September 23, 2014: It appears Universal already demolished Stage 28. A photo of the pile of rubble that was left by the afternoon of the 22nd, courtesy @insideuniversal:
CoasterMatt on Flickr rode past the building being torn down during a Universal tour on September 18th — you can see them here — but the building itself, as of the afternoon of September 22, 2014, is gone.
This is the SBBN entry for the Journeys in Classic Films Universal Backlot Blogathon, running from September 14 through 16. Please check out all the fine entries!
The oldest extant movie set is, somewhat surprisingly, one still in use today. Stage 28, located on the Universal Studios backlot and built for the Lon Chaney classic The Phantom of the Opera, was completed in 1925. The enormous set sits atop an iron skeleton for support and is five storeys tall; it has been used for dozens of films over the decades, and though the iconic balconies from the 1925 silent Phantom are somewhat hidden, they remain intact.
In 1922, Gaston Leroux, author of the 1909 novel The Phantom of the Opera, met the vacationing president of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle. Laemmle had been captivated by the beauty and scope of the Opéra de Paris earlier in his vacation, and Leroux, sensing an opportunity, offered Laemmle a copy of his novel. According to legend, Laemmle stayed up that night reading the book, and by the time dawn broke was resolved to turn Phantom of the Opera into a Universal film. Less than two years later, rights had been acquired and production began.
Production on the film was, as they say, troubled. Laemmle had personally chosen Rupert Julian to direct, a man who had made a career for himself in the mid to late 1910s both acting in and directing programmers. But in 1923, he had scored a significant hit with Merry-Go-Round after replacing the fired Erich von Stroheim, and his success ensured he would direct what Laemmle had hoped to be Universal’s biggest spectacle to date. Julian, however, had an uneven reputation. His films were not generally critically praised, and many in the industry found him difficult to work with because of his brusque attitude and perfectionism, though silent actress Ruth Clifford remembered him as “lovely” and “gentle.”
Lon Chaney, star of Universal’s Phantom, surely disagreed. Many sources state he had been loaned out from MGM by Irving Thalberg, though Chaney scholar and make-up artist Michael Blake reveals in his bio of Chaney that the actor was most likely a free agent for the months he worked on Phantom. And during those months, Chaney had definite ideas of how he wanted to give life to the Phantom, his own theory of the character being a much more subtle performance than Julian wanted. The resultant clash was so extreme that neither spoke to each other and Chaney demanded to direct himself in all his scenes. According to Michael Blake, Universal cameraman Charles Van Enger had to act as a go-between:
“Julian would explain to me what he wanted Lon to do, and then I’d go over to Lon and tell him what Julian had said. Then Lon would say to tell him to ‘go to hell.'”
There are many different film versions of the Chaney Phantom of the Opera, and have been from almost the beginning; those hoping for an in-depth and accurate detailing need to look elsewhere, as the best I can give you is a summary based on several contradicting sources.
The first cut of the film with Julian at the helm was previewed in Los Angeles in early 1925, but both the audience and Carl Laemmle were unimpressed. Laemmle hired Edward Sedgwick to film a new ending, something more exciting than the original ending of the Phantom being found dead at his organ.
There were possibly other scenes filmed by Sedgwick, though they were not included when this second version was shown in San Francisco three months after the first premier; sources vary as to whether these new Sedgwick-directed scenes ever existed. What is known is that this second version was never released, either, and Sedgwick filmed even more scenes, adding a subplot with comedy great Chester Conklin and revamping the title cards.
Whether the comedic version was previewed, I cannot tell you, though even if it was, it was discarded and never officially released. A fourth version was created with the Chester Conklin scenes removed and some of the previously-cut dramatic scenes added back in, though some sources claim approximately 35 minutes from the original Rupert Julian cut were missing and never found. Some two-strip Technicolor scenes were re-shot, though at the same time the Technicolor scenes featuring the ballerinas were removed and lost forever. With a few more edits and new title cards to explain the now-choppy editing, this version was released in theaters in September, 1925, and is the silent version we know today.
In late 1929, a talkie version was made. Some scenes were re-shot and Virginia Pearson, who played Carlotta in the 1925 silent, was essentially demoted to the role of Carlotta’s mother. Mary Fabian, 15 years Pearson’s junior, played the new Carlotta. Other actors revisited their original roles with the exception of Chaney, who was at MGM by 1929 and, per contract, could not have his voice dubbed in. A third person narrator was used for all the Phantom’s scenes, and advertising was careful to mention Chaney’s voice was not in the talkie remake.
