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In living color

Didn’t do a dang thing today, except go to the Roxie for a quadruple feature of old spooky movies.

Phantom of the Opera (1925) was excellent, as good as its reputation. Is anyone unfamiliar with the plot? You’ve got your masked and deformed lunatic living under the opera house, and he’s willing to kill to advance the career of the understudy he’s in love with. It sounds ridiculous and it is, but dim the lights and cue the organist, and it’s enthralling.

Especially with a good organist. Today's music was by Bob Vaughn, at the Roxie's puny-looking but semi-mighty organ. Vaughn wrote the score himself, I think, and travels performing it at screenings of this film. I've also heard him playing at other pre-talkies when they're screened at other theaters nearby, and it’s always remarkable. His music today matched the movie’s mood, scene for scene, and even matched the action. When Lon Chaney sat at the organ in the film and played a tune, I'm certain that’s the tune Vaughn was playing in the theater. The music was so perfectly synchronized with the movie, you could ‘hear’ doorbells ringing, water running, etc.

And the movie is nothing to sneeze on, either. Chaney’s performance as the Phantom is believably psychotic, and I’ve read that he created his own make-up for the role — when he was unmasked, I jumped and almost shrieked.

Unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber’s overhyped musical Phantom, Lon Chaney’s Phantom has no magical powers. It’s not necessary — he’s simply a man without morals, and that's terrifying enough. Evil is real, and real is much scarier than magic.

The print was crisp and clean, and I was drawn into the story, and then suddenly ... the audience gasped, and I was seriously shocked and goosebumped, as the film went from black-and-white to full color, for the masquerade scene.

I love movies, especially old movies, but I’m no expert, and I didn't know that color photography existed in 1925. Had the frames been hand-tinted? No, I’ve seen that effect, and these colors were too exquisitely natural. I asked in the lobby afterwards, and the Roxie’s manager told me it was an early, “two-strip” version of Technicolor. Hours later, I'm still surprised — there were movies in color, years before there were movies with sound!

Then came Where East is East (1929), a silent melodrama that came with a pre-recorded, tinny orchestral score. It was the original music that played in theaters when this movie was first released, which makes it authentic, but doesn’t make it good. Vaughan was better, and Phantom was far, far better.

The story is a bonkers soap opera, where the daughter’s fiancé is seduced by Mom, and Dad (Chaney again) is none too pleased about it. There’s also a guy wearing an ape suit, same as in Unholy Three last night. I do hope that's not going to be a recurring theme all week at the Roxie.

Mark of the Vampire (1935) didn’t do anything for me, but I’ve never been a big fan of vampire movies. Blood-sucking bats? Meh. It was a great print, though, and James Wong Howe’s cinematography is gorgeous, the bats fly on cue and you can’t see the wires, and one of the transformations involves an interesting visual effect. Lionel Barrymore, though, plays Dr Van Helsing or whatever, and delivers his lines so slowly it’s frustrating, not frightening.

That's three movies, but I said it was a quadruple feature? That's because I stayed, and watched and listened to Phantom of the Opera a second time.

From Pathetic Life #6
Saturday, November 26, 1994

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

Addendum, 2021: Sadly but not surprisingly, I've found an obituary for Bob Vaughn, the organist that night.

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