The Phantom of Paris (1931) ***
Lon Chaney Sr. died on August 26th, 1930, of a hemorrhage related to the throat and lung cancer that had been grinding down his health for the better part of a year before it was correctly diagnosed. Because no one knew how bad his condition really was until the final month or so of his life, his cataclysmic decline during that summer left a number of movies under production in the lurch. Most famously, Chaneyís death meant that Universal would have to find a new actor to play the title role in Tod Browningís Dracula, but MGM had a much bigger problem. Chaney was one of that studioís most important contract players, and he had been slated to star in at least four upcoming movies at the time of his demiseó all had to be recast, and considering the way the films in question have faded from view in the years since, it seems fair to say that the various Chaney replacements enjoyed limited success at best in filling the dead manís shoes. The Phantom of Paris was one of those recast MGM Chaney vehicles. Adapted from an obscure Gaston Leroux novel called Cheri-Bibi, it was probably intended originally by the studio as an effort to piggy-back onto the success of the 1929 reissue of The Phantom of the Opera. Certainly thatís the only thing I can think of that would make sense of the title, which comes attached to a movie featuring no phantoms of any kind, either literal or metaphorical. Indeed, what the film resembles most closely is the sort of fanciful crime melodrama that was popular in Europe at the time, an orphaned American point along the continuum between the British Edgar Wallace mysteries and the French serials on the Fantomas model.
To the extent that there is a Phantom of Paris in The Phantom of Paris, heís the renowned escape artist known as Cheri-Bibi (big-time silent star John Gilbert, in one of the handful of talkies he was able to squeeze in before his extremely premature death in 1936). Bibiís life circumstances at present pretty much have ďBad NewsĒ written all over them. He is in love with a young noblewoman named Cecile Bourelier (Leila Hyams, from Freaks and Island of Lost Souls), who is strongly attracted to him as well, but Cecile is already engaged to marry the Marquis du Touchais (Ian Keith, later of It Came from Beneath the Sea and Valley of the Zombies). Furthermore, Cecileís father (C. Aubrey Smith, from Rebecca and The Monkeyís Paw) dislikes Bibi intensely, and openly considers him beneath a woman of Cecileís breeding. Finally, there is bad blood brewing between Touchais and Bourelier, for the marquis is one of those noblemen with an impressive title but very little in the way of actual wealth, and he is at least as interested in the ailing Bourelierís money as he is in his lovely daughter. The old man has gotten wise to Touchaisís game, however, and has decided to delete the clause bestowing a generous stipend upon the marquis from his will. It all combines to make Bibi the perfect fall-guy when Touchais learns of the intended change to Bourelierís will, and murders the old man before he has a chance to make the arrangements final. The killing shot is fired in Bourelierís study, at the height of a party at which Bibi is present, and at which he is conveniently observed quarrelling with the master of the house over his proposal to marry Cecile. Inspector Costaud (Lewis Stone, from The Lost World and The Mask of Fu Manchu), who is brought in to investigate the crime, happens to be an old enemy of Bibiís, having sought for years to expose his audacious escapes as a fraud; Bibi might as well be convicted and condemned before he even sets foot in the courtroom.
Luckily for Bibi, his escape artistry is no sleight of hand. He manages to break out of prison on the very night of his scheduled execution, sneaking out under the noses of the authorities while disguised as a guard. (The real guard, meanwhile, is there in the cell to greet his fellows when they come to collect Bibi for his date with the guillotine.) Having nowhere else to go, Bibi seeks out Herman (Jean Hersholt, from Mark of the Vampire and The Cat Creeps), his former manager, who has believed all along that Bibi was framed, and arranges to live in the secret, subterranean basement of Hermanís toy and magic shop, where the two of them used to develop the apparatus for Bibiís act safe from the prying eyes of their competitors.
For four years Bibi lurks in that dungeon, his grip on sanity becoming ever more precarious. Meanwhile up above, Cecile marries her fatherís killer and gives birth to a son, while Costaud scours the globe on the hunt for his escaped nemesis. Herman, naturally, immediately came under suspicion as Bibiís accomplice, and the inspector has been round to search the toy shop more times than either man can count. Cecileís child, too, is a regular at the shop, and Bibi likes to spy from a secret window behind the fireplace whenever the boy (whom he seems to regard as the son he ought to have had) stops in to be entertained by Herman and his parlor tricks. It is precisely that habit that disturbs Bibiís years-old equilibrium, however, for one day Costaud pays a visit immediately after the Touchais child. Bibi is still watching from his hidden window when the policeman makes his entrance, and he both overhears Costaud mention that Touchais is now dying of influenza and allows himself to be glimpsed by the inspector before ducking down to his refuge in the cellar. Bibi has just enough time to escape through a hidden passage before Costaudís men arrive to open up the shopís secret basement, and Herman is locked away for harboring a fugitive.
