Saturday, November 8, 2008

Phantom of the Opera at the Paramount Theater

I have to admit that I've never seen Phantom of the Opera. I haven't read the book by Gaston Leroux. I haven't seen the 1940's remake with Claude Rains. I haven't seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage adaptation. I haven't seen the 2004 film adaptation of Webber's musical.

When I saw that the 1925 silent version (starring Lon Chaney) was playing on Halloween at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone. I've never seen Phantom nor have I been in the Paramount.

After watching DocFest’s Bunnyland at the Shattuck in Berkeley, I took BART to Oakland. It was raining so I hoped that it wouldn’t be too crowded in the theater. It wasn’t crowded but there was good turnout. On the Paramount’s website, the seating capacity is listed at over 3000. I’m not good at estimating crowds but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were over 1,000 people in attendance.

Allow me to vent for a moment. I was sitting in the Orchestra Front Stage Right section. There was a woman in the Orchestra Front Center section. She was wearing earrings with blinking light. What the hell! Who wears blinking earrings to a movie theater? Prior to the show, I was wondering if she would turn them off when the film began. She kept the earrings blinking through the newsreel before the film! I was wondering what to do. They were in my line of sight and very distracting. Not an usher to be seen. I would have had to step over a dozen people to ask her to turn off her earrings. I could have yelled which is what I felt like doing but I was too meek. Thankfully, someone sitting in the row behind tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to turn them off. She politely obliged. I’ve never seen flashing earrings in a theater but a first cousin to them is cell phones. I hate when people check the time on the phone or even send text messages. The phone lights up like a beacon in a dark theater.

Back to the program…first was a newsreel about horses – trotting horse, fox hunts, female harness racers. I couldn’t get into it. That damn woman’s earrings! By the time she turned them off, the film was half over. The topic was not something that interested me though.

That was followed the cartoon which was Mysterious Mose, a Betty Boop/Bimbo film by the Fleischer Brothers. Bimbo was a cartoon dog that the Fleischers were trying to make a star out of. Indeed, Bimbo received above-the-title billing in this film even though Betty goes topless (she was scared out of her nightgown). Eventually, they found that Popeye and Betty Boop were more popular so Bimbo faded to the background.

The title may not be familiar but if you have watched films from or documentaries about the 1930’s, you may recognize the song. Like “Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway, “Mysterious Mose” has a catchy refrain. You can view the cartoon on YouTube.

Then they brought the lights up and a man in a tuxedo and a woman (Bianca) in a tight gown rose from the orchestra pit on a mechanical platform. There was a roulette wheel between them. Bianca spun the wheel a few times and provided exaggerated spokesmodel gestures (imagine Barker’s Beauties from The Price is Right high on coke). Actually Bianca was quite entertaining. The numbers the wheel landed on corresponded to the last three digits of someone(s) ticket stubs. Winners received gift certificates to local restaurants.

Next up was organist Jim Riggs. He gave some historical notes about the film that I found interesting. The film was released three times in 1925. Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, produced the film. The original version didn’t test well so they re-shot parts of the film to include some comedic elements. That version (which premiered at the Geary Theater in San Francisco - current home of the American Conservatory Theater) didn’t test well either. So a third version was shot which was the “final” version. In 1929, talkies were becoming the rage so Laemmle decided to re-release Phantom with sound. He re-filmed 40% of the film with some color film and a soundtrack. By 1929, Chaney was no longer under contract to Universal so the new footage didn’t include him. In 1929, many theaters had not installed a sound system so the re-release had a sound version and silent version. The silent version was the film the screened at the Paramount.

I’m familiar with the general plot of Phantom - psychotic musical genius lives in the underground passages beneath the Paris Opera House. He becomes infatuated with Christine, an apprentice singer. He helps her become a star. She is disgusted by his facial deformity. She plots an escape with her lover. The phantom discovers her plans and kidnaps her. From there, I’m little unclear what happens.

In the introduction, Riggs said the original version followed the novel. The Phantom dies after kissing Christine. In the version the screened, an angry mob chases the Phantom from his underground lair. They chase him through the streets of Paris before he jumps (presumably to his death) into the Seine. It was a very abrupt ending. The formula ending would have been that Christine’s love/kindness/beauty reforms the Phantom and he gives permission to Christine to marry her lover. Either the Phantom lives in peace afterwards or tragically dies as a result of past transgressions or misunderstanding.

In this version, the Phantom kidnaps Christine to marry her but is separated from her by the angry mob. The mob chases him and jumps in the river. There is no redemption scene. Christine never feels remorse for spurning the Phantom. The Phantom never sacrifices his love for Christine by letting her go. As a result, the film seems to end prematurely. I was disappointed in the film. Given the number of re-shoots, I can’t help but think the essence of the film was lost in the process. As for Chaney, his make-up was still ghoulish after 80 years. I preferred Chaney in The Unknown and The Unholy Three which I saw at the 2008 and 2006 San Francisco Silent Film Festivals, respectively.

The Paramount Theater was magnificent. It has an art deco exterior and a huge lobby. Once in the theater, there are bas-relief carvings on the walls. The motif switches to ancient Greek in the theater. The restrooms are in the basement, which has a huge lounge.

I been past the Paramount many time but never been inside. They have guided tours at 10 AM on the first and third Saturdays of each month. I’m going to try to take the tour one day. The cost is $5. That reminds me, the ticket price for Phantom was only $5 also. That is the cheapest evening showing I’ve seen in many years.

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