Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Silent) (1925)




I'm lumping my reviews together, just like what Amazon is doing! The above 3 video editions of the Lon Chaney silent classic will be covered in this review. Also, see my video clip at the top of this review to see disc covers, film clip comparisons, etc. (For those who can't see my video clip, especially iOS users who can't see flash video, I posted an external link to the video in the comment section, but you need to go to Amazon's FULL site to see the comment section.)

The 2011 Blu-ray edition of the 1925 Lon Chaney horror classic "The Phantom of the Opera" is produced by Blackhawk Films (owned by restorer David Shepard) and distributed by Image Entertainment. It has no corresponding DVD release. Blackhawk and Image also released the 1997 DVD edition, and this Blu-ray carries over some of its material. The initial release of the Blu-ray on Nov 1, 2011 had several manufacturing defects, but a corrected edition was released soon after. The disc packaging does not indicate which edition is the corrected one. The only way to identify it is to look at the menu screen. The corrected disc has a menu that shows more information about the disc's content, while the uncorrected one only shows the score composers' names. See my video clip above for what they look like. If you got the incorrect edition, ask for a replacement from Image Entertainment by emailing

The Blu-ray comes with 3 versions of the silent classic. Listed first in the menu, the "main" version, as it were, seems to be the 24-frame-per-second, 78-minute version that has the best picture quality of the 3 versions. Shown in 1080p high-definition, this is, needless to say, the best-looking version of the film ever. The Technicolor Bal Masque sequence is present as well, as is the re-created hand-tinted red cape of the Phantom at rooftop. 24 fps is, of course, usually the wrong speed for silent films, but it IS the right speed for the 1929 sound version of the film. And the print used for this Blu-ray (and, in fact, most video editions) happens to have come from the sound version, as indicated by the presence of actress Mary Fabian, a well-known soprano at the time who did her own singing for the sound version but DID NOT appear in the original silent version. Also, the 24-fps version includes a vintage score accompaniment by Gaylord Carter that was recorded in 1974 at 24-fps speed. Hence, the 24-fps presentation seems apt here. Besides the Carter score, a more modern-sounding score by the renowned Alloy Orchestra is also included.

A strange thing occurs during the early ballet sequence: the dancers seem to be moving in slow motion for a few seconds. My video clip above shows how it looks. It is present in the corrected Blu-ray release, sadly, as well as the uncorrected one. The 2003 Milestone DVD does not have this problem.

The 2nd version is presented at silent-film frame rate of 20 fps and runs 92-minute. Made from the same print that yielded the 24-fps version (slow-motion dancers and all), the 20-fps version is, however, shown in 1080i (interlaced) and curiously has a lot more print damages. How did the SAME print yield one version with few damages and another with lots of damages? According to the Blu-ray's producer, the non-standard frame rate of 20 fps made it impossible to present it in 1080p and to apply digital cleanup to eliminate print damages on the picture, as it was done for the 24-fps version. But for many people, 20fps is the proper speed for the silent version and they would probably wish that the 20-fps version is the cleaned-up version instead. The 20-fps version is accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau's orchestral score (which includes operatic singing), the same score used for the 1997 DVD edition from Blackhawk & Image. An informative full-length audio commentary track by composer and Lon Chaney expert Jon Mirsalis is also included.

The 3rd version is the original 1925 silent version. Well, not really. Original 35mm camera negatives of the silent version no longer survives. What survive are 16mm prints that were made for private collectors in the 1930s, the so-called "Show-at-Home" prints, one of which was used for this Blu-ray. Shown in 480i, the 16mm picture looks unsurprisingly bad, with murky details and print damages galore. It doesn't help that Blackhawk/Image chose to use tinting for this version, and the added colors, especially the darker ones, obscure details even more. The 2003 Milestone DVD, on the other hand, does not have tinting for the 1925 version, and it seems to look better as a result. The Blu-ray's 1925 version includes piano music accompaniment by Frederick Hodges.

The Blu-ray has other supplements as well. It carries over portion of the poorly-scanned still gallery from the 1997 DVD, while adding a few more high-quality scans. Stills that have captions on the 1997 DVD, have none on the Blu-ray. These stills, about 60 or so, comprise of set construction photos, behind-the-scenes photos, vintage movie posters and lobby cards, and hand-tinted screen captures of a surviving French print.

