Wednesday, October 19, 2011

October 17th: Phantom of The Opera (1943)

After 20 years of service at the Paris Opera House, eccentric violinist Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) is dismissed by his conductor Villeneuve (Frank Puglia) due to pains in the fingers of his left hand which negatively affect his playing abilities. Though Villeneuve assumes Erique has made more than enough money to retire, Erique is practically broke, having spent much of his money secretly funding music lessons for Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster), a soprano and understudy to leading lady Biancarolli (Jane Farrar).
No longer able to fund Christine's lessons, Erique goes to Pleyel & Desjardins in the hope of getting his Concerto published. Forced to wait for hours, Erique is rudely dismissed by Pleyel (Miles Mander). As he's leaving, Erique overhears his Concerto being performed; unaware that legendary composer Franz Liszt (Fritz Leiber) intends to have Erique's Concerto published ASAP, Erique assumes Pleyel has stolen his Concerto, goes mad and strangles Pleyel to death. In retaliation, Pleyel's assistant Georgette (Renee Carson) throws etching acid at Claudin.
Horribly disfigured and driven insane, Claudin re-emerges as The Phantom of The Opera. More obsessed with Christine than ever before, the Phantom vows to make her the star of the Paris Opera House, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Growing more and more deranged, the Phantom becomes obsessed with keeping Christine for himself, forcing Christine's dueling admirers, Inspector Raoul D'Aubert (Edgar Barrier) and Opera Baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy), to work together to stop the Phantom and save Christine.
Alongside Thomas Edison's Frankenstein and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Rupert Julian's The Phantom of The Opera was one of the first horror films made. Starring Lon Chaney Sr. in ghoulishly creepy makeup, the film was a massive hit and paved the way for Universal Studios to become the first House of Horrors, with Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein leading the charge.
By the 1940s, the golden years of Universal Horror seemed long gone; though the films were still being made, Lon Chaney Sr. had been dead for 10 years, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi had either grown tired of the studio or were being put out to pasture, and the genius that is James Whale had retired out of his frustration with the new regime at Universal. Most of these new Universal Horrors lacked the class, wit and power of their '30s counterparts, being nothing more than retreads.
Despite their lack in quality, the 1940s Universal Horror films were big business; revivals of  Dracula, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein's Creature and The Mummy were huge, as were new horrors like George Waggner's The Wolf Man. Audiences, desperate for a release from the horrors of World War II and The Great Depression, ate these films up and it was only a matter of time before The Ghost of The Paris Opera House would return.
While a new film was inevitable, what's surprising about Phantom of The Opera is how vastly different it is from its predecessor and Gaston Leroux's novel. Other than the title and the general premise, Arthur Lubin's film is a very different interpretation, one that seems more interested in the musical stylings of Nelson Eddy and the comedy stemming from the love triangle of Raoul, Christine and Anatole than it is in depicting the horror and tragedy of the Phantom.
For this version, the role of Christine was played by Susanna Foster, whose rise to fame following roles in The Great Victor Herbert and There's Magic In Music, came crashing down in the mid '40s. Young and attractive, not to mention possessing a strong singing voice, Foster is perfectly acceptable as Christine, but fails to make much of an impression. In all fairness, it has less to do her with talents and more to do with the fact that, like Hammer's 1962 version, Christine is overshadowed by her more colorful, eccentric co-stars.
None more colorful than Nelson Eddy, the beloved star of many MGM in the 1930s opposite Jeanette MacDonald. Rather than being Raoul, reinvisioned as an opera star, the filmmakers have cast him as a brand new character; Opera Baritone Anatole Garron, who vies for Christine's affections. Eddy shows off some great acting chops and comedic timing here, but the problem is with Anatole Garron himself; the romantic aspects are now centered on him and Raoul's dueling love for Christine, which brings in unnecessary bits of physical comedy and takes away from the Phantom's love for Christine. It doesn't help that Edgar Barrier, our new Raoul, is stale and instantly forgettable by comparison. Having three love interests for Christine overly complicates the story.
That's not to say the Phantom is overshadowed; in fact, the first third of the film focuses on the origins of the Phantom, now a pathetic, middle-aged violinist whose horrific visage is the result of facial scars rather than birth deformities. A testament to this film's success, most subsequent adaptations followed this blueprint. Does it work? Not really. Much of what works about the Phantom is the intriguing mystery surrounding him; by actually showing Erique become the Phantom robs him of that mystique. Furthermore, his descent into madness feels forced, rushed and underdeveloped; in fact, this Phantom is kept in the darkness for the remainder of the film, taking a backseat to the other characters, which is strange given his dominant presence early on. Once he slaps the mask on, he's just the crazy villain who needs to be stopped.
A four-time Oscar nominee for his performances in such films as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Casablanca, Claude Rains was an exceptional character actor with a tremendous voice and, as The Invisible Man proved, more than capable of being batshit crazy. Given the script's treatment of the character, Rains deserves all the credit for making Erique sympathetic and likeable; unfortunately, his middle-aged Phantom lacks menace, saddled with a dull costume, bland dialogue, an incredibly lame disfigurement and just not much to do in the second half of the film. Rains does his best, but is never given the chance to make an impression as the Phantom of The Opera.
It's pretty clear Lubin and Univeral weren't interested in making a Phantom movie; his origin is quickly told and underwritten and he's poorly underused for the rest of the film, benched in favor of letting the cast engage in not very witty banter and extended singing sequences. Now I enjoy a good romantic comedy and I like musicals, especially Top Hat. But when I come into a horror movie, that's not what I'm looking for, yet for some strange reason, that's what I'm getting. Don't get me wrong; some of the jokes work and the physical comedy between Raoul and Anatole is amusing. I can't help but be impressed with the singing scenes, I very much appreciate the fact that the music is being sung by real singers and I know this is just naturally part of the Phantom mythology. But at its heart, Phantom of The Opera is about the horror of watching a mild-mannered man become a raving lunatic, not watching people sing Le Prince Masque De Caucasie and joke about what the Phantom might look like.
From a production standpoint, it's worth noting just how much Phantom of The Opera sticks out from Universal's other horror films of this era. Filmed in technicolor on a $1,500,000 budget, Phantom of The Opera is a far cry from its horror brethren, all of which were in black and white and filmed on low budgets. The film won Oscars for its art direction and cinematography and most certainly deserves them; even nearly 70 years later, this film still looks gorgeous and the filmmakers make full use of their wonderful sets. Though the auditorium set is the same one used in 1925, Lubin takes full advantage of the higher budget and technicolor, giving the set a look and feel different from what Rupert Julian did. If only the script was this good.
As a fan of the Universal Monster movies, I was really looking forward to seeing one on a bigger budget, with name actors and in vivid technicolor. Having watched it, the phrase "money corrupts" keeps ringing in my head. Had this just been another Universal Horror, it probably would've been more focused on the Phantom and his tragic tale; instead, the character's origin is sloppy and dealt with as quickly as possible so Arthur Lubin and his screenwriters can get to Opera music, love triangles and corny humor. Phantom of The Opera is far from terrible; it's actually relatively entertaining, not to mention well made, but it misses the spirit and power of this timeless story. 2.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 18th: The Phantom of The Opera (1983)

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