Originally written for suite101.com, now hosted over at Xomba.
Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925) is an unusual experience for the uninitiated viewer of silent films. The best-known image of this film is black and white shot of Lon Chaney, in disfiguring make-up as the Phantom, menacing a beautiful ingénue. It fits perfectly the view of silent cinema held by the casual viewer – silent, black and white, clichéd overacting.
Yet this is a film, which employs colour to great effect as it moves from location to location. Although the colour palette used is limited, and mainly restricted to tinting the whole scene one particular colour, it manages to suggest changes in location and character point of view (such as a move from following the Phantom’s view on a scene to his captive’s perspective).
This was not an uncommon feature of cinema of this period. However, due to the expense of the process and the subsequent increased fragility of the stock, many such examples only survive in their black and white master copies. This fragility is only emphasised by the way these early colourings have faded over time, so that many films that once had golden yellow tones, have faded to the sepia we are more familiar with today.
Tinting and Toning
Most commonly in films of this period, tinting and toning were the dominant methods of creating colour. A surprisingly broad palette of shades was available to the discerning director – although those with a limited budget were likely to stick to yellow for daylight and blue for night. This undermined the creation of a standard template for connecting colours with emotions.
Colour-coding of emotions therefore varies from film to film, Phantom of the Opera having to its advantage an internal logic and consistency in its use of colour shades. In the main scenes in the opera house itself are black and white or a warm gold, those in the labyrinth below are green and eerie, those on the rooftop blue and those in the heat chamber and with the mob a fiery red.
In Glorious Technicolor
The stand out scene for colour in the film comes in the middle where a masked ball takes place in the Opera house. Disconcertingly to modern eyes, this sequence stands alone in its bright Technicolored glory. As the phantom revels in his role as the red death, pursuing the lovers through the party, the colours are every bit as vivid as one might expect in a film made twenty years later.
Even the inter-titles for these sequences feature coloured motifs, although this was not an unusual technique. Until at least 1914 several major studios used tinting of title cards in otherwise black and white films as a mark of authenticity – Pathé using first blue and then red with Gaumont preferring a blue-green (Paolo Cherchi Usai, p23, Silent Cinema: An Introduction, 2000).
In the early twenties, most producers and studios were unwilling to risk more than a few sequences to the new process. Phantom of the Opera itself appears to have been Universal’s only foray into this new world for many years. It was not until the following year that United Artists’ Black Pirate would embrace its star Douglas Fairbanks’ faith in the new technology and become the first full-length production from a major studio to use it throughout.