Phantom of the Opera - 1925

Mary Philbin and who directed Phantom of the Opera?

Mary Philbin 1902 – 1993

She was the actress in Phantom of the Opera [1925] that pulled the mask off Lon Chaney, a big shock for her since she was given no prior visual to know what Chaney had put together for the gruesome appearance of the mysterious subterranean 'ghost' of the Paris Opera. Her reaction on screen is supposed to be genuine. In that scene, Chaney's character of Erik then assaults Philbin's character (Christine Daae) forcing her to look upon his Hollywood makeup by grabbing her by the hair - - this too is supposed to be real, as Philbin was really trying to get away from Chaney (and his makeup, and, according to legend, the harsh language Chaney was spewing at her to enhance her surprise and shock).

Philbin was 17 years old during the 1924-25 "first" filming of Phantom. She is also in scenes shot in 1929 for the "sound" re-issue of Phantom that incorporated story and visual changes different from the original 1925 release, particularly modifying the relationship between Christine to Erik, and Christine to Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (played by Norman Kerry). The new scenes were directed* by Edward Sedgwick, who had also handled some scenes during the 1925 shooting - it is reported that the original production produced some 20 hours of footage, which was culled down to a 4-hour version that Universal then painstakingly pared down to the original premier length of 114 minutes, shooting new material along the way as it was shown to test audiences to sort out what did and did not work. The earlier versions were supposed to have elicited boredom at early test screenings. The 1929 version is roughly 90 minutes in length and heavily emphasizes the new sound sections, in particular, the Faust opera sequence. This is the usual version that is shown on television and is featured in home video releases, for example, the multi-version 2011 Image Bluray release The Phantom of the Opera 2-Disk - Amazon)

During the complicated filming of Phantom, Chaney took to being on set anytime Philbin was doing a scene, apparently out of a desire to protect Philbin from the often angry director Rupert Julian, and to play acting coach from the sidelines, something Chaney did with many other young actors on his films.

Mary Philbin also worked on many other films (there are 33 screen credits in Philbin's resume). She also worked with Conrad Veidt (and his scarred-face makeup) for the 1928 The Man who Laughs.

Philbin's career did not proceed past the collapse of silent films and the advent of cinematic sound. Her one official "talkie" is After the Fog (1929). She withdrew entirely from public life and lived with her parents in Hollywood until their deaths, and then continued in that same house until she passed away in 1993 from complications of pneumonia.

Who directed Phantom of the Opera?

Although Rupert Julian is the officially credited director for Phantom of the Opera, there are scenes directed by other people. Julian was sometimes forced off the set either by his own temper, disinterest, or Universal executives who mandated reshoots being done when Julian was absent, or even by Lon Chaney who grew to dislike Julian's domineering way of handling the film crew, to the extent that eventually the two only spoke to each other through an intermediary, and that caustically. The famous scene of Erik's unmasking, for example, is supposed to have been directed mostly by Chaney (though this is disputed by some sources) as Julian had shot material from the script and then left the set, and Chaney proceeded to reshoot the section "better." This would reinforce the legend that Philbin was seriously frightened during the unmasking, as the scene in the 1929 reissue shows Philbin looking both genuinely surprised, intercut with shots in which she is obviously using standard silent movie acting techniques in response to Erik's disfigured face.

Edward Sedgwick shot the chase through Paris and then the climax on the banks of the Seine, which was used to replace Julian's original climax of Erik laying dead across the keyboard of his underground organ.

Uncredited directing on Phantom also goes to Ernst Laemmle, the nephew of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle. Ernst had 55 directing credits altogether, most being short films. He also had a few writing projects in Hollywood, for example contributing material, uncredited, to Preston Sturges for his films The Palm Beach Story and The Great Moment.

The production on the 1925/1929 Phantom of the Opera was long, started-and-restarted, and convoluted because Universal intended to make a version of the Gaston L. A. Leroux novel which retained Leroux's romantic and detective-mystery elements, but when this resulted in tepid test audience response, they panicked and actually shot extended comedy sequences to try to change the tenor of the film, but this too failed to gel with both Universal executives or test screenings. As these other varied ideas were tried and fell away, this appears to be how over time Chaney's decisions about how to present the character of Erik/Phantom and the production design by Ben Carre took over the project completely and become the center of the tale both visually and thematically, shifting the film into a genre that barely existed at the time, the "horror film."

For a comparison of what Universal may have originally intended for the 1925/29 Phantom, consider the 1943 Phantom of the Opera remake with Claude Rains: it is a musical heavily featuring singing and a competitive romantic triangle between the three starring leads, with Erik the Phantom (Rains) a supporting character who takes up a significantly lessor importance on screen.

Original Page May 2016 - Updated March 2018

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