Search for “Greatest Rom-Com of All Time” and there’s no shortage of candidates. One you won’t find, though, is the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Its makers would be disappointed.
There’s no doubt, of course, that Phantom is box-office gold. Based on the 1909 gothic suspense story Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by French writer Gaston Leroux, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is THE longest running show in Broadway history. Period.
Ever seen it? Then you are one of a select group of 130 million people and have helped the Lloyd Webber juggernaut generate worldwide gross receipts of $5.6 billion. (Yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’)
But back in 1925, all that was way off. The story had been published as a serial in 1909, and as a novel in 1910. Twelve years later, while on vacation in Paris, head of Universal studios, Carl Laemmle, met Leroux.
Leroux gave him the book, Laemmle read it in one night and bought the film rights, as a vehicle for actor Lon Chaney. Production began at Universal in 1924, with Rupert Julian as director.
And it was a disaster.
Although Julian remained true to the Gothic tone, as a director he was almost universally disliked. The production descended into farce. Chaney would only take directions from Julian through a third party responding with ‘Tell him to screw himself”.
Not surprisingly, at previews the film tanked. Julian was asked to reshoot it — he walked out. Desperate to recoup, Universal reshot with a new, slapstick, director reinterpreting the story as a romantic comedy, spliced in action scenes, light relief, gags, and a duel.
It premiered in April 1925 in San Francisco, and the audience literally booed it off the screen. Perhaps the critics would be kinder? “The story drags to the point of nauseam” wrote one. At their wits end, Universal jackknifed parts of both versions together for a third and final attempt.
It worked, mostly — and largely as a result of the extraordinary make-up of Lon Chaney as the Phantom. Chaney did his own make-up, keeping his look top secret until filming. Audiences were genuinely terrified — and still are.
Incidentally, the underground lake, beneath the opera-house? It’s real. The architect of the Paris Garnier incorporated the manmade structure into the theatre building.
Parisian firefighters use it to practice swimming in the dark.