film and are well worth close reading. For instance, the film describes the Phantom’s lair as “a black lake, hidden from man and the sun”, which describes both the literal location as well as the Phantom’s inherently evil position. Beyond our world and heaven, hidden away in a forgotten place, forgotten even by the sun. Whatever he does here is forsaken and unseen by God. The wording also suggests that Christine is in terrible danger because, unlike the Phantom, she belongs to the sun and the world of man. The environment is not compatible, and she will die if she stays. Her name is, after all, Christine, as in Christian or Christianity. You could read Christine and the Phantom’s relationship as a metaphor for religion and God if you would like, but I am not particularly interested in that myself. I will note that the 1925 film further establishes how deep and hellish this environment is through its lake, which mirrors the tall columns and makes it seem like they are extending further down. Stretching to hell but also illustrating that this is an altered place, where strange inhuman things exist.

The 1925 version of Phantom is truly incredible, and I encourage everyone to watch the film in multiple forms and environments, with different soundtracks and scores. It’s an amazing experience, but also adds to the film. I think repeated viewings work much like the Phantom’s mask, as we project onto the film, and we see something that may or may not be there. Some ghost on the screen, filtered and described through our own biases.

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