At the time of this writing, I have barely returned from an evening at The Organ Loft, located at 3331 S. Edison Street, where they screened the 1925 adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” starring the horror icon himself, Lon Chaney Sr. As the year of the adaptation indicates, this is a silent film.
After watching it, I realized that it’s one thing to watch a silent film on a DVD, but it’s another thing entirely to sit in a theatre and watch the film with live accompaniment by a master organist on a massive Wurlitzer organ. This leads me to the point of this article, the importance of the silent film and the experiences provided by places such as The Organ Loft.
When I mention “The Phantom of the Opera,” most people immediately think of the Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber because it is the most recent, romanticized incarnation of the story. However, the version I saw predates the musical by about 75 years. It was the first adaptation of the original novel by Gaston Leroux, which has since been overshadowed by the 1925 film and two musical adaptations.
The story is pretty much the same, as two businessmen become the owners of the iconic Paris Opera House, which is believed to be haunted by a spectre seeking to both aid and seduce the young singer, Christine. However, another man, Raoul, a childhood friend of Christine’s, also vies for her affections.
There is something that must be said about the acting in silent movies. It’s best to equate this to a sort of a ballet, as most of the emotion is relayed through pantomime. While some of it may seem comedic by today’s superficial standards, the ability to convey emotion with facial expression and body language alone is something many actors strive for. This is something that is Lon Chaney’s strong suit, as he successfully conveys both the romantic desperation and the maddening rage that defines the character. He even captures some of the subtlety to the character that tends to be betrayed by some of the inter-titles.
One thing that must also be said about silent films is regarding some of the unique cinematography that was lost when sound was introduced. Since the camera wasn’t tethered to a huge train of sound cables, it could be placed anywhere and everywhere, which works to show the elaborate re-creation of the Paris Opera House that was built to scale using the original blueprints. There is also the case of the creative use of shadows to add to the suspense of the film, embodying the fear that comes from those who encounter the Phantom, only to end up either dead, or in his manipulative web.
While this is a silent film, sound still plays a key part. That duty falls to the organist. The organist for this event being Blaine Gale. The organ is a far more powerful instrument than most people give it credit for, as it was designed as a precursor to the electronic synthesizer. The Wurlitzer organ that is housed in the Organ Loft is especially powerful, the pipe work lining most of the walls in the building from behind panes of glass. As the film played, Gale masterfully used the different modes of the organ to “fill in” the sound effects, matching the emotions of the scenes with both tone and volume. Like a stationary equivalent to the one-man band, the instrument acted as a character in and of itself, a sort of narrator if you will.
In film study classes here at the college, it is often a requirement to watch many early classics such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and the many works of people such as George Méliès. Unfortunately, the only way many of us get to see these films is through DVD versions that feature lackluster instrumental accompaniment that is often limited to instruments such as pianos and a string quartet. It is the kind of the experience offered by the people at the Organ Loft that really brings these films to the splendor that they once had. While they only have a season of screenings that runs from September to November, this is an experience I can’t recommend highly enough.
It’s the ephemeral nature of the screening that adds to the magic of cinema, as it takes you back to a time where you couldn’t view these movies at home, where they came and went like a passing dream. You wish they can stay, but you know they can’t and so you enjoy it to the fullest while you can.
Although this was the last screening of “Phantom” there are two more events coming up at the Organ Loft. The first is on November 3rd and 4th, when three films will be screened. the first will feature the comedy of Harold Lloyd, with the latter two films being ones that were made right here in the state of Utah. After that, on the 17th and 18th of November, you can spend an evening with Buster Keaton, the only actor to never smile on camera over the course of his career.
For more information, visit www.organloftslc.com