Monday, Oct. 20, 2008

Phantom of the Oriental

By David Luhrssen
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The Phantom of the Opera lurked in the imagination long before Andrew Lloyd Webber turned it into the popular musical that was transformed into the most recent movie adaptation. Mostly it was because of a film more spoken of than seen, the 1925 silent picture starring Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Phantom.

The movie’s reputation was kept alive by one scene, which inevitably turned up in documentaries on old-time Hollywood or reduced to a single cringing image in books—those moments when the lovely singer Christine creeps up on her mysterious captor in his catacomb beneath the Paris Opera and pulls off his mask.

It’s still shocking and stands as a pinnacle in the development of the horror genre, an element Sir Andrew downplayed in favor of romance when he wrote his musical.

For a long time The Phantom of the Opera, like many silent movies, existed in bits and pieces edited together from decaying, surviving reels of celluloid. Without losing its power of creepy insinuation, the version I once saw seemed deliriously incoherent at moments. It was as if connecting frames were missing.

As a Halloween treat, the Oriental Theatre will screen the fullest restoration of The Phantom to date. Most of the original footage has been recovered, albeit not all of the original two-color Technical effects. Much of the missing color (and a surprising number of silent movie directors fiddled with various color processes) has been reinserted by hand tinting guided by educated guesswork. It may be the closest we’ve gotten to The Phantom as the film appeared on the night it premiered.

Silent movies were seldom entirely silent. There was almost always music. The accompanying music was considered so important that original orchestral scores were sometimes commissioned for larger theaters. Since the ‘80s, Boston’s Alloy Orchestra has devised splendid scores for a variety of classic silent films, including The Phantom of the Opera. Alloy Orchestra will perform its music alongside a screening of the restored Phantom at the Oriental Theatre, 7 p.m. Oct. 29.

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