Phantom of the Opera (1943)

     directed by Arthur Lubin

          starring Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, Nelson eddy and

            Edgar Barrier

I have to admit that I had to take a step back and think hard to make sure I gave this one a fair viewing; as a child, I watched a great number of 1940's musicals with my grandparents, and the nostalgia factor might have been overwhelming my judgment just a wee tad. Luckily, the DVD player's refusal to play the last ten minutes of the film while I howled and whined and otherwise voiced my displeasure helped dissipate some of that pesky starry-eyed wistfulness.

 

This film is the 1943 remake by Universal Studios, who also made the 1925 Julian/Chaney film (in fact, large portions of the set from the original film were reused). It's somewhat amazing to compare the two films and see the vast difference in movie-making practices and perceptions over just a few short decades. The overt shock and terror approach of the 1925 version has been replaced by a gentler, more psychological horror and pity for the Phantom, while comic relief, mostly absent in the original, abounds.

 

The first thing that is always noted about this movie is that it is wildly operatic. The majority of classic horror fans find it boring for this reason; in keeping with the subject matter, opera is everywhere and constant attention is lavished upon the singing and performing of it. The singers sing; the orchestra plays; music is as much a part of the film's backdrop as it was part of the novel. In fact, the first thing I noticed was that the orchestra at the beginning of the film was really playing the spirited overture; in modern film, such roles are usually filled by actors and there is consequently little time spent filming them, or they are filmed obliquely so that little detail can be ascertained by the audience. Not so here; having played the viola for quite a while, I can cheerfully say that these guys were the real deal. The camera lingered on them for quite a while, and I enjoyed seeing their artistry.

 

In the grand tradition of heavy foreshadowing, the camera practically makes love to the magnificent chandelier in the opera house. That's okay, though, because it doesn't, somehow, do it in such a way as to annoy me; it's only obvious if you already know the story, instead of beating the unsuspecting viewer over the head with the OMG RELEVANT LATER stick.

 

Early on, I noted that the baritone was awesome; as I mentioned, the singers are actually singers in this film, unlike some I will be watching later (but let's wait until then to yell at them). Sure, he gets a little nasally now and then, and my voice teachers would no doubt find his habit of scooping incredibly offensive, but he has quite the lovely voice and I enjoyed listening to him belt out the modified opera scores (adapted from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4). Entertainingly enough, this baritone, named Anatole, is one of Christine's love interests; she has two in this film version (Raoul is the other, a straight-laced police inspector). This appears to be exclusively for the purposes of fostering the comic relief, as the two of them don't have appreciably different roles and spend most of their time posturing and glaring at one another over the top of her head. As a side note, it is interesting to see him cast in the role of hero; in opera the baritones traditionally play the villains, while the heroes are almost exclusively tenors. It bemused me to see Anatole singing the heroic role in several operas over the course of the film.

 

As I mentioned above, Raoul is here a member of the Sûreté; he also doesn't really approve of opera singing, and is mad jealous of all the time Christine spends singing around Anatole. His first appearance has him asking her if she isn't finally done with this "opera" nonsense so they can finally go have babies or something more appropriate. By contrast, Anatole encourages her singing and is always trying to get her on-stage with him. The film essentially splits Raoul's character in two in order to facilitate making him an appropriate romantic choice for Christine: she can choose between Raoul as the aristocratic, brash soldier or Raoul as the supportive, musically sensitive lover. It is a very neat way for Christine to be able to choose Raoul (or in this case, Anatole) without renouncing her music, which is a subtext of her original choice between the Phantom and Raoul that bothers many later readers. Of course, that removes a lot of the symbolism from her choice and reduces the whole thing from a choice between love and vocation, creation and maintenance, to mostly just a question of affection... but alas, as we've noticed, the movies are usually intended much more for mass entertainment than for thematic relevance.

