The Phantom of Manhattan - By Frederick Forsyth


WHAT HAS NOW BECOME THE LEGEND OF THE Phantom of the Opera began in the year 1910 in the mind of a French author now almost completely forgotten.

As with Bram Stoker and Dracula, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, Victor Hugo and Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gaston Leroux chanced upon a vague folk-tale and saw within it the kernel of a truly tragic story. From this he spun his tale. But here the similarities must end.

The other three works became immediate popular successes and remain to this day legends known to every reader, cinema-goer and millions more besides. Around Dracula and Frankenstein entire industries have been built, with scores if not hundreds of reprints and re-creations on film. Leroux, alas, was no Victor Hugo. When his slim little book emerged in 1911 it caused a brief flutter in France and even received newspaper serialization before falling into virtual oblivion. Only a fluke eleven years later, five years before the author’s death, brought his story back into prominence and set it on the road to immortality.

That fluke took the form of a very small and genial once-German Jew called Carl Laemmle who had emigrated to America as a boy and by 1922 had become president of Universal Motion Pictures of Hollywood. In that year he took a vacation in Paris. Leroux had by then started to dabble in the smaller French film industry and it was through this connection that the two men met.

In an otherwise desultory conversation the American film mogul mentioned to Leroux how impressed he had been by the vast Paris Opera House, still to this day the biggest in the world. Leroux responded by giving Laemmle a copy of his even-by-then disregarded book of 1911. The president of Universal Pictures read it through in a single night.

It just so happened that Carl Laemmle had both an opportunity and a problem on his mind. The opportunity was his recent discovery of a strange actor called Lon Chaney, a man with a face so mobile that it could assume almost any shape its owner wished. As a vehicle for Chaney, Universal had committed itself to making the first film of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, then already a classic. Chaney would play the deformed and impressively ugly Quasimodo. The set was already under construction in Hollywood, a huge timber and plaster replica of medieval Paris with Notre Dame in the foreground.

Laemmle’s problem was what vehicle to offer Chaney next, before he was stolen away by a rival studio. By dawn he thought he had his project. After the hunchback, Chaney would star as the equally disfigured and repulsive but essentially tragic Phantom of the (Paris) Opera. Like all good showmen, Laemmle knew that one way to pack audiences into cinemas was to frighten them out of their socks. The Phantom, he reckoned, ought to do that, and he was right.

He bought the rights, returned to Hollywood and ordered the construction of another set, this time of the Paris Opera House. Because it would have to support a cast of hundreds of extras, the Universal replica of the Opera became the first to be created with steel girders set in concrete. For that reason it was never dismantled, sits on Stage 28 at Universal Studios to this day, and has been reused many times over the years.

Lon Chaney duly starred in (first) The Hunchback of Notre Dame and then The Phantom of the Opera. Both were great commercial successes and established Chaney as an immortal in that kind of role. But it was the Phantom who so frightened the audiences that women screamed and even fainted, and in a masterly PR coup smelling-salts were available free in the foyer!

It was the film rather than Leroux’s overlooked and largely forgotten book that caught the imagination of the wider public and created the birth of the Phantom legend. Two years after its premiere Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, and the era of silent movies was over.

Since then there have been various representations of the Phantom of the Opera story but in most cases the tale was so altered as to be hardly recognizable and they made little impact. In 1943 Universal did a remake of their twenty-year-old property starring Claude Rains as the Phantom and in 1962 Hammer Films of London, specialists in horror movies, tried again, starring Herbert Lom in the title role. A TV version in 1983 with Maximilian Schell succeeded a filmed ‘rock’ version by