Something terrible happened last month and we all missed it. Stage 28 on the Universal Studios lot was demolished. Inside that stage, in the year 1924, Lon Chaney perforned as the titular character in The Phantom of the Opera, and up through last year the set of the Paris Opera House still stood. I snuck onto that stage last year and made my way up to the very top of the set and felt the beautiful rush of history, the charged emotion of standing in a place where something truly important had happened long ago. On September 23rd Stage 28 was demolished; the Opera House set was dismantled and stuck in some storage room somewhere. It had been the oldest standing movie set in the world.
I only found that out right this moment as I was doing research for this article; all of a sudden talking about The Phantom of the Opera feels incredibly timely.
The Iconic Creature at the heart of The Phantom of the Opera is Erik, the malformed creature whose attempts to make the woman he loves a star lead to murder and mayhem. The movie is based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel, and it presents one of the most faithful versions of the Phantom; in the book Erik is born that way, as opposed to future Phantoms whose faces are disfigured. And as in the Leroux novel the movie's Erik has the face of a skull, sunken and white and grotesque, featuring only some hair on the top of his head.
Lon Chaney was rightfully known as the Man of a Thousand Faces; not only was he one of the great actors of his time, he was a make-up artist of unusual ingenuity. He was willing to put up with astonishing amounts of pain to become his characters; in The Miracle Man he strapped his legs back in order to play legless, and in The Unknown he bound his arms to play armless. His Phantom make-up, in comparison, was mild - he pulled his nose back with a wire and wore jagged teeth. Chaney used black make-up to give his eyes a sunken look and to make his nostrils look bigger, like his nose was a skeletal opening into the recesses of his head.
Chaney's facility with make-up had made his The Hunchback of Notre Dame a smash success, so when The Phantom of the Opera was preparing to open Universal used it as a main selling point - while keeping it hidden. The make-up was not revealed to the public until the premiere of the movie (which came after much turmoil - the film was almost completely reshot twice). Legend has it that when Erik whips off his mask people in audiences around the world gasped and fainted at the horror of his grim visage.
Whether that's exactly true or not, The Phantom of the Opera gives us the first truly great movie monster, and is the first of the great Universal Monster movies*. And even if the face of Erik the Phantom no longer makes us gasp or faint, the make-up that Chaney created for himself remains, ninety years later, creepy and evocative.
* some argue that Dracula is the true first film, as its success spurred Laemmle on to make more monster pictures, but there's no way to tell the story of Universal Monsters without including Lon Chaney.