The 1925 silent film “Phantom of the Opera” with Lon Chaney still reigns as one of the classics of the horror genre. Although Chaney’s incarnation of the demented organist who haunts the subterranean passages of the Paris Opera House deftly mingled music and the macabre, theater organist Dennis James has used this “Phantom” to build a sane and successful career.
Saturday night at Symphony Hall, James and members of the San Diego Symphony will accompany the Chaney “Phantom” in this season’s opening offering of the symphony’s Nickelodeon series.
“I bill this as ‘Phantom’ the way it was meant to be seen,” James said. “The film has been shown for years--you can see it in the month of October in almost every major city of the country.”
For years, however, the film’s authentic musical score has been lost. Even James, who has been accompanying “Phantom” on the circuit for 18 years, has had to provide his own music. The first time James attempted “Phantom,” when he was an undergraduate music major at Indiana University, the project was just an elaborate Halloween joke. James dutifully composed a score for the film, but it proved too serious and too subtle, so 10 minutes into the film he abandoned it and improvised the rest of the way.
“We printed 400 tickets, and nearly 4,000 people showed up. I wore a costume and was brought into the auditorium in a coffin,” he said. “It started out as a joke, but it was a tremendous hit. I go back every Halloween to put on the same show.”
In a turn of events worthy of Gaston Leroux, the Parisian pulp novelist who wrote the original “Phantom of the Opera” story, James obtained a copy of the film’s original score last year.
“The piano score came from Violet Egger, a silent-movie organist who had kept it from when she played in Philadelphia,” he said. “I got the score through an elderly friend of hers who is now in a nursing home. The score had shown up in the effects of Egger’s estate.”
In addition to the music, the score came with two pages of extensive notes specifying all the special effects that went along with a proper presentation of the film. Although James was wary about revealing all of them beforehand--he wants the audience to be appropriately surprised and dazzled--he listed some of the things he and his crew will include in Saturday’s performance.
“The score has lots of clever cuing--it’s intended to be very theatrical. We’ll be using a live singer in the pit to sing the ‘Jewel Song’ from ‘Faust’ when this occurs in the film. It’s particularly appropriate since Debra Pearson won last year’s local Met auditions singing the ‘Jewel Song,’ ” he added. James also alluded to a special effect with Symphony Hall’s giant chandelier, but refused to give the secret away in print.
James did not hesitate, however, to offer an explanation for the perennial popularity of “Phantom,” which has been made into at least six movies and two stage adaptations, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s current Broadway smash. Film buffs also know that Brian de Palma made a rock version in 1974, “The Phantom of Paradise,” and a comedy transformation surfaced in Mexico in 1960, “El Fantasma de la Opereta.”
“ ‘Phantom’ taps into some very basic theatrical emotions,” James noted. “It portrays obsession, unrequited love, and horror created through manipulation of social circumstance. It was considered a ‘penny-awful’ novel, a piece of fluff, when it was written, but it had everything. And children love this movie.”
Although the role of the phantom was later played by actors as varied as Claude Rains, Jack Cassidy and Maximilian Schell, Chaney’s portrayal remains the standard by which the others are judged.
“His is the definitive ‘Phantom,’ ” James said. “This is the one on which they chose to model (Lloyd Webber’s) stage production. They took all the effects from the 1925 version, such as the costuming and the boat across the lake. Chaney’s is the only one that creates the element of horror. He is very menacing and at times unbalanced.”
Since the plot of “Phantom” includes portions of Gounod’s “Faust,” some of that music logically finds its way into the score. Saturday’s presentation of the film will include an orchestral overture of two excerpts from the “Faust” ballet music, directed by James’ associate, conductor Carl Daehler.
James was not able to give a definitive answer as to why J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is always associated with “Phantom of the Opera.”
“I just can’t say, because it’s not in the score,” he said. “We’re doing it because it’s one of those fulfilled expectations. This movie can’t be shown without it, so we’re going to get it over with in the opening credits. If you do it at any point during the drama, it will pull people away from the movie--it’s too famous.”
James added that the Bach toccata was used in Walt Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” but its association with “Phantom” was a mystery to him.
For the San Diego Symphony’s 1987-88 season, James played three Nickelodeon concerts. To the surprise of many, this combination of music, cinema and nostalgia turned into the symphony’s biggest box-office attraction. James will do three more programs this season, including a Jan. 7 presentation of “Orphans of the Storm” with Lillian and Dorothy Gish.
James lives in Ohio, where he is resident organist for the Ohio Theatre in Columbus.