Gaston LerouxEdgar BarrierSusanna FosterNelson Eddy
The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Medium: film
Year: 1943
Director: Arthur Lubin
Writer: Samuel Hoffenstein, Gaston Leroux, Eric Taylor
Keywords: Oscar-winning, Phantom of the Opera, horror, Universal, musical
Country: USA
Actor: Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, Claude Rains, Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, Jane Farrar, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Frank Puglia, Steven Geray, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronyn, Fritz Leiber
Format: 92 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 22 April 2008
I don't really like Phantom of the Opera. Its story just doesn't seem to work for me. The 1925 silent film is fun, but Dario Argento's 1998 attempt is just plain crazy and this 1943 version isn't much cop either. I haven't seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's version though, either the stage original or the Joel Schumacher adaptation, but I've heard nothing about the latter to put it on my must-watch list.
The biggest selling point of the 1943 adaption is its opera. Unfortunately its biggest drawback is also its opera. On the upside, it takes its musical world seriously. I may not be an opera buff, but obviously everyone in the film is and it's successful in portraying all these theatrical temperaments. It's always good to enter an alien environment. It's wholehearted, it's fearless and it holds nothing back in its complete immersion in a world in which very few of its audience will have either knowledge or interest. I admired all that.
Some of the details are a bit rickety, mind you. These are actors, not musicians, and sometimes that's made regrettably obvious. I didn't believe for a moment at the beginning that the lead was really singing. It's not just the lip-synching. Does he really think that a voice like that happens all by itself without the singer having to work like blazes? Breathing, rib cage support and all that. That same opening features some astounding unprofessionalism from the chorus. Eyes front, girl! Pay attention! Don't wander offstage while the show's still on! Also every time we see an opera being performed, it's a different one! In fairness though I was able to believe that Claude Rains was really playing that violin. Perhaps he was? However that doesn't look much like someone tuning a violin to me, while I was shocked to see him put the bow back in its case without slackening it.
Those are nitpicks, though. I liked the opera world. What I didn't like was the noise it makes. It's okay in small doses, as a sort of background din, but there's this great whopping musical interlude in the middle which is just solid opera. It's intercut with stuff happening elsewhere, but basically it's a chunk of opera. Five minutes of song, subjective duration about an ice age. I was clawing at my chair. I had to pull my hand back from the remote control. Until then I'd been quite enjoying the film, but those five minutes torpedoed it. I'd go into shock when an actor even drew breath. I thanked the wise and kindly Police Inspector Raoul D'Aubert when he closed the opera at the 58 minute mark, then took it all back when two minutes later he opened it again. I now understand more fully why the 1925 silent version is generally regarded as the best yet. The key word is "silent".
On the production side of things, it's a Universal horror film in Technicolour! I was shocked. I wanted my black-and-white, but in fact the film looks sumptuous, won two Oscars (art direction and cinematography) and was nominated for two more. It was even filmed on the same Paris Opera House set that was used on its 1925 predecessor. That set still exists today. Music fans love this film. Horror fans less so. The accents are a hodge-podge of English, French and American, but that's normal for the era. More intriguing is the detail that the Hays Office rejected the original version of the film on 21 May 1943 because of a "number of unacceptable breast shots of Christine" in her dressing room. These scenes have sadly not survived, although lovers of the female form would be better off watching Dario Argento's 1998 version. (Asia's your daughter, Dario! Stop it. You'll go blind.)
More damaging is the lameness of the actual Phantom. Claude Rains is weak in the role, which shocked me since I normally like him. Here he's neither magnetic nor memorable, coming across as just a middle-aged Englishman in a rather plain mask. The script doesn't help, though, nor the fact that the Phantom must surely be the dullest movie monster ever. He doesn't really want to kill. He's just a sewer-dwelling stalker who happens to have severe facial deformities and is an opera nerd. Yup, he's horror's geek. Put him in a Star Trek convention and no one would notice him. That much is built into the character from Gaston Leroux's original, but this film adds its own interpretation. For once we see the birth of the Phantom! The first 25 minutes show Claude Rains as a rather sweet idiot of a violinist at the Paris Opera House, spending his entire income on music lessons for a girl who barely even knows his name. Then of course things turn bad and it's hello acid, goodbye sunlight. (That was a mind-blowingly dumb move on his part, incidentally. It rarely helps your chances of getting into print to throttle your publisher. Save that for the editor.)
That scene also has a dialogue gem. "He's been murdered! Get a doctor!"
Much is explained however if one realises that the film was originally to have shown the Phantom as Christine's father, who abandoned her and her mother long ago to pursue a musical career. This was dropped when they decided it would introduce incestuous overtones (hey, Dario!), but the result is to leave Claudin's obsession with Christine unexplained. One assumes it's love, or at any rate him being an obsessive stalker, but that reading does no favours to Claude Rains's mother hen-like performance. I wonder if the parental angle was only dropped in the editing room, which would excuse Rains somewhat although I'm not convinced it was a good idea in the first place.
As a study of opera, this is a classic. As a film it's poor, both in general and in specifics.
1. The comedy rivalry between Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier is entertaining the first time, but gets more irritating with every iteration.
2. The climax is rubbish.
3. The Phantom's facial scarring is blatantly absent when he's wearing the mask.
4. He's also not scary.
5. Christine is not a girl to inspire this kind of fervour in every man she meets... she's pretty, but there are lots of pretty girls out there.
6. When rocks fall into the underground lake at the end, they float.
7. Singing.
8. Singing.
This film isn't without interest, taking a very different tack to most Phantom of the Opera movies. In many ways, I admire it. However I suspect it's not even really trying to be a horror film and I don't think I'll be watching it again.