Saturday, September 10, 2016

HP Lovecraft and the Opera Ghost #TrailOfCthulhu



I came across something today that puzzled me at first and then intrigued me.

I found this essay online - "The Horror on the Wall" by ST Joshi about Lovecraft's opinion of movies, and in it was a passage about a favourite of mine which I am glad to hear that Lovecraft also rated highly - the Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney (in my opinion one of the finest actors who has ever brought his art to the screen.  That is only my opinion but you are entitled to disagree and that's fine as long as you don't mind your opinion being held in justified contempt by right thinking folks).

Lovecraft saw Phantom in 1925 and wrote this:
 ". . . what a spectacle it was!! It was about a *presence* haunting the great Paris opera house . . . but developed so slowly that I actually fell asleep several times during the first part. Then the second part began--horror lifted its grisly visage--& I could not have been made drowsy by all the opiates under heaven! Ugh!!! The face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off "
Well quite. Chaney's self devised make-up was a wonderful piece of grotesquerie, replicating so near as could be achieved the death's head look of the novel's Phantom rather than the mild sunburn of the latest cinematic abomination to take the name.

But what intrigued me most were the next words in Lovecraft's letter (emphasis mine):
"The face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off . . . & the nameless legion of things that cloudily appeared beside & behind the owner of that face when the mob chased him into the river at the last!"
As you young people say, "Wait, what?"    Nameless legion of things that cloudily appeared...   I don't recall any cloudy appearance of things, nameless or otherwise.

Now the ending of Chaney's Phantom is not ideal.   The novel and the originally shot ending of the 1925 movie both ended on a note of poignant drama as the psychotic Phantom releases the object of his fixation to live a normal life with her beloved Raoul, and then himself perishes alone of misery and a broken heart.   The originally shot ending of the movie truncated this to happen in minutes rather than weeks but nonetheless ended with a mob breaking into Erik the Phantom's lair and finding him dead at his organ.

A surviving still of the original ending, now alas lost

That was shown to test audiences comprised, like most movie test audiences, of movie goers who naturally eschewed such moments of drama and poignant character resolution and demanded some active justice so Carl Laemmle had the sequence reshot as a carriage chase involving an angry mob pursuing Erik through Paris, beating him to death and throwing him in the Seine.   There would presumably have been a custard pie fight too, as crowds love those, but I guess the custard wasn't delivered in time.

Anyway, those are the two endings I know of for the 1925 Phantom.  Lovecraft of course saw the ending from the final cut of the movie in which Erik is chased, battered and thrown in the river.  But I haven't seen a single nameless legion of things cloudily appearing in that sequence.  Unless you count Parisians of course, but to be honest I think Lovecraft rightly included them in the word 'mob'.

Erik serenades Christine at the cemetery where her father's body lies
- a scene cut from the final version
The film had a troubled history.  The director Rupert Julian didn't seem to have a cohesive vision for the work and lots of the scenes veer wildly between the macabre, the comical and the just plain baffling.   The character of The Persian, an unnamed figure from Erik's past appears as he does in the novel but is suddenly renamed Inspector Ledoux of the Surete for no good reason and doesn't bother to change out of his fez.   The ghostly rat-catcher of the novel appears and is entirely unexplained, and so on.   Scenes were filmed, used, recut, moved, dropped and reintroduced throughout the production.   In 1929 the whole thing was recut and scenes were added and dropped to conform to a new vision of the whole, including scenes shot from alternate angles during the original filming.   Most cuts of the movie you can see these days are drawn from the 1929 version as the original negatives of the 1925 version are in poor condition.

This video clip compares and contrasts the key unmasking scene from the 1925 and 1929 versions to illustrate the differences that exist.



Returning to the question in hand then, did Lovecraft, in 1925, see something we don't have in today's version of the film?  Did he simply imagine them, dredging up eldritch additions from his imaginative depths?
Were there actually nameless legions of shadowy things that appeared to witness Erik's demise?  Certainly no such things appear in the novel as there is no equivalent scene in the novel.    Was there a cut, that Lovecraft saw, in which things appeared there on screen at such a key moment?  If so what were those things and why were they so ruthlessly expunged from all further cuts of the movie?

And if surviving film of that original sequence with Lovecraft-witnessed nameless shadowy Things still exists what would happen if it was found and viewed?

That's one I'll mull over for a while but I thought I would throw open that question to any Keepers out there who may want to revisit with Lovecraft's eyes this cinematic conundrum.

What new surprises lie in store?


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