The Phantom of the Opera Can’t Go Wrong
By Kristin Battestella
This 1943 universal color spectacle adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s tale is probably the one I remember most from being a kid- and it was the first with which I introduced my niece. Though a little of its time, this rousing adaptation is still delightful.
After being dismissed from the Paris Opera and unable to sell his musical works, Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) murders the music publisher and takes to the bowels of the Paris Opera House. From there he terrorizes opera patrons, earns his ghostly nickname from the staff, and threatens the lives of the cast unless the beautiful understudy Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) is allowed to sing. Christine, however, is unaware of The Phantom’s obsession with her, as she is already torn between the dashing opera lead Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and Inspector Raoul D’Aubert (Edgar Barrier).
The action, tragedy, and suspense from director Arthur Lubin (The Incredible Mr. Limpet) and Oscar nominated screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein (Laura) are well paced and no less thrilling, but the format here does stray from the standard Universal Horror monster greatness we expect. Is it horror per se? No. And yet despite the heavy musical content with full opera numbers, you can’t really classify our tale as a musical either. This may sound negative, but I like this in between balance, I really do. This is a serious music film with creepy undertones and even kinky subtext. Extra understudy rivalries and witty competing men add to the great suspenseful crescendos in both the onscreen operas and the climatic action. This isn’t simply a remake of the silent version- some of the sets may be the same but this take is a twist all its own. Yes, perhaps the mask reveal is not as famous as the 1925 Phantom of the Opera’s silent cinematic moment- but it is still a whopper nonetheless. Even knowing what is to happen, I’m still entertained every time. I mean, that chandelier!
Susanna Foster (Star Spangled Rhythm) as would be diva Christine DuBois is perhaps not the gorgeous as we traditionally think of beauty today, but she’s still lovely nonetheless. Not one, but three men are enamored with her- and we believe it through Foster’s old-fashioned on screen presence, operatic weight, classy delivery, and great strength against all these men telling her the music is everything and there’s no need for a normal life. Not all viewers today might like or even be able to tolerate her high notes, but Christine’s innocence and charming nightingale win out. She is naive and on the cusp of something great and we understand why The Phantom wishes to protect and pedestal her thanks largely in part to Christine’s sympathy and pity for him. Four time Oscar nominee Claude Rains (Notorious, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is of course, so sad to start- dismissed from the company, unable to publish his compositions, and penniless thanks to his sponsorship of Christine. Claudin’s down on his luck and we can certainly relate to him now more than ever, but even so, he’s no less pathetic in his multi-layered, latent, and implied obsessions with Christine. Even as things turn murderous, we empathize with the disfigurement that pushed Claudin over the edge. He’s just misunderstood, really! Those angry mobs pursuing The Phantom made him snap! It’s twisted, and stalkerishly endearing; there’s no vision but Christine’s success nor any length to get it.
Stage and voice phenom of the day Nelson Eddy is without his usual Sweethearts and Rose Marie co-star Jeanette MacDonald for The Phantom of the Opera, but he and fellow suitor Edgar Barrier (The Pride of the Yankees) create a fine romantic layer and love triangle to keep things interesting for Christine DuBois. Both suave and debonair in their professions, the guys also add some needed humor and subtext to balance the darker sequences of the film. However, some of the fun is also a little annoying- again especially in comparing what we normally expect from a Universal Horror film. Honestly, I find The Phantom much more interesting, for we do get to see a little more of him without Christine. Unfortunately, Anatole and Raoul are a little one dimensional and underdeveloped since we only see them in friendly battle for their lady. Eddy and Barrier are by no means bad, but they deserved more with which to work.
Thankfully, the art decoration, set décor, fashions, costumes, and Technicolor spectacle of The Phantom of the Opera are just wonderful. The Oscar winning art design is indeed colorful and bright- today we seem to always do period films in drab, muted big satins and layers. The men all look great- not a lot of pups today can pull of a cape, Victorian epaulettes, or Opera extras. Yes, the style is a little too Victorian or more English in tone- everyone has French names but nobody speaks with French accents- and some may find those similar names or the sporadic French flair confusing without subtitles. Parisian style, however, also comes through in the period décor and quintessentially French tale: candlelight, gas lamps, cigars, the operatic compositions themselves. The scoring onscreen and off is wonderful of course, from the biggest notes to the softest, bittersweet strings. I’m not really sure if the supporting cast did their own vocals or instruments playing, but so what? Again, that up there singing might be too dated for some contemporary audiences, but it is an opera after all.
In addition to those subtitles, the DVD has a sweet hour-long retrospective about The Phantom of the Opera in all its film incarnations and a companion audio commentary. Fans of the tale in any variety have already tuned in to this 1943 version of course, but any and all classics fans, music on film connoisseurs, or the opera obsessed can certainly give this 90 minute spin a viewing. It’s entertaining and simple enough for younger audiences without loosing the zest and thrills of other adaptations and is perfect for a classroom comparison, too. Spend some time with The Phantom of this 1943 Opera tonight.