Bibi heads straight for the Chateau Touchais, hoping to extract a deathbed confession from the marquis. He gets one, but the murderer expires before Bibi is able to summon any witnesses. Again Bibi goes into hiding with the aid of an old friend. This time, the accomplice is Dr. Gorin (Alfred Hickman), the physician who used to attend upon Bibiís performances on the off-chance that he should be injured while executing one of his more hazardous escapes. Bibi brings the marquisís body with him when he goes to Gorinís mansion, and he persuades the doctor to alter his face to resemble that of Touchais. Then several months later, Touchais surfaces in Switzerland with a story of how he was abducted by Bibi, who nursed him back to health in an insane gambit to force him to confess to the murder of Bourelier. Touchais escaped, however, and in the subsequent struggle, Bibi plunged to his death in an alpine ravine. Needless to say, the Touchais who spins this incredible yarn is really Bibi, who has decided that the next best thing to exoneration is to steal the identity of the man who sent him to death row, now that the miscreant is no longer around to use that identity himself. And if, while posing as the marquis, Bibi happens to find the evidence he needs to clear his name, then so much the better. Inspector Costaud is more obsessed than ever, though, and will not be convinced that Bibi is dead until he has seen the body with his own eyes. Not only that, Cecileís maid, Vera (The Unholy Nightís Natalie Moorhead), with whom Touchais had been conducting an affair since even before the night of the murder, was an accomplice to the crime, and she is sure to take notice when ďthe marquisĒ begins snooping around for the skeleton in his own closet.
Itís odd that so little of Gaston Lerouxís fiction has been made available in English translation, especially in the context of the 1920ís and 30ís. My admittedly limited exposure suggests that the public that was then devouring the works of Sax Rohmer, Edgar Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Tod Robbins would have taken to Leroux with equal enthusiasm. And by extension, had English-language editions of Lerouxís books been widely available, it is easy to imagine him having become a staple source of B-movie storylines for decades to come. But instead, just about all we have in English apart from the mountain of successive takes on The Phantom of the Opera is The Phantom of Paris. (There are, as you might imagine, a fair number of French Leroux adaptations that nobody has ever bothered to export, including at least two different versions of Cheri-Bibi.) The latter movie is by no means on the same level as the best version of the former, and it would probably have taken more than Lon Chaney to make it so. Leila Hyams was capable of considerably more than she gets to do here, and the first act contains an annoying hint of ďbecause itís in the scriptĒ in the convoluted setup for Bibiís framing. Also, the ending feels rushed, and it is staged in such a way that itís never quite clear just what Costaudís role in it is. Nevertheless, The Phantom of Paris is an enjoyable example of its difficult-to-classify form, and it is ill-served by its present obscurity. John Gilbert may actually be better for the part of Cheri-Bibi than Chaney would have been, if only because he is a younger, better-looking, and altogether more glamorous man, in a way that the role seems almost to require. Chaney, after all, achieved his mammoth fame by effacing his own personality, while Bibi (or Gilbert, for that matter) is a showman of a much more conventional sort. Gilbertís acting style is also far ahead of its time, a point which is doubly remarkable considering that he had been a top-drawer silent star for a good ten years by the time he appeared in this movie. At a time when most actors were either still pantomiming their performances within an inch of their lives or repressing their scenery-chewing instincts to the point of descending into mush-mouthed immobility, Gilbert plays his part with an easy self-assurance that combines naturalism with high-wattage star power (although it probably helps that his character is one from whom a certain amount of expressive overdrive would logically be expected).
The Phantom of Paris is also notable for being the earliest example Iíve seen of a B-movie commonplace that would receive quite a workout over the next decade and a half, the criminal who turns to plastic surgery in order to evade the law. The film plays unexpectedly fair with the now-familiar setup, first because the man into whom Bibi wishes to transform himself bears him a fair amount of resemblance anyway, but more importantly because of the way that transformation is effected on the screen. Whereas most movies of this sort would use different actors for the before and after versions of the character, this one uses simple makeup to enhance the similarity between John Gilbert and Ian Keith. Gilbert gets a new beard, a new hairline, a dyejob to put gray streaks across his temples, and a monocle; he also changes his bearing slightly and raises the pitch of his voice. The mimicry is hardly uncanny, but itís pretty damn good and also well within the bounds of realism, assuming a roughly contemporary setting for the story.