This talkie version was released in early 1930, and the film is lost. The sound discs exist, however, and recreations of the talkie version have been released on DVD. Of the two main prints of the film available today, there is the 1925 silent theatrical release, which is only available in a lesser-quality print, and a later international version from 1929, which is a re-edit of the 1925 version. It is also silent but substantially different than the original, and exists in a much nicer print.
It’s true that there were a lot of edits and premieres before the film was released to the public, but Laemmle had reason to be picky. Not only did he want to create a massive spectacle, a film on an epic scale, but he also wanted a huge blockbuster hit. To that end, and with the memory of 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s great success fresh in his mind, there was never any question that the sets for Phantom would be extravagant and well-publicized.
French film designer Ben Carré was consulted before production began, the idea being to have Carré’s designs in hand first and tailor the film to fit his set conceptions. Carré was chosen specifically because of his detailed knowledge of the Opéra de Paris, and he later claimed that, while the Opéra was certainly the inspiration for his designs, he often let his imagination go wild, delving into a Freudian style of imagery.
The result is that the architecture of the well-known staircase, stage, balconies, and orchestra pit of the Opéra were near-faithful reproductions — Universal claimed the opera house was made per the actual Charles Garnier plans for the real Opéra de Paris — while backstage areas were more fanciful. As one descends below the surface of the Phantom world, the secret lair of underground caverns and caves and lakes held no basis in reality at all; they were fantastic, implausible and surreal. The Imaginary Prisons series of prints by Giovani Battista Piranesi were said to have had the most influence on Carré’s subterranean designs.
Carré would ultimately be uncredited on Phantom, art director Charles Hall taking over during production and implementing the designs Carré had specified, but not without adding his own touches. Hall was the sadly underappreciated designer of almost all Universal’s early 1930s horror films, the visionary behind the iconic Universal Horror look.
To create the life-size replica of the Opera House, Hall began construction on what is now known as Stage 28. Also constructed elsewhere on the Universal backlot were seven blocks of Parisian streets, and actual excavation for underground scenes was done in an area dubbed “Mount Laemmle.” The opera house, built five storeys high just as the original in Paris, sat on an iron “skeleton” used as the supporting structure for the set. The weight of not only the enormous opera house but hundreds of actors and crew and their equipment dictated a strong building, and the iron supports achieved that strength; it was the first Hollywood set of this kind, but certainly not the last.
During production, the set was understandably called The Phantom Stage, and the name has stuck through the decades. The building measures 360 feet by 148 feet, and was constructed of a corrugated exterior, much of which still exists, and over 175,000 feet of lumber. Laemmle had banners advertising Phantom tacked onto the lumber trucks that drove through town, and plenty of publicity was garnered during the construction of the sets alone.
All interiors for Phantom were done on Stage 28, including the unmasking scene. Per some sources, only the water scenes in the long-forgotten “dungeons and torture chambers” under the Opera House were done on “Mount Laemmle,” while the shots in the cavernous rooms of the Phantom’s lair were interiors filmed on the soundstage. The scenes depicting the roof of the Opera House were also done on Stage 28.
When the film finally premiered in September, 1925, the sets were the unquestionable stars of the show. My beloved Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times called the film “a trifle weak” and noted the choppy editing from the multiple revisions, and saved his best praise for the art direction: “There is much to marvel at in the scenic effects,” he wrote, concluding that “the stage settings will appeal to everybody.”
Carl Sandberg’s first review of Phantom was nearly breathless in its excitement:
“Universal’s new production seeks for the chilling thrill, the scene that scares you, which is yet so new, so fascinating that your pleasure surpasses the scare. Its climax creeps upon you by compelling degrees; you shrink from it, yet you would not miss it.”
Not long after, Sandberg had a change of heart and deemed it merely “clever” though “worth the study of psychologists of public taste:”
“The aim is to send cold shivers registering down the spines of the members of the audience.
But these cold shivers must not be too cold, must not go so far as they did in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Nor as they did in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed … The latter two movies were not very strict box office successes; they were too fierce.
In making The Phantom of the Opera they figured on scaring the audience — but not too much, not too fierce.”
Since the release of The Phantom of the Opera, its sets have been used for dozens of films: The Mummy’s Curse (1944) uses some sets for exteriors of the monastery, as does the finale of 1943’s The Mad Ghoul. Other films using parts of the sets include Flesh and Fantasy, Pillow of Death, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Sting, Scarface, Marnie, Torn Curtain and more. Stage 28 housed the large model planet of Metaluna during filming of This Island Earth; the model was the same one used for the Universal logo, slightly modified.