 

A lot of horror buffs dislike this movie because they feel it is a musical rather than a true horror film (but why can't it be both, y'all?). One major reason for this is that the character of the Phantom has been vastly reworked from the sinister creature of the 1925 film; he is now a tragic, misunderstood and maligned figure (though, of course, also completely unstable and liable to kill people at the drop of a hat). The Phantom in this version is a man named Erique Claudin, a violin player in the orchestra who is madly in love with Christine; this is an interesting choice in that it recalls echoes of Christine's father, who in the original novel was a talented traveling violinist. A lot of emphasis is also put on Claudin's age (probably somewhere in his fifties); while the age divide of approximately thirty or forty years is the same as it was for the novel, the updated sensibilities of the forties prompted several lines to be written highlighting the futility of such a romantic pursuit.

 

Claudin pays for Christine to take singing lessons from a prestigious Italian tutor (as he is a violinist only in this version rather than a virtuoso of many musical areas, Claudin cannot teach her himself; however, in paying for her lessons he assumes much the same mentor role, if some of the mysticism is unavoidably lost); she is unaware of it and in fact largely unaware of Claudin's existence, except as a nice old gentleman in the orchestra who occasionally stares at her slightly longer than is totally proper. This bothered me marginally, as it was never explained; who, exactly, does she think pays for her lessons? She knows she isn't paying for them, but she still seems to go about her day without worrying about it all the time. It's a mystery. If I were having extremely expensive lessons being paid for by an unknown benefactor, I feel like I'd sure as hell want to know who they were and what they were up to. But maybe that's just me.

 

Of course, after I praised the orchestra at the beginning for really playing their instruments, Claudin is not really playing his violin when he does his little solo piece for the conductor. I was saddened. But it turned out a short while later that he does really play the piano, so I suppose the actor can't be blamed for not being able to play every instrument in creation (well, he is playing the Phantom, so maybe he can, but I won't do it). Claude Rains (famous for a lot of roles over a long career, including the original Invisible Man) is extremely impressive; his ability to emote and to project at turns both implacable menace and heart-wrenching piteousness make him incredibly believable and relatable in the role. His performance will pave the way for the divergence in film from the horror archetype to the misunderstood romantic (best typified, of course, by Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical and the subsequent movie version).

 

The plot thickens as we continue to find out more about Claudin; as he is reaching an advanced age, he has begun to be afflicted with arthritis in his left (fingering) hand, and as a result is discharged from the orchestra. Getting on in years and without any other marketable job skills, he finds himself destitute. He has apparently been spending all of his orchestra wages on Christine's education, leaving precious little for himself to live on, and has completely drained his retirement account. Desperate to come up with enough money to continue Christine's lessons - and this is a telling point in his character, that he is primarily concerned with making sure Christine gets her lessons and has little to no concern over what he, personally, is going to live on - he attempts to get his concerto manuscript published and is subsequently jerked around a lot by the publishers, who dislike him and have no intention of publishing his concerto despite the fact that it is apparently quite good (incidentally, the concerto is based on a folk melody from Christine's childhood that she is wont to sing all the damn time, another tie-in to the Phantom as father figure).

 

In a heart-wrenching twist, he overhears the publishers discussing their intention to make him wait a week or two before rejecting it, and storms into the office to demand his manuscript's return (as it is his only copy and represents his life's work); the publisher tells him that he has mislaid it, but he can clearly heard it being played elsewhere in the house. In a fury as he believes his life's work is being stolen, Claudin strangles the publisher to death, and is subsequently blinded and scarred when the assistant throws a pan of acid in his face. This is the first time acid is used to scar the Phantom in Western film (it was also used in 1937's Ye Bang Ge Sheng), but it's far from being the last. As with other versions that disfigure the Phantom within their plotlines, all themes of alienation from humanity and indifference from society are lost without the disfigurement from birth; it's tragic, but symbolically the scarring is a representation of his misbehavior and the fact that he is subsequently punished for it, and not indicative of questions of humanity or lifelong ostracization. Claudin then flees the authorities, steals a chorus mask from the opera house costume stores, and gets down to the business of haunting the place.

