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The Opera Ghost: a Phantom Unmasked (2000)

     directed by David J. Skal

          starring Scott MacQueen

This is a short, one-hour documentary that was included exclusively on some versions of the DVD release for the 1943 Lubin/Rains film (I hear that it might also be available on the internets, but don't quote me on that). Since it's mostly circulated by Universal Studios, it's not surprising that it primarily deals with the three Universal-owned Phantom productions: the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, and the 1962 Fisher/Lom film. The documentary is introduced by its writer, Scott MacQueen, who puts on a very schmaltzy little show that still manages to be cute enough not to offend (it might also have something to do with the fact that he reminds me vaguely of my grandfather).


The two major personality interviews here are Carla Laemmle, granddaughter of the original Phantom film's producer and ballerina in the 1925 film, and Susanna Foster, celebrated Christine of the 1943 production. It's bittersweet to watch Foster discuss her role, considering that the beloved actress died in January of this year, but she obviously has a great deal of passion for the subject and it's a treat to hear her take on how things went, both in front of the camera and behind it.


Despite the focus on the films, MacQueen doesn't neglect a decent mention of the source material, not only bringing up Leroux's novel but also discussing the story's relation to the French Beauty & the Beast fairytale (and, incidentally, pointing out that it is used in most popular Gothic horrors, including Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula, both also big film franchises for Universal) and even devoting a moment or two to du Maurier's Trilby, a probable source for Leroux which featured a singing prodigy, Trilby, who was only able to perform when hypnotized by her older, mysterious and menacing benefactor, Svengali. While the three films in question here are primarily horror-based (though the 1943 film, it can be argued, presents a more sympathetic tone), he doesn't skimp on discussion of the appeal of romance in the novel and its descendants; in particular, the theory is advanced that the story is so intriguing and enduring precisely because of the element of romantic tragedy that tempers the horror of the rest of the novel (which, of course, is one of the most obvious hallmarks of Gothic fiction).


Carla Laemmle's input is especially interesting when she discusses Mary Philbin, the first film Christine in 1925, to whom she lived next door. Her praise and admiration for the actress are evident, though she does repeat the anecdote about Philbin having won the role in a beauty contest, which Philbin herself refutes in the interviews published in Riley's 1999 book.


An interesting footnote here mentions that George Waggoner was the producer for the 1943 Lubin/Rains film; he would go on to write the libretto for and personally direct its sequel, 1944's The Climax, which did not turn out to be a true sequel but was still clearly based upon the Phantom story. A short discussion of that film is also provided, highlighting its origin as an intended sequel to the story (in fact, chronologically, it would possibly be the first Western sequel, preceded only by the 1941 Chinese Ye Bang ge Sheng sequel).


As I discovered in reading the 1986 Sanford/Green childrens' adaptation of the 1943 film, the original script did indeed set the Phantom up as Christine's estranged father, trying to further his daughter's career from the shadows. Unfortunately, studio executives, probably largely influenced by the previous version of the film, found the subplot to be too evocative of incest and threw it out, relegating the interesting idea to old versions of the shooting script and, of course, the 1986 book. The original novel's Erik has a very strong father role when it comes to Christine, from his deception as the angel sent by the deceased violinist to his much older age to his domineering but also totally doting love for her; making him literally her father is a very intriguing idea that I'd love to see pulled off well at some point in the future.


(And another interesting footnote to the removed plot is that Christine's aunt, now simply credited as "the Aunt", had a larger role in which she revealed Christine's origins to Anatole; her name in that original version, according to this documentary, was Madeleine, which of course causes one to wonder if this is the source of Kay's choice for naming Erik's mother in her 1990 novel, or whether it's merely a coincidence.)


Also briefly discussed is Universal's somewhat sensationalized biopic of Lon Chaney's life, entitled Man of a Thousand Faces, which of course involves much discussion of his most famous role as the Phantom. The studio credits its moderate success with providing enough buzz to get the ball rolling on another remake, which would eventually be the 1962 Hammer horror film. I think I may want to watch the film just for my own personal enjoyment, even if it doesn't end up having enough relevance to be reviewed (what? I can watch things that I don't review, too! You don't own me!).


The documentary also makes the interesting claim that famous heartthrob and leading man Carey Grant approached directors, very interested in a part in the 1962 film, and that said film's script was heavily romanticized as a direct result; while Grant obviously didn't end up doing the film after all, it's a possible explanation for the much kinder and more spiritually resonant Phantom in that version. Pat Clark's fantastic dubbing for Christine is also mentioned here, but after a brief mention in passing of the Lloyd Webber musical at the end, the wee documentary has come to a close.


The documentary is interspersed with several shots of some of the rarer posters and promotional stills from all three films, particularly the 1925 Julian/Chaney one. I don't believe I saw any that weren't included in the excellent 1999 Riley tome on the subject, but it's a very nice inclusion for those who haven't read that book or who are just looking for a quick, informative history lesson.

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