I became aware of Phantom of the Opera (1943) through the purchase of my two Universal Monster boxsets, both of which featured the second English language adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s famous novel. I was quite delighted to discover that one of my favourite classic film actors, the great Claude Rains, who was no stranger to Universal, starred as the titular Phantom.
Soundstage 28, which was an exact replica of the Palais Garnier built for the 1925 Universal adaptation of the novel starring Lon Chaney, was understandably reused for this film. It is shown in all of its crimson and gold glory, the camera sweeping along the grand balconies and the large boxes, high up behind the glittering chandelier and over the many seats, filled with extras playing the audience. This is one of the film’s strengths, its focus on not only the stage and seats of the Opera, but also its backstage world, with the Phantom climbing up ladders and hurrying across the catwalks as the gendarmes search for him during his deadly haunting of the Opera house.
The film is a visual feast, with luscious Technicolor showing the beauty of the film’s costume and set pieces. The Opera sequences take full advantage of this, with Christine wearing pure white and emerald green as she makes her debut in Amore et Gloire. The Phantom’s attire is deep black with a cape that has a crimson lining, which is perhaps a little impractical for avoiding detection, but wonderfully dramatic. The sets pop with the surreal Technicolor, most notably in the mountain scene in the final, fatal opera staged towards the film’s climax, Le prince masqué du Caucase. The mountains of Russia rise high behind the characters, all of them bedecked in resplendently coloured costumes and masks, which connects with the titular character and allows him to move undetected as he seeks to kidnap poor Christine.
Claude Rains is brilliant as the Phantom. Although his performance is not as grandiose as Chaney’s, it is also very adept. He shows the pitiful circumstances and terrible tragedy of the Phantom in a way that deeply endears him to the audience. As the pre deformed violinist, Claudin, he is a sweet and gentle man, which makes you both angry about what makes him become the Phantom, and deeply disturbed by his transformation and descent into violent madness. When Claudin is finally united with Christine, Rains delivers his speech to her with such subtlety that you feel both heartbroken for him and revolted by what he suggests for this poor women, for them to live beneath the Opera house in the decaying sewers as he has done.
Sadly, while the film is beautifully made and Rains delivers another masterful performance, the film has few positives. It is, quite simply, style over substance. For all the beauty of Soundstage 28, the film lacks real drive and suspense. It feels less like a moody, atmospheric Universal horror film, and more like an MGM musical which is trying to be gothic, but undermining itself with needless humour and whimsical musical pieces. Every time the Phantom is shown, a gothic shadow against a wall, a cast member makes a weak joke and the tension is utterly lost.
Whilst the Opera sequences are impressive in their technical aspects, and all the singers, most notably Susanna Foster as Christine, Nelson Eddy as Anatole the lead baritone, and Jane Farrar as the prima donna Biancarolli, are extremely talented and truly operatic singers; these musical sequences go on for far too long. This may make sense, after all, it is a film about the Paris Opera House, no? But the problem is that that’s not all the film is about, and the scriptwriters and studio executives seemed to forget that. As I said, they seem to be trying to emulate an MGM musical with the amount and length of the operatic sequences, but this just ends up creating a film that is tonally confused. Is it an operetta or a gothic horror? It is neither and it fails at melding both of these genres, probably because they are so disparate. The musical numbers go on for so long, especially during the climatic chandelier scene, that you begin to lose focus, even though you know that these scenes are technically very impressive.
However, only so many scenes of soprano’s mouths, as well as Nelson Eddy’s, open in song can hold your attention. And it cannot do so in a film that is suppose to be gothically atmospheric and thrilling. All it can do is swallow that up. Pun intended.
To put it frankly, this film does not have enough at stake. Not only is not enough made of the danger of the Phantom’s obsession for Christine, but when exciting sequences do happen, they are undercut by interminable musical numbers or nudgey nudgey winky winky humour. And while James Whale could pull that off, Arthur Lubin, and the film’s script, cannot.
If you’re an enormous opera fan, then you may enjoy this movie far more than the average viewer. But I think you will still be frustrated by how the film presents itself as a gothic horror, in the vein of the original adaptation, and Universal’s other legendary offerings such as Frankenstein and The Mummy, especially the latter as that is also a romantic gothic horror. I do, however, like the end of the film, which shows Christine as accepting none of her suitors, and pursuing her stage career as Claudin wanted her to before he became the Phantom. There is something rather triumphant about her leaving her two nagging gentleman callers behind and walking into a sea of admirers, who hand her flowers and kiss her hand. This is more independence than most women would achieve in films of the era, which often ended with women forgoing their careers for love (eye roll).
The film did well upon release, but contemporary critical reception was very mixed. And although I often disagree with him, in this case I think Bosley Crowther’s review is one I shall end this article on:
[Crowther] panned the film for being “watered down” from the original, calling the opening sequence “the only one in the film in which the potential excitement of the story is realized,” while otherwise the “richness of décor and music is precisely what gets in the way of the tale.”
This is my second and final contribution to The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon hosted by the gracious Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Please do visit their blog to take a midnight ride in the Phantom’s gondola.