The film's shooting script and souvenir program are presented as slide-shows of still frames; words are smallish and hard to see even on my 50" screen. The script is shown as scans of typewritten pages; each page is only on the screen for a few seconds. If you pause the screen, the 1080i display may cause text to look slightly garbled due to the interlacing effect. That's 1080i by nature and that's why this kind of things are better shown in progressive 1080p. The script identifies itself as "the fifth revised shooting script circa 1924", and it contains, like typical shooting scripts, scenes not shown in the final movie, such as Christine and Raoul's wedding at a church.

This Blu-ray is NOT a descendant of the 2003 Milestone Blu-ray, as Blackhawk and Milestone are two different entities. This Blu-ray is a descendant of the aforementioned 1997 Image/Blackhawk DVD. The 2003 Milestone DVD is rumored to be succeeded by a Blu-ray edition from Milestone, but no official announcement has been made yet.


Although marred by static direction and stilted acting, the 1925 silent film THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is known primarily for the memorable contribution by Lon Chaney as an actor and makeup artist. His moving portrayal of the disfigured escaped convict who haunts Paris Opera House is perhaps the sole reason to watch this film. And his talent as a makeup artist helped create one of the most indelible images in film history: the skull-like head of the phantom that conveys sadness, anger, and horror at the same time. This Region-1-only 2-disc DVD set from The Milestone Company includes two versions of this classic film: the 1925 version that was premiered in New York, and the 1929 re-edited silent version that is most often seen today. The DVD also contains excellent supplements that give us a good overview of the film's rather remarkable history.

The rarely seen 1925 New York premiere version included on this DVD is untinted, runs 107 minutes, and was transferred from the only surviving 16mm reduction print. Its video quality is understandably poor; sharpness and clarity are never satisfactory, and blemishes abound. There are some notable differences between this version and the shorter, 93-min, 1929 re-edited version. In the 1925 version, actors are introduced via their own title cards. There is no "Carlotta's mother" character. Carlotta is played by Virginia Pearson in both the opera and the dramatic scenes. The chandelier sequence is edited more competently and thus played out a little more effectively. There are more scenes in Christine's dressing room, so adequate suspense is built up before she meets the phantom. There is also one crucial scene in a garden that explains why Christine is so enamored to the mysterious voice she hears. In my opinion, the 1925 version is the superior version; it seems more complete and satisfying narratively than the edited 1929 version.

The 1929 edited silent version included on this DVD was transferred from a restored, re-tinted print made by the renowned film restoration company Photoplay Productions. This is the best-looking version of PHANTOM to date. It also looks much sharper and cleaner than the 1997 Image DVD. Both DVDs offer the speed-corrected 1929 version, but the '97 Image DVD opens with a shot of a man holding a lantern walking past the camera, while the Milestone DVD, curiously, omits this so-called "lantern man" shot and opens at the opera house. On both DVDs, the "Bal Masque" scene is shown in two-strip Technicolor, with the color on the Milestone disc looking a little more realistic. Also, in order to duplicate the original film as much as possible, some of the color scenes on the Milestone disc were actually digitally colored (such as the phantom's red cape at the roof of the opera house), because there is no existing color footage for them. On the '97 Image DVD, no digital coloring was used.

There was a "talkie" version of PHANTOM made in 1929, but unfortunately the print of that version was lost. The dialogs and sound effects recorded for that version, however, survived. To give the viewer a taste of the sound version, the Milestone DVD offers something interesting to accompany the 1929 silent version: a soundtrack composed of fragments of existing recordings of the sound version pieced together to fit the silent version as much as possible. The result is still far from being a "talkie" track. It has plenty of sound effects and spoken dialogs, but it has almost no synchronized talking. Inter-titles are still present (because this is still the silent version). There is, however, one opera sequence where the singing of actress Mary Fabian (who did her own singing) is perfectly synchronized with the picture, which is a wonder to watch. The DVD also includes audio-only supplements of recorded dialogs, which give us further glimpses of the talkie version -and of its rather incompetent voice acting.

Also accompanying the 1929 version is a superb audio commentary by PHANTOM expert Scott MacQueen. He provides a wealth of information about the production history, the backgrounds of the cast and crew, the various versions of the film, the use of color, and the use of sound. He deplores the incompetence of director Rupert Julian, and emphasizes that the true auteurs of the film were Chaney and set designer Ben Carré. He points out that contemporary reviews indicate that the 1925 version contains Technicolor sequences in not only the Bal Masque scene, but also the opera sequences and the auditorium scenes (the extensive use of color must have been quite a spectacle for a silent film back then). He recounts in great details (while speaking at a pretty fast pace) how the various versions of PHANTOM survived over the years -the existing 1925 version originated from the so-called "Show-at-home" 16mm versions which Universal made for private collectors in the 1930s, while the surviving 1929 version was obtained by a Jim Card at Universal in the 1950s, and the Technicolor sequences was obtained from a 1930 dye transfer copy by restorationist David Shepherd.

