The Climax (1944)

     directed by George Waggner

          starring Boris Karloff, Susanna Foster and Turhan Bey

This is not, despite appearances, a movie about orgasms.

 

When I started this project, I dismissed this film... in fact, I dismissed it multiple times. It kept coming up, since it was filmed as a sequel to the 1943 Lubin/Rains Phantom of the Opera, but because the script had been substantially changed and Rains himself, the very recognizable Phantom that carried the first film, had pulled out of the project, I kept ignoring it anyway. It wasn't until fairly recently that finally, after revisiting some summaries and convincing myself that maybe this wasn't going to be as unrelated as I thought it was, I decided it deserved to be included. Geez, Anne... bitter over the occasional unrelated piece of material you spent money on, or what?

 

Then, of course, it was only available in rare out-of-print VHS format, or as part of a large DVD collection of Boris Karloff's films. Such is my life. I look forward to the day that future generations of Phantom enthusiasts can get it as a digital download.

 

My first note of the film was that the classical score, which is very typical of its time period and uses lushly instrumental orchestras in sweeping phrases, was extremely similar to Edward Ward's score from the Lubin/Rains film. About ten seconds later, the credits informed me that Ward also composed the music for this film, so I got to feel smug for a few seconds. It's not the most inspired score I've ever head, but it fits its film and the fashions of the time perfectly, and the incorporation of snippets of other classical scores here and there doesn't hurt at all.

 

The action is once again set in an opera house - in this case, the Royal Theatre, possibly a reference to the Palais-Royale theatre in France - and revolves around Dr. Frederick Hohner, the theatre physician, and his thwarted love for the soprano Marcellina. The film begins with a short introduction in the present day, showing us Hohner (played by the inimitable Boris Karloff) arriving at the darkened theatre in the middle of the night, and letting us overhear a pair of stagehands discussing how he comes every night to sit in the abandoned dressing rooms and dream of his lost love, Marcellina, who disappeared a decade ago. The pan-around shots of the abandoned dressing room, covered in dust and drop-cloths, is suitably creepy, and Karloff's dynamic presence somehow manages to make a scene in which a man walks into a room, looks around, and then sits down and ruminates both gripping and anticipatory.

 

We plunge into flashback, as Hohner recalls the tragic events of yesteryear. How do we know it's a flashback? Well, because someone's put a sparkly red gel around the edges of the shot, ringing the screen in glimmering see-through crimson. It frankly looks pretty laughable by today's standards; low-budget, to be sure, and very unsubtle, but it's all part of watching films from before the magical days of computer editing and color specialists. It's hard to knock a film for the constraints of its time period; in any case, while the color kind of beats you over the head, it does let the audience know that a flashback is in progress and further adds a spot of lurid color that clues us in that Bad Things may be on their way.

 

Marcellina, played by the lovely June Vincent (who, by the way, bears just enough resemblance to Susanna Foster to be both evocative of her and still very distinct), is an operatic diva at the peak of her career, bringing the house down every night and even receiving a royal invitation to perform for the king (which king? Who knows? Apparently not important, since I'm not even sure which country we're in). The establishing opera performance -- dubbed, I assume, by Foster, since she'll be playing a character with an identical voice - is vocally lovely; in fact, I think that Foster is sounding better in this film than she did in the Lubin/Rains production, though both are high quality.

 

The conflict comes from the fact that Hohner is a jealous man, and doesn't want to share Marcellina with her adoring public any longer. The relationship between the two of them is somewhat nebulous; the cover copy on several editions of the film refers to her as his wife, but while he is obviously an old flame or a lover of some kind, the nature of their connection is never explicitly stated. Since this is a sequel of sorts, I'm reminded of the early passages in Leroux's novel dealing with ladies' fans and footstools in the Phantom's box, implying that he may have had lady friends or mistresses prior to his obsession with Christine; Marcellina could certainly be said to fill such a role, since the actual Christine character is yet to come, and a tragically-ended previous love affair provides interesting avenues of cause and effect when it comes to the Phantom's manic pursuit of Christine.

