In the 1920s, Hollywood didn’t know how to sell horror pics — a barely tested known commodity in the U.S. — so Universal touted “The Phantom of the Opera” with the tagline “Wild! Weird! Wonderful!” That strange description of the film could apply to the Image Entertainment 2-disc package of the silent classic, with emphasis on the “wonderful.”
In his sharp audio commentary, film historian Scott MacQueen states that there is no definitive version of the pic, but there are five “pedigrees.” Image here presents the best two surviving copies: the 1925 general-release silent version and a 1930 international sound reissue for foreign markets (which included music, crowd noises, sound effects, and dialogue that’s mostly off-screen).
MacQueen’s commentary on the later version is so jam-packed with data that it gets dizzying. That’s partly because the studio made frequent reshoots, re-edits and re-castings over the years, many of them convoluted and illogical.
(Actress Virginia Pearson played a role in 1925, and while her scenes were retained in 1930, she was identified in the film as a completely different character.)
For example, in 1925, Virginia Pearson played the opera diva; four years later, her scenes were reshot, with the role split between two new actresses; in 1930, Pearson’s footage was restored, but this time she was ID’d as the diva’s mother.)
Disc One features the 98-minute sound film; the earlier, 110-minute version is on Disc Two. (Photoplay Prods. assembled the prints from a copy from George Eastman House and using material from the UCLA Film & TV Archive. Milestone Film & Video did the digital cleanup and produced bonus features and materials.)
Aside from the synch-sound audiotrack for 1930, viewers have the alternate option of a superb orchestral score by current composer Carl Davis. This version also features two gorgeous color sequences, including one of the Phantom lurking atop a winged statue of Apollo, with his crimson robes billowing. The Handschiegal coloring process makes the scene eerie and beautiful. Single-color tints on every scene sometimes enhance the film, but occasionally blur the backgrounds.
The earlier version offers a better showcase for the luscious cinematography and design. Ben Carre (who’s credited as “consulting artist”) drew 24 sketches that formed the basis of the film’s look) and MacQueen gives credit to Carre and star Lon Chaney for the film strengths, dismissing helmer Rupert Julian as “a hack.”
Other extra material includes audio-only dialogue sequences made but not used for the 1930 version; interviews with with Carl Laemmle’s neice Carla (who played a ballerina in the pic) and d.p. Charles Van Enger; and theatrical trailers.