The Phantom of Paris, 1931. 7/10

Not that Phantom. And we’re not at the opera, but rather a magic show. In Paris Cheri-Bibi (John Gilbert), a magician, wants to marry Cecile (Leila Hyams); she wants him too, but her father M. Bourrelier (C. Aubrey Smith) forbids it. She’s engaged, however, to the Marquis Du Tochais (Ian Keith). In fact, though, Bourrelier sets himself up by threatening to change his will to pointedly exclude the Marquis (he realizes that his daughter can’t stand the guy). Then, dad is killed. Looks bad for Bibi, as he’d just had it out with Bourrelier. Detective Costaud (Lewis Stone) investigates.

Bibi is railroaded all right. If that’s not enough, the old will is still in force, so, apparently, Cecile will marry the Marquis after all. Bibi doesn’t waste any (screen) time escaping, though. He hides out with his loyal friend/manager Herman (Jean Hersholt) and his wife. Since it’s obvious that the killer must be the Marquis, the question is what Bibi will do about it. Costaud is pretty sure that Bibi is being protected by Herman; he also tells Herman that the Marquis is dying.

Just two seconds before he actually dies, Bibi sneaks into the Marquis’ room at night, and gets him to admit that he indeed killed Bourrelier. Bibi hies off with the body to another extremely loyal friend, Doctor Gorin (Alfred Hickman). The doctor agrees to do plastic surgery on him so that Bibi can pass for the Marquis–while somehow disposing of the body. The fact that Bibi saved the doctor’s life in the war makes it plausible that he’d go out on a limb for him now. He returns to the limelight as the Marquis.

Maybe now he’s good enough for Cecile. He does look like the Marquis, it’s mostly a matter of a goatee and a pince-nez. It seems that maybe he’s having fun being a jerk. He’s concocted a ridiculous story that Bibi kidnapped him, and he only just escaped. Plus, Bibi has conveniently died. (It’s been three years since the Marquis and Cecile married, and six months since the Marquis ‘disappeared’). He–the real Marquis–apparently has been having an affair with Vera (Natalie Morehead). He, the fake Marquis, says to her, vaguely, “there are shadows between us.”

Awkwardly, Costaud comes calling. He wants proof that Bibi is dead. “I saw Bibi fall into the abyss” the fake Marquis tells him. Meanwhile, Vera tells him that only the two of them know that the (real) Marquis killed Bourrelier. That brings up the slight problem that Bibi could get wrongly convicted of same murder all over again. Cecile tells him that he’s “different,” somehow. Aha! She’s found him out.

He tells her what really happened to the Marquis, etc. Uh, oh, here’s Costaud again, with Vera, and a whole squad of gendarmes. Costaud claims to have found ‘Bibi’s’ body; that’s true, because once he takes Bibi’s prints, he has of course found Bibi. The jig is up. Again. But, again, not so fast. No sooner has he been taken away than he escapes. Back at the house, he gets Vera to tell how she and the Marquis we’re the killers. As Bibi probably knew, Costaud was just outside the window, listening. Voila! Costaud now knows that Bibi’s innocent. The end.

The Phantom of Paris has remarkably good pacing. It’s an intricate (maybe too clever) story told in a very short run-time. The plot does cause suspension of disbelief to spread paper-thin over some points of logic. Given the conceit that Gorin can make a body just go away, and he’s conveniently also adept at plastic surgery, we can overcome the more obvious miracles. It’s also established that Bibi is basically a Houdini who can escape through a sieve if necessary.

Since magic is a type of deception, pretending to be someone else doesn’t seem all that far-fetched either. Presumably, Bibi knows a lot about the Marquis; what’s more, the Marquis’ off-putting nature makes it easier to imitate, as someone standing aloof doesn’t interact enough to show his cards, so to speak. The Marquis’ ‘disappearance’ is a bit more problematic. At least Costaud doesn’t waste time following up; and he did figure out that Herman had been hiding Bibi.

We are asked to accept a lot of near-magical stuff; for the most part, though, the movie hides its tracks well enough that, although we’re on the brink of derailing this plot a few times, we arrive at our satisfactory conclusion more or less intact. What’s harder to accept are the characters aboard this Parisian thrill-ride. None of the characters are memorable. It’s not just the Marquis who has a forgettable personality, it’s nearly everyone. The settings have more allure than any of these folks.

Still, The Phantom of Paris is worth a look, if for no other reason than excellent pacing that skips large chunks of time in order to build siurprise and tension. Quick explanations take the place of filler scenes.

Farmermouse thought that Herman’s magic shop was pretty cool, so he gives The Phantom of Paris seven disappearing bunnies. 7/10

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