 

The psychology of Hohner (obviously our Phantom figure, though it will get a lot more obvious in a minute or two) is by far the most intriguing aspect of the film. Marcellina's accurate accusation that he wants to "lock her up" in his "private, selfish little world" rather than letting her choose her own destiny is dead-on accurate for the Phantom, and while his adamant opposition to her performance - he states that he can't bear any man off the street being able to share in her beauty "just for the price of a ticket" - is initially confusing for a viewer used to the traditional Phantom's crusade to make Christine the talk of the town, it's not too far-fetched a leap. The lines in Leroux's novel concerning Christine's promise to sing only for Erik, in particular, stand out as being very similar in intent, if not in execution.

 

The comment implied by Hohner's hatred of her performance is also interesting, with its suggestion that performance is equivalent to prostitution (this idea will be explored thoroughly in about thirty years in the 1974 de Palma/Finley film); the idea is certainly not a new one, having been visited in Leroux's work as well as many others, but its power is undeniable. An audience at the time that the film debuted would have been aware of the unreasonableness of Hohner's stance, but still might have considered sympathizing with his feelings of jealousy. Of course, his possessive desire to own Marcellina as if she were an item rather than a person is deeply terrifying and misogynistic, and it's no surprise it results in violence and death.

 

All of this is somewhat secondary to the largest mental defect assigned to Hohner; namely, his personification (and vilification) of Marcellina's voice. He snaps in this scene, referring to her voice as if it were an actual separate entity, one which is intentionally and maliciously attempting to separate him from his love. The idea is evocative of Christine's own fear in Leroux's novel when she felt that her voice, under the Phantom's tutelage, was no longer her own, though the presentation here is much more violent and unbalanced. In an attempt to destroy the voice that is keeping Marcellina away from him, he strangles her to death (much too quickly to be realistic, I might add, but this is the forties and no one wants to see eyeballs and tongues bugging out), and his murmurs that now they can be together forever are both frightening in their madness and curiously piteous, a perfect mix for a Phantom character.

 

We already know from the present-day discussion between the stagehands that Marcellina's mysterious disappearance was never solved, and the mystery is kept intact when we come back out of the flashback before Hohner gives any clue as to what he plans to do next. In contrast with the colorful dressing room in the flashback, the same room looks even more funereal in the present with its columns, stone statues, and pervasive grayness. The contrast is so marked that I found myself wondering if the extremely similar color conceit from the 1990 Yu/Cheung film might have been inspired by Waggner's choice here.

 

The bustle of the daytime theatre is splendidly rendered, impressive mostly because of the gorgeous sets (which, of course, are largely reused from the Lubin/Rains film; they were very expensive sets for the time, and Universal was not above pinching a penny here and there if they could get away with it). There is only one manager of the opera house, condensed down from the original two, and he is referred to as "Count" Seebruck, a title which made me wonder if he is the first iteration of the later trend of slimy noblemen in positions of power over the opera house in later films (D'Arcy in the 1962 film, Baron Hunyadi in the 1983 film, etc.), despite his lack of personal dastardliness.

 

The extremely identifiable (and disagreeable) Carlotta character is introduced here, the diva Jarmilla, who is a textbook perfect image of the difficult soprano stereotype that will become the norm for the character in future retellings; also presented is the baritone Roselli, who seems to be filling the role vacated by Anatole, the second Raoul-figure from the 1943 film, though his romantic interest in Angela (our Christine) is somewhat peripheral in this version. The need for an understudy comes from Jarmilla's divariffic tantrum, in which she refuses to sing this evening, another interpretation of events that will become very popular in later versions of the story.

 

A very cute little side scene occurs in which a panicked maid runs to the stars and manager, screaming that she's found a corpse in the dressing room; in a flip from Leroux's story, however, it is not the dead Buquet but rather Hohner himself, having just fallen asleep in the abandoned dressing room. Granted, Karloff looks quite sallow in this film (though not to the extent of Leroux's Erik, obviously), so her fright is somewhat understandable.

