Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Cast: Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier
Director: Arthur Lubin
Universal Studios has it’s fair share of heavy-hitters in terms of horror icons- Dracula, the Wolf Man, Gill Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s Creature, that often they tend to overshadow the Phantom. By the 40’s Claude Rains had become de riguer of sophisticated yet wry villainy that he was given the lead role as our old friend Erik (or Erique Claudin if you please) in what was ostensibly a far more opulent, character-driven remake of the Lon Chaney feature nearly two decades prior.
We all know the general gist, however Erique takes on a far more complicated cowled face. His origins make a drastic change from being a malformed, mentally unstable artiste to a penniless, desperate soul whose genius becomes his bane. Erique has been a violinist at the Paris Opera House for twenty years. Due to an unfortunate and terrible accident, he lost use of the fingers of his left hand, which directly affects his talents as a musician. The opera house manager unfairly dismisses him, assuming Claudin still has a lot of money left over to find a way for himself. This is not the case however, as Claudin has spent it all by being the secret benefactor of a young soprano Christine Dubois (Foster). In a desperate bid to obtain funds, Claudin tries to push a concerto he has written all on his own to be published. After submitting it and not hearing a response, he becomes worried and returns to the publishers to inquire it’s whereabout. After being knocked back and humiliated several times, he gives up on his crusade and goes to leave… just as somebody starts to play a familiar piece of music in the next room; his concerto. When he investigates, he sees a rival playing his music and being given undue credit for it. Oh no they DIN’T.
This movie is an interesting experience for me. While it’s certainly not a bad film at all and hardly a dark spot on the pantheon of Universal Monsters, it doesn’t quite have the “Oomph” factor it’s soul relatives did. Lubin’s direction is clean-cut and nicely appointed, but I did not feel as invested with the rest of the film that I did with Rains in the lead. Although Enrique is given a respectable amount of character development, it seems that no other character truly matches his in terms of agency. The character of Christine isn’t offensive and she’s perfectly nice and an ingenue, but other than a lovely face and a sweet, uncomplicated nature, she makes you wonder why the Phantom would choose her to be his voice to the world. She has a nice voice (or rather Foster’s singing double does), but the movie has made more of a point to make Enrique a thinking, feeling human being than a menacing boogeyman. When two of Christine’s potential suitors Raoul (Barrier) and Anatole (Eddy) in what is perhaps the weakest point of the film, a love triangle are angling for the lovely lady’s attentions, you don’t feel that Christine is whole individual, just an ideal, merely a prize to be won. Barrier and Eddy aren’t bad actors at all and they do offer their own little dashes of spice to their characters, but here’s the thing- love triangles/squares can provide for great drama if done correctly and with the heart in the right place. They can encourage the audience to consider morality and how such a complicated set of affairs can affect the human condition. However, here it feels completely arbitrary and only serves the equally yawnsome plot point of the Phantom kidnapping Christine toward the end of the film. Alright, so this was indeed back in the 1940’s and intersex correspondances were markedly different compared to the way they are now, but it is a huge detrimental factor that stands between becoming invested in the characters as a whole.
Rains truly is the best player here by far. His Jack Griffin in “The Invisible Man” is among some of the best villain castings ever in a film. He is not particularly Telamon in structure or shape, but that razor-sharp voice and savagely savvy tongue gave rise to well-spoken and deliciously verbose bad guy who you couldn’t hate just because he was so snappy and charming. Here Rains was given the ability to show more range as a dramatic actor. Sure he could be dastardly at times, but he is given ample treatment character-wise. He is sympathetic, warm, calculating and venturesome and can show every emotion in between. I found myself wanting to see him prosper and actually wanted to take care of him when he was feeling so hurt.
Visually, it is a very tasteful production. The sets are pleasantly luxurious (considering the auditorium set from the 1925 version was reused to satisfying effect) and the use of Technicolor benefits the aesthetic aspect nicely. An expansive musical score was written specifically for the film and the composer’s work is utilized to full effect… maybe a little too much. It is very good music and appropriate to every scene, but in some cases, mainly the performance sequences, it becomes a little distracting. At times I found myself focusing more on what the music was doing than the actors… then again I do have an attention span of a goldfish. Arguably the best set piece is Erique’s death from above, chandelier style. It is a standout sequence for damn good reason due to how it is built up and shot from various angles and the use of sound effects. The crystalline behemoth coming down on top of countless, screaming opera patrons is beautiful. Yeah, I sound morbid, but I’m being honest!
“The Phantom of the Opera” is a noble and honorable effort made by the Universal overlord. It has an interesting story to tell regarding its lead character who is also its villain (in the boldest sense of the word) and it looks grand enough to commend. Rains had a rich career and I feel his work as Erique doesn’t get nearly enough attention as it should by Phans. Would I say it’s one of the best films of the “Phantom” pedigree? That’s a relative term due to less of its emphasis being on horror with a lazy at intervals script, but check it out, I think many viewers and newbie Phans alike will have a decent time.
Trivia: One of the early scripts had Erique actually being Christine’s father before that idea was kiboshed due to concerns of that plot having suggestive incestual overtones.