The Kino Special Collector's Edition DVD
The Kino Special Collector's Edition marketed by Image Entertainment is a well preserved and restored version of the film that differs in content from the Milestone Ultimate Edition 1929 version in only one scene. This is the very opening sequence showing a man holding a lantern in a dark cellar beneath the Opera House and then hiding as he sees the shadow of the Phantom passing by. It is a great scene, luridly tinted in blood red; one of my favorites.
It is difficult to choose between them. The image quality in the Kino print is not as good, though it is never worse than fair and generally good. The music in the Milestone edition may be better but both are outstanding. There are points in the score for the Kino edition that I much prefer. The color tinting in the Kino version is advertised as being correct according to the original and I like the tones, but this print lacks the special Handschiegl color scene on the rooftop although it has the famous two-strip Technicolor sequence of the Bal Masque. On the whole I think I prefer the Kino edition, but there are features of the Milestone edition that require a true afficiando to acquire both.
The Milestone Ultimate Edition DVDs
The Milestone Ultimate Edition, also marketed by Image Entertainment, contains three versions, or more properly two versions, one of which has a choice of musical and sound accompaniment. The highlighted version is a magnificently preserved and restored print of the 1929 re-release of the film. The image quality of this is so wonderful that any real fan must see it at least once. You cannot imagine the difference in the effect simply of viewing a pristine print of the film if all you have ever seen is one of the dark and grainy poor quality videos.
The second version on a second DVD is a preserved print of the original 1925 theatrical release of the film. This version lacks the original color sequences, although a good musical score is provided. I can only assume that this means no preserved print of the complete original film still survives (though my suspicions have been proved true before that a private collector or museum still has one hidden away and unavailable for view or reproduction).
The 1929 version differs significantly from the 1925 version of the film. I do not think this is merely the result of an attempt to edit out any sequences that were too poorly preserved (although a little of that may have occurred), as essentially the same material is found in the Kino version. To understand why this is true it is perhaps helpful to know some of the history of the original production and release. When it was first screened, some audience members complained that the film was too intense, too suspenseful, and might be improved by the introduction of some levity. That anyone should complain this way about a horror film is hard to comprehend today, but after its release some reviewers at the time regarded the film as so awful a thing to see that they speculated theaters might lose patrons by showing it. I guess those were more wholesome times. In any event, the studio executives listened to this insipid criticism and greatly altered the film, adding comic scenes, making substantial edits; with the unhappy result that at the second screening a more reasonable audience objected that the film was ruined by a plot that jumped about (imagine why) and by jarring comedy where none was asked for. In a panic the studio re-edited the film to produce a third version for the New York opening at the Astor Theatre. Most of the comic additions were deleted, but a few artifacts of the editing process remained.
In 1929, with the advent of sound in motion pictures, Universal Pictures re-released the film with a musical soundtrack and some (but not complete) dubbing of dialogue. Since it had been shot as a silent film, there were a lot of scenes where it really wasn't practical to dub; there was no shot of the character speaking. The other, rather more important, problem was that Lon Chaney was no longer under contract with Universal. He had signed with MGM and despite much legal wrangling, the studios could not arrive at an settlement, so all of the Phantom's lines had to remain silent. Its just as well, because the music and the dubbing are truly wretched. Only an abiding love for the quaint, tinny sound of old Universal horror films can stir any affection in my breast for that score. It just does not sound like the Phantom of the Opera to my ears, nor like any attempt at a musical accompaniment I have heard. The Milestone DVD blessedly gives you the option to listen to this as a bonus feature, but the principal soundtrack is a beautiful new score composed by Carl Davis.
It is easier to describe the 1925 and 1929 versions in terms of their differences, than their similarities. Obviously, they draw on the same stock of film footage and one would think that they would be nearly identical. That is almost correct. But think of the 1925 version as the Extended Edition along the lines of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, and you will be on the right path.
The 1929 restored version has the excellent image quality and color sequences for the Bal Masque and Opera House rooftop scenes. Originally, that was true for each film. The image quality of this print of the 1925 version is strictly black and white and the quality of the print is only fair to poor. Some scenes are so dark that you can scarcely see the action. Consequently, watching this print of the 1925 version is an endeavor for fanatics only; it is for those who can't sleep with the unanswered wonderment about how it looked.