 

The superstitious stage manager of the opera believes in the "Ghost", and is always attempting to blame mishaps on him; considering that Claudin has only recently taken up residence in the catacombs, one has to assume that the stage manager really is just overly imaginative and has been blaming normal accidents on a fictitious ghost for a while. He has an amusing gesture he uses to show the presence of the ghost, involving miming a long nose and a red beard that he believes it has - again, apparently nothing to do with Claudin.  The image of a long nose as a marker of evil and/or the supernatural is a pretty traditional one in various European folklores, so this may simply be an easy shorthand for the idea of an unseen evil presence.

 

Stage manager aside, the vast majority of the comic relief in the movie comes from Christine's bumbling suitors, who are constantly in a transparent war of one-upsmanship mostly based on attempts to impress her more than their rival. It's cute in a very kitschy kind of a way, but it deprives the story of that element of devotion that the original Raoul had for Christine, which made him so compelling as a hero and made her choice of love with him over success with the Phantom so poignant; instead of a struggle between two opposing but equally seductive forces, Christine simply has a disfigured madman to fear and a pair of well-meaning fools to string along. It's entertaining enough to watch them politely fight over her, but it never goes anywhere and eventually wears thin.

 

Carlotta is here replaced again by an Italian, as she is in many versions. This time she is Madame Biancarolli, the Italian diva (visually, this is the first version of her with red hair, a trend that will later be carried over to virtually every following version; it's hard to tell in the black and white, but I believe she was blonde in the 1925 film). In a vast change from her 1925 incarnation, she is neither an innocent victim like Carlotta nor an evil witch like her mother; she is egotistical but not particularly nasty until after she has been drugged and awoken to find that Christine has taken her place on the stage. Rather naturally, she assumes that there is a plot, and accuses Christine and Anatole of drugging her in order to get the younger soprano out on the stage. She uses this as grounds to demand that the opera replace Christine as her understudy so that a repeat cannot take place, to which they reluctantly agree; unfortunately for her, the Phantom visits her and kills her after she attempts to restrain him for arrest.

 

Biancarolli serves here, in getting killed, to give us some insight into the Phantom's motivations; the first time he killed it was because his life's work was being stolen. In his madness, Christine has become his life's work, the thing he has invested all his energy into, and thus when that is threatened he is moved to kill again. Claudin is presented as being at root a decent man, and it is only when this primal protective urge is awoken in him that he commits murder - again, he is cast in the role of father, not of lover. Alas, all this symbolism is clearly intentional, but Biancarolli herself is completely erased as a result; it's depressing to see a woman whose only crime was being justifiably upset that her career was being sabotaged and attempting to apprehend a dangerous criminal get murdered just so we can learn about her murderer. You deserved better, diva.

 

The use of shadow in this film is almost as effective as it was in the 1925 version; we only see the Phantom as a silhouette for most of the film, until he reveals himself to Biancarolli before her death. Additionally, no one ever really mentions Claudin's name again, referring to him only as "the criminal" or "the Phantom" or "the murderer", which has much the same effect as never seeing his face. We as the audience know Claudin and the Phantom to be the same, but we are encouraged to separate them in our minds for the purposes of the story, keeping the original Claudin innocent and the later Phantom to bear all the blame for his crimes. After the grand unveiling in Biancarolli's quarters, however, virtually every shot of the Phantom is stunning; the view of him standing in the underground listening to Christine sing in the opera house far above in particular is gorgeously evocative, a visual reiteration of the theme of two separate worlds, above and below, that are joined solely by Christine's voice.

 

Speaking of Christine's voice, by the way, it is beautiful but also a product of its time, which may turn off some modern viewers. Foster's voice has a pleasant timbre and is obviously well-trained, but slightly overblown in the fashion that was popular at the time, particularly in the stylistic tendency to scoop between notes and chew some consonants. The one very high note that she busts out at the end of her first aria is somewhat splattered, but it's difficult to tell if this is a production issue or a very quickly-executed ornament that was hard to distinguish, but either way it's impressive (if possibly off-putting for modern listeners used to more clear tones).

 

Another gorgeous shot is when the Phantom stealthily approaches one of Raoul's men from between two sets of curtains; it is done so subtly that I was startled to see him suddenly appear out of nowhere, and rewound back to watch it again. It was just as amazingly gradual the second time.

