November 03: Phantom Menace

2016/11/03 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1925 the Phantom of the Opera movie opened.

The movie is based on a series of stories by Gaston Leroux published first as Le Fantôme de l’Opéra between 1909-10.  Let’s be honest: it’s really a bad story with ridiculous characters (although we would delight in the idea of a deranged architect living in the bowels of his building, Leroux’s freak is just no fun at all). Especially horrid is the manipulated and weak Christine. But there’s no denying the success of the film, as well as the big Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, although we’ve never understood it–especially when, in the 1920s you could go watch a dozen other superior spooky movies and in the 1980s, hello, Les Misérables?

Setting aside the mystery of this story’s popularity, one wonders about the choice of setting that is so key that it is, after all, included in the title. Surely Leroux had many creepy buildings from which to choose in Paris, why Garnier’s Opera?  Why is this lumbering latter-day Baroque pile of Classical poof a setting for a sinister story?  In 1909 was he (and his audience) so smitten by the youthful newness of Guimard and Lavirotte that Garnier’s building, with its massive masonry and squishy dome just looked heavy and obsolete, sinister and monstrous?  Was the gigantic chandelier just too tempting to use as a weapon and the infamous underground labyrinth of cellars and rivulets too compelling a plot device?  And then for its later fans in 1925, was the Opera just that dark and brooding, especially in light of the glittering new vision of architectural modernity that burst forth from that famous Art Deco fair in the same year?  It’s pretty clear that, as the above poster shows, in 1925 the building was seen as a double for the phantom who encompasses it like a second dome.  Maybe to Roaring Twenties audiences in their shiny and exotic movie palaces, the Opera (made for live actors, after all) did seem hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-step, like the ill-fated villain within.  We’re more at a loss with the final installment of Phantomania, and can only assume that audiences of the 1980s wanted a billowy, puffy show with giant chandeliers crashing to the stage in an expression of the love of bigness that was manifest in their hair treatments and shoulder pads.

Image: poster (from this source)

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