Apart from quality differences, there are significant content differences. It appears that Universal undertook a fourth edit of the film when it was re-released in 1929. I can't say that I am wholly pleased with their editing decisions. Much of my criticism of the film is directly traceable to the editing done for the 1929 version.
For example, in the 1929 version, when we see Raoul and Christine together for the first time in her dressing chamber backstage, they appear to be deeply in love and yet she tells him (on the dialogue card) that he must forget her. He doesn't seem to respond as if that was what he just heard her to say and parts with an expression that is a bit frowning, but not devastated, while she behaves as if she has been misunderstood. This jarring dissonance is the result of an edit that deleted a later scene wherein Christine does tell Raoul that he must forget her. In the original 1925 version of this earlier scene what she says to him (after he asks her when they can marry) is only that she doesn't know, not now, that something impels her to wait. All of that dialogue is perfectly in harmony with the acting in the scene, but it looks out of sync with the 1929 dialogue. For the sake of a shorter story, the film was cut down and it suffers. This particular scene is probably the worst.
Another meaningful edit was the extended scene on the Grand Stair of the Opera House in which we learn something of the main characters by means of introduction dialogue cards. This also serves to advance the story, so that we need not catch the oblique reference to the Viscomte de Chagny, Raoul's elder brother, later on.
In the original film, the opening sequence is of a man with a lantern in the cellars. There is even a close up, but the great moment of the Phantom's shadow passing by on the wall is not present (though I feel confident it was in the original - this looks cut and that bit of footage is always in rough condition). The 1929 version omits this wonderful scene altogether (though, as mentioned, it is in the Kino edition).
The sequence of scenes is also different between the 1925 and 1929 versions. In the 1925 version, in addition to the differences previously described for the scene in Christine's dressing room, it appears immediately following the opening ballet sequence, giving us an appropriately early introduction to the second most important character in the story. In the 1929 version it is not seen until much later, after the transfer of management, the Opera Ghost in Box 5, the series of scenes involving Florine Papillon and the ballerinas, and the storming of the managers' office by the prima donna's enraged mother.
After the first scene between Christine and Raoul in her dressing room, we learn in the original 1925 version that the management is resigning, most curiously, in the midst of the most prosperous season of the Paris Opera, a detail omitted in the later version. There is slightly different dialogue between the two versions, but the most striking difference is that the 1925 version has the managers parting with grave bows, whereas the 1929 version has the two former managers slyly mentioning the Opera Ghost who haunts Box 5 and the new owners replying, "You jest Messieurs! We are not children!", followed at once by the Box 5 scene. Evidently, this difference is attributable to one of the comic moments that were re-shot and then discarded. I like it better. In the 1925 version, the scene concerning Box 5 does not appear until about midway through the film, after Christine sings as Marguerite in the ongoing production of Charles Gounod's Faust in the place of the prima donna.
In the 1925 version, the character of Florine Papillon is introduced as a property man, along with the brothers Joseph and Simon Buquet in a scene that was deleted from the 1929 film. The sequence with the property men and the ballerinas is broken into three episodes, interrupted by the scene between the new management and the prima donna (portrayed as her mother in the 1929 film, more credibly) and the scene of Christine in her dressing room when we see her hearing the melodious guiding voice of her "Spirit of Music". This is the one instance, in which I think the 1929 version of the film shows better editing. It made no sense to break the sequence with the fearful ballerinas into three episodes - nothing they are doing really depends on any other action. The only sense in which that is partly true is that the arrival of the ballerinas causes the Phantom to abruptly depart from the secret passage behind Christine's chamber. That didn't add anything and was excised in the 1929 version.
I do feel strongly, however, that the separation between the earlier scene involving Raoul de Chagny in the dressing room and this later scene when Christine is quite alone works much better. In the 1929 version, one is made to believe that de Chagny is just outside her door and hears the voice of the Phantom. This does occur in a later scene, but the 1929 version has deleted one for brevity, again to the detriment of the action we see.
