Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Phantom of Paris (1931)

Director: John S. Robertson                           Writers: Bess Meredyth & John Meehan
Sound: Douglas Shearer                                Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: John Gilbert, Leila Hyams, Lewis Stone and Ian Keith

After the monstrous success of Universal’s Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, studios began to cast around for similar projects. Since MGM now had Chaney under contract with them, they chose to option another one of Gaston Leroux’s novels, Chéri-Bibi as a vehicle for the great silent star, changing the title to The Phantom of Paris as a shameless attempt to capitalize on the success of the Universal film and Chaney’s role. Unfortunately Chaney had died of throat cancer before filming could begin and the project was quickly retooled for another great silent star, John Gilbert, who had fallen on hard times in the early sound era. His costar was Leila Hyams, who would appear in two of the most famous non-Universal horror films of the early sound eara, Freaks and Island of Lost Souls. Lewis Stone, who would become most famous as Judge Hardy in MGM’s Andy Hardy series plays the police inspector. Also in the cast were the famous British actor C. Aubrey Smith and Danish actor Jean Hersholt.

Gilbert plays Chéri-Bibi, a Houdini-type character who specializes in escape tricks. At the circus in Paris he performs an underwater escape from handcuffs provided by the chief of police, Lewis Stone, who just happens to be in the audience. Sitting in one of the boxes is Leila Hyams, who can’t bear to watch. And while she is with her love interest, Ian Keith, it’s clear that she has an infatuation with Gilbert. It’s only back at her mansion that the audience discovers it was her father, C. Aubrey Smith, who set up Stone to make Gilbert fail in the hopes of ending the infatuation. At the same time he informs Keith that while he had put him in his will because of his relationship with his daughter, he has decided now disinheriting him because it’s clear his daughter no longer loves him. Keith tells his mistress that he’ll do whatever he has to in order to get the money, and when Gilbert argues with Smith about marrying his daughter, Keith kills the old man before he can change his will, and frames Gilbert for the crime.

As a mystery story it’s not very suspenseful. The audience knows who the murderer is from the outset and so does Gilbert. But that’s not where the suspense lies. Gilbert is convicted of the crime and set to hang. Keeping an escape artist locked in a jail cell, however, is problematic. And what will he do if he escapes? That part of the story is very good. There is certainly an element of The Count of Monte Cristo in the revenge aspect, as well as A Tale of Two Cities in the impersonation of characters that takes place later. Gilbert, who had been in some terrible films to open the sound era, had Louis B. Mayer to thank for his fall from grace as the studio head not only assigned him to bad properties but started a rumor campaign against him. Once a great silent screen star rivaled only by Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, Gilbert found himself with a tarnished reputation he could not recover from.

While the film garnered positive reviews, especially for Gilbert, it was not a success at the box office. At this early point in the Depression the attendance for films plummeted, and projects like this, which would have expected to turn a profit two years earlier, were now losing money. It’s possible the film could have done better had Chaney still been alive, but it’s impossible to know. Things coming full circle, as they often do, Universal filmed an obscure mystery story by Edgar Allan Poe called The Mystery of Marie Roget in 1942. The film starred Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya and John Litel, and when it was re-released a decade later it sported the title The Phantom of Paris to play on a double bill with The Werewolf of London. MGM’s original Phantom of Paris, however, is a great vehicle for John Gilbert and gives lie to the myth that somehow he was ill-equipped for sound film. It’s not a great film, but it is great Gilbert, and in this case that’s enough.

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