Art imitates life and life imitates art. No where is the more apparent than in the movies. Those who produced movies in the early days of film knew this. They used it and profited from it. Love and hate are the most powerful emotions that humans know. People need to be loved, acknowledged and affirmed by other people. These are among the greatest needs of people. We express our needs through body language, facial expressions and words. In the early days of film. One of the most critical elements of expression was missing.. And that missing element was the use of language.
I’ve always loved Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the people that he created on the silver screen. Early Silent films were just that………….. Silent. Free of the encumbrance of speech, free of the beauty of color and free of the deep complications that modern cinema presents to the viewer. Everything was left to the interpretation of the movie goer.
Silent movies spoke to people through body language and facial expression. The human face has forty three different muscles, which are capable creating hundreds of facial expressions. Movements of the face and eyes can instantly and instinctively convey complete messages to other humans at the speed of light by mental thought. The unmasking of Lon Chaney in the Phantom of the Opera is perhaps one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.
The sequence runs about a minute and half as the viewer watches Mary Philbin who plays Christine Daae as she becomes overwhelmed by her curiosity and unmasks the Phantom, Played by Lon Chaney. In the following moments after the unmasking (not in the above video) Chaney uses body language and facial expression to express his thought. To express love, hate, need and sorrow. In those moments we see a man unstrung, filled with hate, anxiety and deep sorrow mixed together in one fluid motion. He is a man intent upon destroying all that exists around him. In this one minute and thirty seconds of film, Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the Phantom lays the ground work for all future horror and suspense.
The umasking scene would be repeated many times in cinematic history. One of my personal favorites is House of Wax with Vincent Price. I believe that Vincent’s acting was an extension of Chaney’s work. Price was brilliant and eloquent and had roots in Shakespearean acting. A huge asset in suspense and horror. But Vincent Price had the use of make up, technicolor and Sound. And his vast experience to give to his performance. But the fright was surely born from Lon Chaney’s work.
The House of Wax is the Phantom of the Opera repeated.
Much like the Phantom, a badly burned and disfigured Vincent Price who has been cheated out of his profession.. Shades of the Phantom. is unmasked as a frightful scene reveals his face.
Both the Phantom of The Opera and House Wax walk out of the light and into the darkness of the human spirit. They use a physical mask to cover the damage spirit of their characters.