 

Christine finally enters, and she is a young girl named Angela (a very obviously positively and divinely-connotated name) Klatt, a prodigious singing talent coming to the opera house in the hopes of making her career. Her fiance, young Franz Metzger, is in tow; as in the Lubin/Rains film, he has been given a musical career of his own (as a composer this time), in order to make his character more compatible with Angela's world than the original Raoul, a soldier and nobleman, would have been. As is usual when the Raoul character's role is changed, the social questions of love across class lines and the consequences thereof are abandoned, though their relationship is warm and believable.

 

As should surprise no one familiar with the story, Angela's lovely voice gets her a major role in the upcoming performance. It also gets her Hohner's distressingly intense attention, because her voice is, of course, a dead ringer for Marcellina's. His hissy fit is short in duration because other members of the staff, also recognizing the uncanny similarity to the vanished soprano's voice, haul him off before he can freak out too thoroughly. The musical performance itself is much more modern than anything presented in the 1943 film, more resembling the sort of show that was in vogue at the time rather than what would have been popular in a turn of the century story; since no time period is ever given for this film, one assumes it's probably set in the forties as well, which costuming and character behaviors bear out. In fact, now that I think about it, I may like Foster's vocal performance in this film better partially because the music is much more the style that she was known for, and she sounds lovely. Jarmila, too, sounds gorgeous, though I can't find a record of who the singer might be and don't know if Jane Farrar herself was doing the recording.

 

By the way, if you noticed that Farrar also played Biancarolli in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, kudos! I'm a little bit face-blind and didn't notice until halfway through, but she played the diva in both movies, in spite of them being different characters, another legacy of the movie's original intent as a sequel.

 

Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of unnecessary comedy going on in the audience as Franz, bursting with pride at his fiancee's debut, annoys his seatmates continually with talking and invasions of their space. The inclusion of comedy that detracts from the story was the largest issue with the 1943 film, so it's not surprising (not exciting, but not surprising) that its carried over in here; however, this is one of few instances that feature it, and the film as a whole is stronger because more attention is paid to the suspense and plot than to Bey's antics. I will note, however, that his constant gnawing on his program as he watches every move Angela makes is adorable, and that he plays it well; had the comedy been confined to that, I would have been a happy girl.

 

Based on the strength of Angela's performance, Seebruck decides to revive the made-up opera The Magic Voice for her; this is, of course, the same opera that Marcellina was performing when she disappeared, and it has not been put on since because no leading lady with a suitable range could be found. The name of the opera is of course quite significant in light of Hohner's obsession, and his angry insistence that it should never be performed again underscores this (we'll see this echoed way down the line in the 1987Argento/Barberini film and the 1997 Spencer musical, which both use similar ideas of a cursed opera).

 

Hohner's formidable anger is completely gone by the time he catches Angela leaving the theater, however, and he's nothing but gentlemanly and comforting as he convinces her that theatre protocol says he must subject her to a throat examination after every performance. In fact, he's so effectively gentlemanly that it ratchets the creepiness up a few levels, since we know exactly what he's capable of, and the "throat examination" made me squirm in my seat, reviewing all the horrible possibilities. The tension does nothing but ramp up to an almost suffocating level as he shows her around his office and home, that same unsettling intensity riveted on her face as he watches her every move. By the time he's offering her a strand of pearls that belonged to Marcellina, wrapping it around her throat with an exquisite combination of sensuality and danger, the audience is ready to scream, and poor Angela is just beginning to get an inkling that something is wrong.

 

A very nice small touch comes when he mentions that his home is specifically vented so as to allow him to hear all the performances from the adjacent opera house; it recalls the Phantom's ability to hear performances from his underground home in the 1943 film, and Angela's delighted exclamation that it's just like a private box brings to mind Leroux's Box 5, guarded by Madame Giry, where the Phantom traditionally views the operas in solitude.

