The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

‘Lost Girl’ and ‘Phantom’ Got Those Silent Upgrade Blu’s

Two silent classics travel from nitrate to VHS to HD Blu-rays, regaining something of their forgotten glory.

Kino has long promoted silent films on video, and we’ve watched certain titles progress from VHS to DVD and now to Blu-ray upgrades, such that an art once abandoned to faded, splicey, jumpy prints at the wrong speed and without the original color tints has been reborn in the video generation(s) to something of its forgotten glory.

Diary of a Lost Girl is the last of G.W. Pabst’s two famous melodramas that made an icon of American actress Louise Brooks, she of the pageboy bangs, the pointed side-trims, and the soulful gaze that underplays, even withdraws, in a medium devoted to overstatement. While some at the time found her dull, time has been kind to her timeless electricity. She starts this story as a tender teenager who faints into the arms of a man who knocks her up. After that, she’s confined to a regimental girls’ reform school, finding sisterhood and self-assurance as a prostitute, a social critique that departs slightly from Margarete Böhme’s scandalous source novel.

This Blu-ray upgrades Kino’s 2001 DVD, cobbled from various prints to resemble as closely as possible the original German version of Pabst’s much-censored box-office failure, and for the most part it looks startlingly, sparklingly clear. The movie is subtle and spellbinding — qualities not obvious in inferior prints. Like the earlier disc, it includes Brooks’ unremarkable comedy Windy Riley Goes Hollywood, a talkie short in lousy shape. A new extra is an informative commentary by historian Thomas Gladysz, who states that Pabst’s was the novel’s third German filming after versions in 1912 and 1918. For the record, Kino’s 1990 VHS edition was an alternate print that showed several differences in shots and scenes; it would have been a welcome bonus for comparison.

Universal’s expensive yet profitable super-production of The Phantom of the Opera, based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, was one of the silent era’s hugest hits. This iconic film is why the Phantom continues to resonate through the decades, with multiple remakes and an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. It’s famous for Lon Chaney’s extraordinarily ghastly makeup, revealed in a classic unmasking sequence, and also for the two-color Technicolor of the masked ball and the phantom’s hand-colored red cape as he crouches on a statue above the simpering lovers. (The color print of the opera sequences is lost.)

The film’s popularity is why it survives in various versions even after Universal destroyed all their silent negatives. The original 1925 version only exists in faded, incomplete 16-mm prints sold for home use. That edition (with a score by Frederick Hodges) is on Disc Two of Kino’s new Blu-ray, along with lengthy extracts from the sound discs of the mostly lost 1929-1930 talkie version, which reshot the opera scenes and several other scenes for dialogue. Disc Two also offers the original screenplay in a scrolling presentation, plus two Parisian travel shorts and an interview with Gabriel Thibaudeau, who composed one of the three musical soundtracks heard on Disc One’s version. The other scores are by Alloy Orchestra and Gaylord Carter’s theatre organ.

The film on Disc One uses the most complete print possible and in the best possible shape, dating from the 1929 reissue. That version consists of sound-remake scenes, albeit without that soundtrack, and original silent scenes apparently from an alternate camera, as intended for a secondary or international negative. It’s presented at a choice of two slightly different speeds (making a difference of about 10 minutes in the running time), and the longer option offers commentary by historian Jon C. Mirsalis. Kino labels their Blu-ray as “the definitive edition” of “the 1929 theatrical version, restored from archival 35-mm elements by Film Preservation Associates”.

The film’s popularity also explains the multiplicity of versions floating around on disc, including the 2011 Image Blu-ray, of which this is basically an upgrade. Mirsalis’ commentary mentions the 2003 Milestone DVD, to which he contributed a score, and that’s the only other edition now that may appeal to collectors (it also has a commentary track). It’s safe to bypass the innumerable other public-domain releases on miscellanous labels. You can’t go wrong with Kino’s edition.

RATING 9 / 10