Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Phantom of Paris (1931)

My notes on The Phantom of Paris.It seems that Gaston Leroux’s novel Cheri-Bibi was retitled for this screen version to make a connection with the author’s biggest hit, The Phantom of the Opera; though it’s a different type of story, this is also concerned with a romantic and criminal collision between show business and high society. A vehicle for John Gilbert, a silent star whose sound career fizzled for various reasons (the enmity of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer paramount among them), it gives Gilbert an acting work-out John Barrymore might envy as a highly unlikely plot requires him to be successively a blithely confident escapologist, an innocent man accused of murder, an embittered fugitive and a ‘great impersonation’ master of disguise.

Cheri-Bibi (Gilbert), an escape artist who does Houdini-like stunts involving shackles and a water-tank, incidentally earns the enmity of stern detective Costaud (Lewis Stone) by roping him in to his act and showing that he can break out of even Surete handcuffs underwater. The hero is in love with ingenue Cecile (Leila Hyams), daughter of wheelchairbound old aristo Bourrelier (Sir C. Aubrey Smith) – one of those unwise folks common in 1930s movies who tell grasping heirs that they are to be cut out of the will before they make the changes. At a soiree where a society dimwit (Tyrell Davis) keeps pestering the hero to show him a trick with a cigarette case, Bourrelier informs the Marquis du Touchais (Ian Keith, with evil goatee and monocle) he has learned he is a scoundrel and will oppose a possible marriage to Cecile, then – with the dimwit handy as a witness – further tells Cheri-Bibi that he can’t marry the girl (‘as long as I live’) either! The Marquis, whose mistress (Natalie Moorhead) is the Bourrelier social secretary, shoots the old man from the shadows, and Cheri-Bibi is quickly convicted of the crime. However, he pulls one of his specialty prison escapes to avoid the guillotine and hides in a secret cellar constructed by an associate (Jean Hersholt) for four years, as conveyed by an unshaven semi-mad scene.

In more unbelievable turns, word comes that the Marquis – who has married Cecile and fathered a horribly cute little boy (Douglas Scott) – is about to die of influenza. Cheri-Bibi invades the invalid’s bedroom and wrings a confession out of him before he expires, then hauls the corpse away, has minor plastic surgery courtesy of another old friend (Alfred Hickman) and turns up six months later posing as the Marquis (ie: with beard and monocle) to reconnect with Cecile, who is predictably estranged from the dead dastard, and pressure the mistress into confirming his innocence. The home stretch reeks of contrivance, but Gilbert has fun doing Keith’s barking swine performance while letting the softer Cheri-Bibi peep through in scenes with the girl and the kid – and the final trick that resolves the plot is a nicely-managed piece of misdirection. Director John S. Robertson had directed the John Barrymore Jekyll and Hyde, but rather skimps on the mysterioso elements here.


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