A major deletion by the 1929 version, with a profound impact on the development as alluded to previously, is the garden scene between Christine Daae and Viscomte de Chagny after the scene in her chamber in which she hears the Phantom and is told to foreswear all worldly concerns for her art. It is here, in the original version, that she tells her lover that he must forget her, that she is committed to her music forever. This is a vastly more believable development of action and character than the preemptory manner in which it happens in the 1929 version. It is also here that de Chagny first learns that Christine has a muse, a Spirit of Music, whom she believes has been sent by God in answer to her lifelong prayers for the gift of song. Without this scene, the subsequent scene between the younger de Chagny and the Comte is misleading and gives the impression that Christine has another lover (indeed, the difference in the dialogue in the two versions more than suggests this). The garden scene is crucial to the story. I cannot fathom why it was cut.
There is a different shot of the first time that Christine sings. Frankly, it is weak in the 1925 version, being a distant, full stage shot as though from the back of the audience, rather than the close up we get in the 1929 version in which she is recognizable. Another difference here is that Christine faints on stage and is carried to her dressing room by the actor playing Mephistopheles. This then becomes the later scene in which Raoul overhears the Phantom speaking as he lingers outside after being emphatically dismissed by the physician attending Christine. A weak moment is that she hears the Phantom speak to her before de Chagny is ushered out, but he does not hear the voice. Everyone thinks she is delerious after her faint. Yet another difference is that Raoul reenters her room secretly after Christine departs for the night and searches for the source of the mysterious voice he has heard. The only part of this that made the 1929 version is the moment between Raoul and the doorman as he forces his way into her dressing chamber to see if she is well; it was added to the beginning of the composite scene in the 1929 version.
At this point Florine Papillon discovers the body of Joseph Buquet hanging. That discovery does not occur until just prior to the abduction of Christine and the final action in the later version. We are soon thereafter introduced to the Prefect of Police in a scene deleted by the 1929 version.
When the prima donna, Carlotta, and the managers defy the continuing threats of the Phantom and she sings as Marguerite, we are told in the 1925 version that the managers have taken up a bold position to watch in Box 5, the Phantom's usual place. It is at this point that the grand chandelier is cut loose to fall on the audience, as the voice of the Phantom is heard booming over all the house, "She is singing to bring down the chandelier!". It isn't clear in the later version that the patrons can hear him say this.
Right after the chandelier falls and the Phantom leads Christine into the cellars, there is another scene deleted from the 1929 version between the mysterious man who has been skulking about the Opera House and the Prefect of Police. The man says that his identity must remain secret for now and we are treated to a momentary vision of a cloaked figure as these words are uttered, apparently intended to mislead the audience into suspecting that perhaps he is the Phantom. This is just plain odd in light of the preceding action.
At the Bal Masque we see de Chagny tear off his mask and say something in the 1929 version, as he stares at the mocking figure of the Red Death (the Phantom in costume) below. In the 1925 version we are treated to a dialogue card that tells us: "I recognize that voice!".
The last deleted scene is a nice early moment from Faust as Christine sings what she believes will be her last performance before she and Raoul slip away to England. Its only a few seconds and worth retaining; again I can't see why it was cut. The moment when Christine is abducted from the very stage in the midst of the performance is more dramatic and coherent in the original version. For one thing, its evident that the lights go down (the result of drugged beer being substituted by the Phantom in the lighting room). That happens so fast in the 1929 version that you really don't get a sense of what has occurred. In the 1925 version, the murder of the conductor and the appearance of the Phantom in his place is built into a more prolonged moment of terrible suspense, played beautifully on the face of Christine as she continues to sing while looking about her for something terrible to happen, knowing it is coming any second.
The one lingering mystery that I note and that is probably due to the numerous edits of the film is the "Messenger from the Shadows" that Ledoux and de Chagny encounter in the dungeons. This figure is evidently a minion of the Phantom, but only appears in this scene. He appears in both versions, so if this is more comprehensible in some version it must be one that was left on the cutting room floor.
Finally, in the 1925 version, Raoul and Christine are married and on honeymoon in a brief closing scene which was cut from the 1929 version (and rightly so!) for adding nothing and weakening the dramatic denouement of the Phantom at the hands of the mob.
Obviously, what would suit me is a re-edit that captured the best elements of both versions in a prisitine print. Perhaps some day we will see that.