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Phantom of the Opera

     by Edward Ward

Now that I finally have my hands on this little soundtrack gem, we're taking a quick jaunt back to the 1940s to take gander at this little radio show, which was released immediately after the Lubin/Rains film and which features about 99% the same cast and plot. The only substantial difference here is that Claude Rains elected not to reprise his role as the Phantom, preferring to stick to film projects; this is really a shame, as he is an impressive actor who really sold the character in the film, but equally well-respected actor Basil Rathbone steps in to ably fill his shoes.


The producer (radio legend Cecil B. DeMille) delivers a stirring and intriguing introduction, which has less to do with the story itself and more to do with radio as a medium. It's ironic and a little bit nostalgic to listen to him discuss the versatility and enduring appeal of radio, citing its universality and talking about how its ability to reach every home in America and even broadcast to soldiers overseas made it superior to film (then considered more of a luxury); in this modern age, when radio stations are struggling in the wake of television and now the internet, and radio shows of this kind are almost unheard-of outside of a few select (and often poorly patronized) stations, it really gives a contemporary listener pause to consider how much our methods of communication and storytelling have changed in only sixty-five short years. That "golden age" feeling was very prevalent, at least for me (and I do have a not-very-secret love of old films and shows), and much more effective here than it was in most pieces that I've seen that are attempting to make that point or pay homage to the past (miserable 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film, I'm looking at you).


The recording, which is of course a live recording into a set of microphones which was later copied from vinyl to CD, is less than sterling, but it's certainly not terrible. The Lux Theater boasted a live studio audience, which can be heard in occasional bouts of applause or laughter, but for the most part, they're very quiet and well-behaved (much more so than I'd expect out of a modern studio audience, honestly).


The story is almost unchanged from the film upon which it was based, with the most major change being the addition of a narration role to Anatole's character, who now narrates events on and off to keep the story rolling along without visual cues; these narrations were some of the best parts of the show, as they were obviously written with a keen sense of the dramatic and were all very evocative and chilling. A few scenes, such as the initial scene with Raoul meeting Christine backstage, are cut in order to keep running time down, though they are usually briefly mentioned or described by the characters during another scene. A few places have had some heavy-handed rhetoric added to make the point - Anatole telling Christine point-blank that she'll have to someday choose between her career and a normal life comes to mind - but as these seem to be mainly an aid since there are no visual cues, they can be mostly forgiven.


I was worried that I wouldn't like Rathbone's portrayal (Claude Rains is a hard man to measure up to!), but I needn't have been; his Claudin was less of a polished character than Rains's, but definitely no less engaging. In fact, Rathbone really brought a great edge of desperation and confusion to the character, especially in the latter half of the show, that made me pay extra attention to the new portrayal. His immersement in the opera house was apparent, but even moreso was his age; where Rains's Claudin was still spry and seemed to have no obvious problems that could be attributed to his age (aside from that arthritis thing), Rathbone's version of the character is palpably aging. From his awkwardness around Christine to his piteous cries after the disaster at the printer's, he sounds much older and more frail, in both mind and body. The possibility that some of his "madness" might be the onset of dementia is suddenly present in implication, an interesting angle that has not been previously examined in those versions that retain the Phantom's advanced age. Rathbone's vocal acting range is obvious, as he goes from chillingly believable indifference at his murder of Biancarolle, to a lovelorn, pitiful derangement over Christine that seems very clearly elderly, to a hysterical joy at hearing his concerto that, again, reinforces his age in execution.


Alas, despite the fact that I enjoyed Eddy's voice just as much as I did the first time, I also didn't like Foster all that well, just as in the film. While she clearly has a beautiful voice, the overdone, scoopy style made me keep wincing, and that high note was just as grating as before (though now I'm wondering if the "splatter" effect I noted in the first one might just be a very quickly-executed ornament; either way, it didn't have its intended effect on me), followed by a note that was pretty notably sharp. She's not terrible, not by a long shot - as I said, she has a very lovely voice indeed and is clearly a phenomenal singer - but the soupy 1940s style took some of the fun out of it for me. Her cadenza before the high note, however, was quite lovely.


Interestingly enough, there's that line of Anatole's after all the drama has ended: "His suffering will be forgotten, but his music will endure." Of course, it's quite ironic that in every adaptation of the story (including the original with its doomed Don Juan score), the exact opposite seems to be true; audiences simply cannot get enough of his pathos and madness, but damn if a lot of them don't ignore or even complain about the musical interludes. Which is a shame in a story that hinges upon music as heavily as this one.


Overall, the radio format has, oddly enough, managed to convey a much greater amount of sinister feeling and anxiety to its audience, making it more successful (in my opinion) than the film was in presenting a horror story. That said, there was a lot lost in the translation from screen to radio, and the film as a whole was more complete than the show was; I would say that this is mostly a function of the apparently only half-hearted effort shown in adapting the story for the radio. I would have preferred a more thorough, radio-friendly adaptation.

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