To add even more value to an already superb package, the Milestone DVD also includes still-frame reconstructions of the Los Angeles and San Francisco premiere versions of PHANTOM. These were the very first public showings of the film. The Los Angeles version ended not with a chase scene as in later versions, but with the phantom dying alone at his piano.

For starters, I agree with all the positive things said about this 2-disc set.

Unfortunately, there a couple of things about the discs that just spoiled the whole experience for me and may do so with you.

First, there is a "motion blur" or "ghosting" artifact that runs throughout the 1929/30 restoration. It looks similar to what a transfer from PAL video format to NTSC video format looks like only more exaggerated (images appear to be overlapped or double--sometimes triple--exposed). During the unmasking, Chaney's face is unnecessarily blurred, even when using freeze frame and stepping through the scene frame by frame.

Milestone has acknowledged the "ghosting", attributing it to adjusting the frame rate of the film during transfer from video master to video master. Incidentally, the original video master was in PAL format and was converted to NTSC for US, but Milestone claims PAL to NTSC was not the cause. Since they performed the additional restoration/picture cleaning on the overly "ghosted" transfer, it became a trade-off as to whether to present the cleaned up version or the "unghosted" version. Why such extensive restoration was done to a video master with excessive motion blur is beyond me.

For some folks, this will be a minor thing. For others, it will be very distracting and cast a dark cloud over what looks like to be the cleanest `print' of this movie in existence. I will be keeping the other Image DVD edition with the David Shepherd restoration.

Secondly, for the special features, the pause, fast forward, and reverse functions have been disabled. This can be a bit of a nuisance. For example, there is a 21 minute "restored version" of the films' original premiere utilizing stills and expository text. This I was excited about. However, unless you are a speed reader, you won't be able to read everything in one viewing. You can't pause it, or "rewind" to read what you missed. It is like trying to enjoy a book (both text and pictures) with someone else turning the pages for you. If you miss something, you have to start over from page one and go through again.

Again, some of you won't care about the motion blur one iota. Others will feel as I do: This disc should've been a contender but instead, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Buy Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Silent) (1925) Now

Warning to all purist. The DVD of the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is not the triumph of preservation its advertised as being. First and most important to home theatre owners, the transfer is simply not in focus! Unlike in the movie theatre you cant ask the projetionist to refocus the image.. you are stuck with it. Secondly: if the "preservationists" found the best pre-print material in the 1929 synchronized re-edit as described on the liner notes, why in heavens name don't they present it as originally shown? Pretending that it is the silent version by replacing the soundtrack may be the loophole by which the film could be categorized as public domain but it is inherently dishonest to present it as an example of "film preservation". The original silent cut, the synch sound release and the present (refocused) remaster would be much more apreciated service to posterity. Look to other silent film transfers for guidence in image quality limits.If the box indicates that the contents are a "SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION" and advertises "PRIME..35mm QUALITY" one wishes it lived up to its promise. (DVD version)

Read Best Reviews of Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Silent) (1925) Here

***Update. Feb.4, 2012. I just received a replacement Blu-ray sent from Image and although the menu is easier to access-for example the version listed as 20 fps Gabriel Thibaudeau score and the 1929 24 fps version with the Gaylord Carter score, etc. the menu is the only upgrade. The momentary "freeze" moments which is in the first release on the 20 fps version are, sadly, still there. From what I can tell, only the menus were made better, which is both good and bad. It is nice the menu is easier to access for people who buy this new version but sad that the 20 fps movie still has several moments where for a split second the image freezes. Why they left that the same I have no idea. Okay, back to my original review in early November:

I just finished watching one of three versions available on "The Phantom of the Opera" Blu-ray starring Lon Chaney and since then I have checked out the other two versions. First I watched the 20 fps (frames per second) version because I love Gabriel Thibaudeau's score. I was blown away by how sharp the picture looked. I definitely picked up on details I had not noticed before. When the Phantom is in the water, for instance, you can see just how wet the coat is when he climbs back out and details on his face as well. There is also no motion blur as there was on the Milestone release. The one quibble I do have is that there are a few instances in which the movie freezes for a second and then continues running. One place this happens is when Christine jumps up from the couch in the Phantom's cellar. There is a momentary freeze and then also when she wakes up in the morning. It wasn't in Image's DVD release but this appears to be a different print. I have read another writer's review about this problem and he made note of it too. He says the producer of the Blu-ray, David Shepard, is aware of a few of the issues and there apparently will be a second pressing of this Blu-ray with the issues corrected. That is good news. The Alloy Orchestra version, the 24 fps version, did not have the freeze moments. The image details makes this Blu-ray well worth owning. Also, you choose the three versions based on the score. I know that is odd but you choose the Thibaudeau listing on the menu for the 29 version, at 20 fps, and then you choose the Alloy Orchestra Score for the 24 fps 1929 version and you can choose the Gaylord Carter score instead if you wish as it pops up and gives you the choice. The Jon Mirsalis commentary is on the Thibaudeau version and is interesting. Finally, you can choose the 1925 Phantom version by choosing the Frederick Hodges score. Although this is a bit different way to choose, I did not find it complicated. The Bonus features include a Phantom Trailer and the Thibauddeau interview, which was interesting. Also included are reproduction program photos as well as the shooting script on screen. I understand Milestone will release a version next year which will include the Carla Laemle interview from their DVD release a few years ago and a few other items. In the meantime, I am fully happy I purchased this. The Phantom, believe me, has never looked better and again, there is no motion blur. This is a Sweet release. I highly recommend it if you love Chaney and/or the Phantom. One thing I should add is that you get the proper aspect ratio. If you have a widescreen TV it is displayed in a square fashion as the movie was originally presented. If you own the "Wizard of Oz" on Blu-ray, it is identical in the way it is presented. It is so cool to see the Phantom in HD! Purchase this one today. You will be glad you did.

Want Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Silent) (1925) Discount?

This Phantom of the Opera shows its age, to be sure, but it has held up surprisingly well. While co-stars Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry hardly set the screen on fire (as commentator Jon Mirsalis notes), an evocative and then-gargantuan production design, as well as Chaney's commanding performance more than make up for the lack of chemistry between the supposed romantic duo. What is so fascinating about this film is that Chaney is really not all that present and yet his presence looms over the entire film in a menacing way. For the first half hour or so, he's only seen sparingly, and then only in shadow or silhouette, making the iconic unmasking of him in the bowels beneath the Paris Opera all the more dramatic. Director Rupert Julian (aided by an uncredited Edward Sedwick and even Chaney himself for reshoots Laemmle ordered both for the 1925 and rejiggered 1929-30 versions) keeps things moving fairly briskly, though truth be told the original 1925 version can be a somewhat slow slog at times, despite its more coherent and cohesive storyline. The special effects are really quite convincing considering the age of the film, and Chaney's makeup certainly still retains its horrific nature and certainly is still easily one of the most disturbing transformations in the annals of film, silent or otherwise.

The Phantom of the Opera is presented on Blu-ray with an AVC codec. The 24fps 1929 version is offered in 1080p in a 1.2:1 aspect ratio. The 20fps 1929 version is presented in 1080i in a 1.2:1 aspect ratio. (I have emails and phone calls into various sources to find out if the interlaced presentation of this version is one of the technical issues with the first pressing of the BD which David Shepard has mentioned publicly). The 1925 version of the film is presented in 480p standard definition in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The press releases accompanying this release are a tad confusing. While there's no question that the 24fps 1929 version was sourced from a 35mm negative, some press releases make it seem like the 20fps version was sourced from either the same negative (which doesn't seem technically possible, frankly, considering the different frame rates) or another one, but there is no question that the 20fps version comes from a different, and decidedly inferior source element, than the 24fps version.The good news is that the 24fps 1929 version is going to be a minor (perhaps even a major) revelation to those who have grown up with inferior 16mm transfers of this film. The transfer is surprisingly damage free. The two strip Technicolor Bal Masque sequence looks great,with the reds popping magnificently. Several other sequences have been hand colored to recreate the original Handschiegl Color Process. The 24fps version offers superior clarity and sharpness, within reasonable expectations. The 20fps 1929 version is a rather major step downward in quality, at least in terms of damage. This version has considerably more wear and tear, with many more scratches, flecks and specks dotting the image with fair regularity. It still has some nicely sharp moments and those who prefer 20fps for their silents will most likely not be too disappointed. The 1925 version, in standard def and sourced from a 16mm print, is obviously the worst looking of the bunch. The image is often quite fuzzy and some of the inserts, as in the letters which are seen in close-up,are quite poor.

Recommended on Bluray.

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