An interesting, if apparently untrue, tale was attached to the set after the 1935 horror classic The Raven was filmed there. Universal press released stories about the scene where Dr. Vollin (Bela Lugosi) shoots Bateman (Boris Karloff), a scene filmed on some of the Phantom sets. Universal claimed that actual bullets were used for the scene, requiring Karloff to wear special bullet-resistant (not bulletproof!) plating as a Universal firearms expert shot at him from off camera. The expert, according to the story, grazed Karloff and the bullet traveled past to the back wall of the set, chipping some of the plaster.
In 1965, Karloff was asked about the incident. After laughing for a bit, he said no, that if he had been shot — even grazed — he would remember it, and that he would never have allowed Universal to use live bullets on him for the scene anyway.
The 1943 remake of Phantom of the Opera won an Oscar for Art Direction-Interior Design, in part by using the original sets: “All it needed was repainting, new drapes, a new front curtain and a new backstage” said director Arthur Lubin in a later interview. The set was also soundproofed for this version. Nearly 15 years later, the sets were used for the Lon Chaney bio-pic Man of A Thousand Faces.
French singer and actress Gaby Deslys reportedly owned this wooden bed shaped like a swan, which was purchased by Universal’s prop department at an estate auction after her untimely death in 1920. Universal made sure everyone knew it, too. From Mordaunt Hall’s review: “You see the bed once owned by Gaby de Lys, which resembles a boat swung from three pillars; then there is a coffin bed in which the Phantom is supposed to rest his weary limbs, and dozens of other interesting features which are flashed here and there on the screen.” The same bed was later used in Sunset Blvd; I would love to know where it is now.
Stage 28 and the remaining parts of the Phantom set have changed quite a bit over the decades. The enormous chandelier, reportedly an exact replica of the one at the Opéra de Paris, had been treated carefully during filming as Universal was nervous about losing such an expensive prop. It remained on the stage until removed for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), when it was stored elsewhere at Universal studios, then lost. How a studio loses a 16,000 pound chandelier is beyond me.
The audience seats on the set were removed and a false floor added in its place. In 1938, the studio allegedly installed an artificial pool below the moving floor in the orchestra area of the set. According to Architecture for the Screen, this pool made it usable as another sound studio for recording. Whether there is (or was) a pool underneath Stage 28 is unclear, but there are certainly areas marked on the floor to reveal the location of pits:
Lon Chaney, Sr. is said to haunt Stage 28, his form seen running along the high catwalks, cape billowing behind him. Over the decades, various actors have claimed to have seen Chaney in his Phantom makeup staring at them before disappearing into shadows. Legend also has it that an electrician fell to his death in 1925 during the construction of the Phantom set, and his spirit also haunts the catwalks. Lon’s otherworldly presence would apparently stroll off to haunt his favorite bus bench at Hollywood and Vine, I guess when the Phantom set became too crowded, though once the bench was removed in the 1940s, the sightings stopped. Still, the ghost sightings at Stage 28 continue, as you probably know from watching the hard-hitting documentary television program Knight Rider, specifically the episode “Fright Knight.”
While it’s doubtful Chaney haunts a soundstage, Stage 28 is undoubtedly associated with his memory as of one of America’s most famous and well-loved classic horror actors, as well as a signature role in his career. Yet the set really has not been treated well given its status in Hollywood history. A commemorative plaque was installed on Stage 28 in the 1940s by his son Lon Chaney, Jr., though it disappeared decades ago. Another plaque was added during filming of The Man of A Thousand Faces in 1957, but it is also gone. Most of the set pieces have disappeared over time — you can see that more of the set existed during the Knight Rider episode than exists now.
While only a few walls, some small chunks of the original plaster molding and a few ghost stories remain of such an iconic film, the reality is that it’s more than what exists from most other classic films. Our cinematic heritage deserves more respect, but in the biz, when there’s a war between the economics of film making and the desire to preserve history, preservation rarely wins.
Update September 2014: Dennis Dickens Universalstonecutter has shared in the comments a lot of amazing links to his galleries, that include blueprints and pictures I’ve never seen before. Very recommended! Here’s his Pinterest gallery, and his Flickr stream is already linked below.
Robert S. Birchard, Early Universal City
Michael Blake, The Films of Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces
Alex Ben Block, Lucy Autrey Wilson, George Lucas’s Blockbusting
Dennis William Hauck, Haunted Places: The National Directory
John Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts: Special Effects, Makeup, and Stunts from the Films of the Fantastic Fifties
Tony Lee Moral, Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie
Juan Antonio Ramírez, Architecture for the Screen: A Critical Study of Set Design in Hollywood’s Golden Age
Carl Sandburg, Arnie Bernstein, Roger Ebert, The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928
Anthony Slide, Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Films
Charles A. Stansfield, Haunted Southern California: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Golden State
Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, John Brunas, Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946