Friday, 29 September 2017

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera, released in 1943, is a rather odd hybrid, part musical and part horror film. The Paris Opera had provided a great setting for Gaston Leroux’s immensely successful 1910 novel but with Nelson Eddy getting top billing in the movie it made sense to put much more emphasis on the music. There’s not much point in having Nelson Eddy as your star if he doesn’t sing.

There have of course been countless film and stage adaptations of Leroux’s novel, including the celebrated 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney while Hammer did their own version in 1962.

As far as this 1943 film is concerned the story starts with violinist and aspiring composer Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) being fired from the Paris Opera orchestra. He had developed a problem with his left hand that affected his playing. Unfortunately being unemployed hits Erique hard. Although he had been well paid he has not saved any money. All his money has been spent paying (anonymously) for singing lessons for up-and-coming soprano ChistineDuBois (Susanna Foster).

Erique is hopelessly in love with Christine but his love is not requited. She has firmly friendzoned him. In fact she has (perhaps without being aware of it) committed the ultimate act of cruelty. She has pitied him.

Erique hopes to revive his fortune by means of a concerto he has written but he becomes convinced that music publisher Pleyel has stolen his work. This has tragic, indeed fatal, consequences and Erique is left horribly disfigured after being doused with acid. He takes refuge in the Opera, not difficult to do since the building is a bewildering warren of literally hundreds of rooms and passageways both above and below ground. He becomes a shadowy presence in the building, leading to rumours that a ghost is stalking the Opera.

Christine has two suitors for her hand, baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and detective Raoul Daubert (Edgar Barrier). Their rivalry provides some comic relief as well as romantic tension and also serves to emphasise the utter hopelessness of Erique’s love.

Erique has plans to advance Christine’s career, by drastic means. He is clearly becoming more obsessed and more unhinged and he has convinced himself that he can still win her love. He will do anything to further his plans, including murder. If necessary multiple murders.

Universal at this time relied mostly on B-pictures and cheap A-pictures but this time they decided to spend some real money (well real money by the studio’s parsimonious standards) and shoot the film in Technicolor. This does cause a slight problem. The musical side of the film is certainly enhanced by the lush visuals but the visuals that suit a musical are not those that make for an effective horror film. The horror parts of the film do look surprisingly atmospheric and spooky but it is a bit jarring switching constantly between lavish musical spectacle and creepy horror picture.

The sets are pretty impressive. Erique’s lair beneath the Opera in particular looks wonderfully atmospheric.

The acting is a bit strange, since Claude Rains is really the only one whose performance is close to what you expect in a horror movie. Everyone else is giving light-hearted musical comedy performances. The cast is likeable enough but they seem out of place in a chiller.

Rains does pretty well. He makes Erique’s behaviour comprehensible and he’s convincingly obsessive. If course we’re going to suspect that his obsession is indeed partly musical, but also partly sexual as well. You don’t spend every cent you have on financing a young lady’s musical career merely because you like her singing. Unfortunately this aspect is so downplayed that the full impact of his tragic obsession is lost.

In the original draft of the script Claudin is Christine’s father. That idea was dropped which was probably a good idea since having Claudin romantically and sexually obsessed would have given the story more punch and would have made Claudin’s situation more tragic, had the screenplay been prepared to go in that direction.

Claude Rains took his role pretty seriously. Prior to the beginning of shooting he learnt to play both the piano and the violin so that he would look convincing when Claudin was playing those instruments.

The real problem is that there’s way too much opera and not enough phantom. This is a musical comedy romance with the horror bits tacked on as an afterthought. And the horror elements don’t have the necessary punch. Partly this is because none of the victims are sympathetic so we don’t really care when the Phantom kills them. Even Christine is not sympathetic enough to make us care too much about her, cheerfully playing with the affections of two handsome men whilst casually ripping poor old Erique’s heart out. In a musical comedy she’d be a successful character and we’d know that she’d end up choosing the right man but for the purposes of this story she’s too worldly and calculating to be the innocent victim in danger from a maniac.

The film also lacks any real sense of mystery, or suspense, or weirdness. We know from the start that the Phantom is Erique and we know there’s nothing supernatural going on. We know why he’s doing what he’s doing and what he’s hoping to achieve.

I’d only previously seen this film on VHS and seeing it again now on Blu-Ray certainly makes a difference. Universal have provided some very desirable extras including an audio commentary and a documentary (which provides some truly fascinating information about the 1925 version as well).

The Phantom of the Opera just doesn’t quite come together. It looks great but it doesn’t deliver the goods as a horror film.

1 comment:

Matthew Clark said...

As bipolar as this film is, its story line resets the character of the Phantom for all future versions. This story changes the sadistic Eric, a criminal hiding out in the opera house sub cellars, as portrayed by Chaney, into the tragic, romantic Phantom of the Opera as seen in the successful Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical to Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise which followed. It is mainly Universal's own fault this picture is such a mess. They had tried to rid themselves of the horror films back in the mid 1930s, but the public kept paying to see them and forced them to begin making them again by the start of the 1940s. I'm surprised they didn't want to have Deanna Durbin star in this. Unfortunately, they had driven off Carl Laemmle jr, and James Whale long before the time this picture had been made. One can only imagine how they would have handled this movie?