In remembrance of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the latest review of the series is for “Phantom Of The Opera” that was directed by Arthur Lubin and premiered on 27 August, 1943.
“Phantom of the Opera” is a unique entry in the “Universal Monsters” series because it is the only one that was filmed in colour. Apart from that, just in tone and feel, this does not feel like the other films in the series. It is obvious that “Phantom of the Opera” had a much bigger budget than those previous films, it is full of large, colourful sets and is quite the spectacle, however the fun of the film has been sucked out of it and as a result this version of the classic tale is quite a dull and dusty affair.
This is the story of a lonely violinist, Claudin, who regularly plays at the Paris Opera House and from afar has fallen in love with a young opera understudy named Christine. She barely knows the man exists and yet he believes in her talents one hundred percent and does everything in his power to help her get the best out of herself. Every cent he makes from playing in the orchestra he puts towards vocal lessons for Christine with the world’s best teacher, all without her knowledge. However soon the aging process takes its toll on poor Claudin and his hands no longer work well enough for him to keep his position in the orchestra. Without any earnings to continue to pay for Christine’s lessons, he decides to try and sell his life’s work and for it to be published; a concerto he has composed that he is very proud of. When he mistakenly believes the publishers plan to steal his work without paying him for it, Claudin explodes into a rage and kills one of the workers at the publishing house. A further struggle ensues that ends with Claudin’s face being severely scarred, the poor man flees in agony and disappears. Soon after strange happenings begin occurring at the Paris Opera House, and a tale of a Phantom haunting the place begins. As madness takes over the mind of poor Claudin, he demands that Christine is given the starring role in the latest opera or everyone will suffer the consequences.
While this adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel certainly is a beautifully produced affair, it has been completely sanitized and as a result much of the horror and darkness of the story is gone. In fact I would argue that this version of “Phantom of the Opera” is even a horror film at all, instead it is much more of a drama with small horror elements added near the end. The original story of the “Phantom of the Opera” is one of obsession and a love that is so strong that one is willing to sacrifice everything for it, it also is about bitterness when this love is not returned, but much of this is lost in the film. The majority of the blame has to go to director Arthur Lubin whose handling of the material has turned this exciting and horrific story into a lifeless bore, complete with moments of silly comedy. He never keeps the pace going and seems particularly impressed with the opera sequences in the film that the character of the Phantom ends up becoming a supporting player in his own film. The biggest mistake Lubin makes though while highlighting these opera scenes is that the majority of them focus solely on Anatole Garron, the baritone of the film who is also in love with Christine. This is a terrible misjudgment because if the film is going to have these long and involved opera scenes, they should definitely revolve around the character of Christine as she is the reason the Phantom is doing everything that he is doing. As well as Anatole, there is also a third male character, Raoul, this time a policeman, who is also in love with Christine. The fighting and one-upsmanship that goes on between Anatole and Raoul is where the majority of the comedy comes from and as silly as it is, I must shamelessly admit that I kind of enjoyed these little moments. I thought that Nelson Eddy (Anatole) and Edgar Barrier (Raoul) had good chemistry between them and their combined comic timing was impressive, however this is the “Phantom of the Opera” and these scenes should have never been in the film in the first place.
Another major flaw with this film is the terrible miscasting of Claude Rains in the role of the Phantom. In two of my previous “Universal Monsters” reviews I have sang the praises of Rains mightily but sadly he is all wrong for the role here. Let me clarify that statement because he is actually not bad as Claudin, the poor violinist obsessing over Christine, but when he becomes the Phantom, the role just does not fit his strengths as an actor. Suddenly the role has limited dialogue and this takes away Rains’ greatest asset, his amazing voice. Don’t get me wrong, he gives his all in the role, but he just comes away looking really uncomfortable. Again it is not all his fault though because the character of the Phantom in this adaptation has been handled really clumsily. He never truly feels like a menace or a threat, nor do you get a sense of his haunting the Opera House causing terror among the people who work there. We do not get to witness him living in the catacombs beneath the Opera House and his presence there is actually played for laughs. Also when he is shown stalking the area it is usually by a shot of his silhouette on a wall standing and then running away. It is incredibly dull and creates no atmosphere at all thus does not give the character a sense of grandness.
As I mentioned above, the Phantom basically becomes a supporting character in his own film, leaving the majority of the screen time to Nelson Eddy as he attempts to woo Christine himself. Anatole is an annoying character, so full of himself, that it is a chore to spend so much time with him. That said, Eddy does put in a competent performance in the role but the movie just should not have focused so much of its running time on him, this is the story about a love obsessed Phantom. I must say that I was particularly impressed by Susanna Foster who played Christine. She had an air of innocence and she represented a freshness on the screen. It was easy to see how all of these men fell in love with her. She may struggle a bit later in the film when she becomes kidnapped by the Phantom but overall I was happy with her performance and pleasant screen presence.
While it sounds like I absolutely hated this film that is not the case. Technically it is a very well made film with the sets and costume design standing out. The colour is also very impressive. I am a big fan of the look of early Technicolor films (this was an early three-strip Technicolor film), it has a different quality to the films shot with the same format later in time. I do not know how to explain it but it has quite a unique look to it which I really respond to. Speaking of the visual side of things, there are some amazing shots in this film and some particularly impressive camera moves. There is a crane shot early in the film when an opera is being performed which starts at stage level and goes upwards until the chandelier is also in shot, anticipating the famous scene at the end, that is just masterful. In fact, the chandelier is often positioned in a lot of the great shots within the film with the shot from above it with the Phantom sawing the chain to cause destruction being a stand-out. The film won “Best Cinematography” at that year’s Academy Awards and it is easy to see why, but for a story of such a gothic nature, I was disappointed that the cinematography didn’t represent it as best as it could have. The only time you ever get any sense of a gothic atmosphere are the scenes in the catacombs at the end which are magnificent. We finally get some horror and darkness and it is well worth it because these scenes are both gorgeous and atmospheric, only to be ruined by the ridiculous ending with the entire building collapsing (after a single stray bullet causes all the devastation).
Normally this is the part of the review where I praise Jack Pierce for his stellar make-up design but even here Pierce’s work seems watered down. All we get is a single side of Rains’ face that is slightly scarred and the mask he wears to hide it is also quite bland (and purple?). It just doesn’t scream of the genius that I am used to from Pierce’s work. The original 1925 Lon Chaney version is famous for the unmasking scene where we finally see how grotesque a creature the Phantom is under his mask, and Chaney’s make-up design for it is justifiably considered a classic. That same scene in this version of “Phantom of the Opera” is so anti-climactic because there is so little damage to Rains’ face that you find yourself thinking “so what?”. Apparently Universal was worried about being too graphic in the reveal due to the number of soldiers returning from war with massive scarring of their own, and while you can understand this decision, sanitizing this moment ultimately hurts the film dramatically.
Overall, while “Phantom of the Opera” is not a bad film, it is not a good adaptation of the story. It has been scrubbed far too clean that it has lost its identity as a horror story. Although the film is also unevenly paced, it works better as a drama but the miscasting of the brilliant Claude Rains in the title role doesn’t give the film much chance to succeed, nor does the fact that director Arthur Lubin chose to focus more heavily on the Anatole character than the Phantom himself. For the first time in one of my “Universal Monsters” reviews I have to state that this version of “Phantom of the Opera” is not the definitive one, which is still the 1925 Lon Chaney silent film (I missed my pointless twirling ballerinas in this version). Personally I recommend you watch that instead of the grand spectacle but ultimately hollow film that is the 1943 version.