 

Luckily (for me), Hohner did not employ any of my awful imaginings, instead choosing a method I wouldn't have come up with: hypnosis. Through a combination of flashing lights, a large, spinning patterned wheel, and his own hypnotically monotone voice, Hohner puts the unsuspecting Angela into a trance and suppresses her voice, making her unable to sing. It is obvious that he still believes the voice to be a separate entity, one now inhabiting Angela; his murmurs during the hypnosis that the voice must be sent back to the dead Marcellina in order to silence it forever are thoroughly creepy, all the more so because Karloff's delivery is dead-on balanced between sounding reasonable and actually being thoroughly chilling. He adds a physical reminder to the mental block, giving her an atomizer (which we will see in several later versions, including the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film and the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film), the sight of which reinforces his commands. The fine line that Leroux walked, balancing the question of the Phantom's supernatural powers versus his human nature, is surprisingly well preserved, the hypnosis existing in a grey area of pseudo-science that could be taken either way depending on the viewer's tendencies.

 

A confused and sleepy Angela is packed off home, and we are treated to a suitably disturbing moment when Hohner begins hearing the disembodied voice singing throughout his office; turning off a gas light silences it, but only for a second, until he is tearing through his office putting out every light he can find, panic on his face, and the audience realizes that the sound we have been hearing is only in his head. The voice panics him so badly that he begins shouting that it is coming for his beloved Marcellina, and, after shutting down all the lights, he hurries through his office and through a series of locked doors that have been conspicuously closed in every shot, finally emerging into a tomb-like room covered with memorabilia from Marcellina's performances. The centerpiece, of course, is Marcellina herself, preserved perfectly (and somewhat unbelievably, but then again, he is a doctor; maybe he has embalming skills) in a glass coffin. His desire to protect her, even now, shows the depth of his madness; only dead and silent is she truly "safe", able to be owned and protected by him.

 

We also meet Luise on the way through the doctor's living quarters to his office; a very severe older woman in unremitting black, her presentation and connection to the Phantom figure (she's his maid and lives in his house, the only living person with whom he has regular contact outside the theater) suggest that she may be a version of Madame Giry. While she has no daughter to take on the Meg role, she was, as we saw in the flashback, a close pal of Marcellina's, and the way that she shadows Hohner around his house suggests that she has her suspicions about her girlfriend's fate.

 

The next day, it almost seems that the hypnosis was a failure; Angela is singing once more in rehearsal, but she seems obviously troubled and confused by something. When Hohner himself arrives on the scene, glaring at her with an understated fury that we know is directed purely toward her voice, she instantly freezes up and is unable to sing another note, finally fleeing to her dressing room in tears and confusion. I would also stop singing if Karloff were glaring at me like that from the doorway, most likely because my heart would immediately stop. Her tearful inability to explain the problem to a bewildered Franz is very reminiscent of Christine's inability in Leroux's novel to explain the Phantom's strange hold over her to Raoul, and a subsequent confrontational scene, in which Franz clutches Angela and Hohner extends a hand to her, leaving her clearly torn between the two of them and frightened by the control he is exhibiting, also strongly reminds a viewer of the dynamics between the original three characters. The Phantom wins, as he tends to do in these situations, and Hohner spirits Angela off to keep her locked up in his house for the next few weeks, ostensibly because she requires "rest and healing" before she can sing again.

 

Surprisingly, because she's been something of a dour and possibly antagonistic figure, it's Luise that smuggles a deeply concerned Franz into Hohner's house while the doctor is out, and who helps him half-kidnap a drugged, hypnotically spellbound Angela and hustle her out the back door. The maid also lies to Hohner on his return, claiming that the girl has simply vanished; the revelation that she is not on his side begs the question of what exactly she's doing living with and working for him, and her surreptitious attempts to get into the firmly locked secret room give us most of our answer; she's On The Trail, looking for the truth about what happened to Marcellina. Hohner, still frighteningly calm about things, seems almost not to care about Angela's departure; when Luise asks tremblingly what he's going to do, he informs her, "Nothing. That girl will obey me no matter where she is," a powerful statement that both reinforces our belief in his hold over her and again recalls the influence Erik had over Christine in Leroux's book.

