It is not just the figure of the mysterious music lover that haunts the story of The Phantom of the Opera, but also that of the remarkable American film star, Lon Chaney Snr., for, more than anyone else, he created the image most readily associated in the public mind with the tale – that of the disfigured man skulking through the labyrinths of l’Opéra master-minding the career of his beautiful protégé. Indeed, it is arguable that if Chaney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces”, had not starred in that hugely influential 1925 silent movie, Gaston Leroux’s story might well have remained in obscurity – as the original book most certainly has done for many years – instead of inspiring a whole series of screen and stage adaptations during the past half century.
With that film, Chaney not only made himself an international star but placed the story of The Phantom of the Opera firmly alongside those other great horror classics, Dracula and Frankenstein. A moving performance by the young co-star, Mary Philbin as “Christine”, still further enhanced the poignancy of the drama.
The moment when Chaney snatched away the mask from his famous “Death’s Head” also provided one of the great moments of screen history (reportedly causing many people among the early audiences to faint!) as well as setting a standard for all who have since played the role. Although the former stage manager turned actor was always reluctant to reveal just how he achieved his terrifying appearance, he firmly denied wearing any kind of mask: “It was the use of paints in the right shades and the right places – not the obvious parts of the face – which gave the complete illusion of horror,” Chaney said.
The success of The Phantom of the Opera was not only confirmed in newspaper reviews and at the box office, but subsequently in its influence on the whole genre of horror pictures. In fact, it so impressed movie makers that it has since been re-filmed no fewer than four times.
The second version was made in 1943, this time with sound and in colour, and starred Claude Rains as a revengeful Phantom who has been scarred by acid. It was less Gothic in style than its predecessor, but stronger on music interludes, with a score by Edward Ward and the popular singer Nelson Eddy as co-star. Interestingly, all the sets for the original Chaney picture were used in this remake, and the photography won an Oscar.
Twenty years on, Leroux’s story was shabbily treated in a Spanish version, El Fantasma de la Operetta, which portrayed the Phantom as a blood-thirsty villain bent on murdering chorus girls.
Two years later, in 1962, Hammer Pictures revamped it as one of their series of “Hammer Horrors” with Herbert Lom and Heather Sears. Most recently, the original concept was virtually abandoned in The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) when the Paris Opera House became a New York Rock ‘n’ Roll theatre and the Phantom a demented disc jockey preying on pretty teeny-boppers!
The story has not fared much better on the stage. In France, strangely, it has scarcely appealed to dramatists at all, and there have only been two notable productions in England. The first was a much abridged version performed as part of a “Grand Guignol” season at the Little Theatre in London in 1935, and then in 1975, the Actors Company mounted a performance with Edward Petherbridge in the title role, and Sharon Duce as “Christine”.
It is also a sad fact that the image of the Phantom has obscured Gaston Leroux himself – for few people knew his name and even fewer have read his books. Yet, just as this production will further ensure the continuation of the legend, it might perhaps help rescue his creator from the wings of literary acclaim where he has stood for so long…