 

While they did not have either the budget to buy the rights nor the operatic cast to do actual operas and instead adapted their score from the works of Tchaikovsky, various posters are posted and references made throughout the movie to operas - Flotow's Marta, and Mozart's Don Giovanni both make appearances. While I found this slightly annoying (I kept expecting to actually hear Don Giovanni when I saw them advertising it and being disappointed), it was a clever way to stay true to the novel in the face of licensing difficulties. Even with the home-brewed opera, the lush score and constant vocalizing both on-screen and off made the feeling of the novel come through strongly, as its emphasis on the constant music lent itself exceptionally well to such a musically sumptuous interpretation.

 

I found myself saddened that so much screen time was wasted on the antics of Raoul and Anatole, because Rains' Phantom is truly well-acted and intriguing. He is completely murderous, of course; the shock of being fired, having his life's work stolen, committing murder, and then being horribly injured all within the space of twenty-four hours have clearly caused some kind of traumatic or psychotic break, and he manifests it with no apparent indication that he is aware of his condition, speaking of Biancarolli as if she were still alive and reassuring Christine with all the love born of obsession imaginable. The overall feeling is of a nice old man gone horribly wrong as a result of cruel fate; while he doesn't have the element of tortured genius of the original, nor the societal resentment that added such depth to the novel's villain, Rains does an amazing job with the limitations placed upon the character in this context, and he is really what saves the movie. I was pleased to see that the makeup department pulled no punches in his makeup; the acid splash is unrealistically small and contained to one area for the way that we saw the original injury occur, but the eye was very convincingly rendered useless.

 

In the end, the Phantom barely has his confrontation. Anatole and Raoul burst in to rescue Christine, and the discharge of Raoul's gun triggers a cave-in that buries the hapless Claudin in rubble, presumably killing him. The trio escapes and goes right back to their wacky romantic hijinks, and there is no possibility of redemption for the Phantom nor any opportunity for Christine to fulfill the role of savior, just as her agency to save the day was stripped from her in the preceding 1925 film. This was intended to be a horror title, and thus had no use for the theme of redemption through love, alas.

 

Christine does get a little bit of her own back at the very end of the film, however; once all the dust has settled and the two suitors demand she make her decision, each arguing that they were more manfully heroic in their rescue of her, she informs them that she's not having any of this nonsense and will be pursuing her career without any intention to marry either of them.  This is meant to be a final moment of comedy, poking fun at the ultimate failure of the two bumbling men to secure her affections, but it's also a powerful moment where Christine gets to assert her dominance as the decision-maker in the triangular relationship.  Created as it was during wartime in the United States, Christine's powerful stance also echoes the increased independence of women at this time entering the workforce in order to support the war, and may also be a gentle jab at the widespread masculine fear that women would start deciding they no longer needed men once they had begun to leave the house and work to support themselves.

 

My only other note is to point out that Romantic composer Liszt gets to be in this movie, which I got a kick out of. It's stretching the time period--in 1881 Liszt was bedridden in Germany, where he remained for 5 years until his death--but he is convincingly portrayed by none other than beloved science fiction author Fritz Lieber, who apparently dabbled in acting now and then among his many other accomplishments. I nearly jumped out of my chair to see him; and entertainingly enough, he does bear quite the resemblance to Liszt in his latter days.

 

So what are we saying here? This isn't a bad movie, but I can't really say it's a great one, either, even when you take the time period into account. There's just too much gratuitous silliness intended to lighten things up, on top of a near-complete removal of the themes that made the original story so compelling and a cast of characters that, with a few exceptions, are mostly less than engaging. A few things, such as Rains' performance and some very well-composed filming, elevate it above garden-variety schlock, but not by much. Alas. My starry-eyed-ness didn't last very long at all, did it?

 

An interesting footnote: a sequel was planned for this in which the Phantom turned out not to really be dead, called The Climax; however, after a large number of problems with financing and scripts and Rains pulling out, the project was scrapped and completely reworked.  The Climax was made, but with an entirely different premise and Boris Karloff in the major role.

 

Yeah, this is posted a whole week after I actually watched the film. I tell you, work is murdering me. Not even slowly.

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