 

Angela refuses to sing despite being rescued from Hohner's clutches, having completely lost confidence in her ability on top of being unable to circumvent the hypnotic blocks. Franz, afraid that she's going to let her career simply die out of fear, decides to force her into performing by going over her head and writing a letter to the king, extolling the virtues of her voice. As we expect because we recall it from the beginning of the film when it happened to Marcellina, the king is impressed and issues a royal order for a command performance, and Angela, protesting all the way, is hustled off into costume and makeup before she quite knows what's happening. Angela's friends and family - Franz, unyieldingly supportive, and Mama Hinzl, a bustling old woman who recalls a combination of Leroux's Mama Valerius and Madame Giry in her kindly yet overbearing manner - conspire to make sure she has no time to back out of it, and Franz remains with her every moment in case Hohner, whose hold he still doesn't understand but whom he has now recognized as a threat, should try to interfere. Franz demonstrates a little more brainpower than most Raouls when he recognizes Angela's strange attachment to the atomizer and not only has the liquid inside tested (plain, colored water, much to his confusion) but also makes sure she doesn't bring it to the theatre, and "accidentally" breaks the replacement one that Hohner has left in her dressing room. It's so nice to see leading men with a few brain cells to rub together, or at least some ability to think on their feet.

 

Unfortunately for everyone, Hohner has a secret passage into Angela's dressing room (which, naturally, was Marcellina's back in the day); it's not behind the mirror but behind the wall panel, opposite it, allowing him to appear seemingly from nowhere and scare the wits out of the poor girl gazing into the mirror. Upon hearing that she will be performing, he decides to write off the hypnosis as a bust and destroy her voice to take care of the problem in a more permanent manner, unrolling an extremely squirm-inducing roll of nasty, sharp implements and medical instruments, but is thwarted by a timely rescue by Franz and Luise, who confronts the doctor with the knowledge that she finally has proof of his murder of Marcellina (the pearls that he gave to Angela, which Marcellina had been wearing when she disappeared). They leave him with the prompter holding a gun on him while they head for the performance and police, respectively, and it's Karloff's time to shine as he begins to rant feverishly, claiming that he will not be responsible for the consequences if Angela sings (again, a complete 180 from the Phantom in Leroux's work, but one that works very well for the story presented in the film). Karloff's facial control is astounding as Angela's voice begins to pour in through the vents: a constantly increasing cascade of tics and twitches, all over that unyieldingly intense expression, communicate that he is about to detonate, and seriously contribute to the suspense since we know he's not about to be contained by an old man with a gun for long.

 

And he isn't. He manages to clock the prompter (who survives - whew!) over the head with a statue and make his escape as he hears the police sirens coming, and dives into Marcellina's room, locking the series of doors behind him, shouting both frighteningly and piteously that they'll never take her away from him. Waggner's direction here is powerful, as Angela's performance continues and the voice is everywhere in Hohner's house, pursuing him into the locked rooms much more surely than the police do; it's not the police Hohner is primarily worried about but the malignant voice, which he believes will once again try to come between him and his love. As happens in many versions (the 1983 Markowitz/Schell one comes to mind), he accidentally knocks over a gas lamp and ignites a fire, but, in the most telling decision of the whole film, he runs to the door - the police are already cutting through the first few in the succession - and throws the deadbolt, locking himself inside with the flames... and, more importantly, with Marcellina, whose coffin he attempts to shield with his own body until his presumable death in the conflagration. This unselfish act, misguided by delusions though it might be, doesn't quite achieve the redemption of Leroux's novel, but it does make Hohner a much more sympathetic villain as the audience realizes that, despite his mad, awful actions, his first love and priority has always been Marcellina (or his ownership of her).

 

Upstairs, Angela, finally free of Hohner's influence, sings her heart out, and Foster sounds absolutely stunning. The high note of the finale is piercingly perfect, and made John pull off his headphones and inform me that it was not a humanly possible noise. The juxtaposition of the miserable, fiery end of Hohner with the glittering royal performance is intentional, letting the audience know that the danger has passed and that everyone will be getting their happy ending (well, except the villain). As in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film to come a couple of decades later, there is almost no falling action, and the film ends abruptly, but it's not so unresolved-feeling as to ruin the rest of the movie.

 

One of the most obvious questions here is that of which of the two major female characters - Marcellina and Angela - is actually the Christine analogue. While it's Angela who is being menaced in the opera house and who is kidnapped and ultimately rescued, it's Marcellina who is the real focus of Hohner's obsession and whose voice and love motivate him to commit his dastardly deeds. Personally, I find the idea that Marcellina represents Christine more resonant and interesting in context of the story; in this version, Christine did not escape the Phantom and did not have the opportunity to redeem him, and was instead murdered by the strength of his violent obsession, a very possible outcome to the original story had events not unfolded precisely as they did. This suggests that the Phantom's obsession (possibly motivated in part by deeply-buried guilt, but more likely by anger at being thwarted and the desperate desire to make reality conform to his mental vision) is not ended or even tempered by the death of its focus, but rather intensified, and makes the film more of a true sequel if we consider it to be events that occurred after the original story (or one very like it).

 

It's more accurate to say that Christine has been split into two characters here; Angela is the one who undergoes the physical trials and who provides the dramatic focus that moves the story along, but it's Marcellina who has the symbolic and psychological significance. I strongly suspect that this film's handling of this intriguing idea may be a direct forbear to the very similar beginning to the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, which featured a Phantom whose wife had died and whose obsession with his Christine figure was due largely to the fact that they sounded identical. Another film that may have drawn from the idea is the 1987 Argento/Barberini film, whose Phantom figure was drawn to the Christine figure not because of her personally but because of a prior relationship with her mother, to whom she was physically similar.

 

Several other ideas are present that won't appear in the more mainstream body of Phantom literature until much later in the timeline; most notably, the lack of a deformity for the Phantom (which we won't see until until the 1989 Thomas/Gillis movie and the 1998 Argento/Sands film) and the Phantom doing or attempting actual physical harm to Christine (not truly present until the 2001 Bernadette novel and the 2002 Pettengill book) are serious deviations from the story. However, they remain within the realm of creative interpretation, and the fact that they recur in later versions suggests that they are not just flukes brought on by poor writing, but rather phenomena that share a common source in the collective modern interpretation of the story. Also represented here for the first time is the idea of a Phantom hiding in plain sight (revisited in the 1987 Argento/Barberini film, the 1989 Little/Englund film, and the 1997 Pratchett novel, to name a few), and the concept of a Phantom who has no romantic interest in the Christine character (present in the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film, the 1988 Plone/Sussman film, and the 1997 Spencer musical, again, only a few).

 

I found it interesting that almost all of the names in the film are Germanic. Hohner, Klatt, Seebruck, Munzer, Metzger, Baumann, Hinzl, and Brunn are all extremely Germanic surnames, while even the characters' first names--Friedrich, Angela, Karl, Franz--would be perfectly at home in a Bavarian schnitzelhaus. The only exceptions to the rule are the opera singers and the maid. Marcellina and Roselli, both of whom sport obviously Italian surnames, may be named because of the prevalence of Italians in both the repertoire and performance of opera; Jarmila Vadek, on the other hand, has a highly Slavic name that is completely unique in this cast. The maid, Luise, is the only person to have a name of French extraction. Considering the time period in which the film was made, it's interesting to theorize as to whether the number of German names has anything to do with the political and wartime tensions afoot in the United States; a heavily German-sounding name (or several of them!) could quite possibly add to the aura of fear for a horror film when its audience was still in the throes of World War II.

 

Surprisingly, because it's somewhat forgotten in the annals of Universal horror, I thought this was in fact a better film than the one that preceded it (not by a lot, but nevertheless); the time spent on the suspense rather than on gratuitous humor made things much more cohesive and immersive, and Karloff's performance is so strong that I could probably watch him skulk about for days, even if nothing else happened. Not the most fantastic of films, but definitely one to enjoy again, and a really interesting look at source material for a lot of later versions,

 

This was, incidentally, nominally based on several preceding films and a play by Edward Locke, also titled The Climax and also dealing with an opera singer. However, the actual plots of the play and this film bear one another very little resemblance; it's more likely that a few elements were borrowed from Locke's play, but that the majority still comes from the original plan to create a sequel to the Phantom story (and this is, in fact, the very first Western sequel to the story, being predated only by the 1941 Chinese sequel to Ye ban ge sheng).

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