Universal Monsters in review: Phantom of the Opera (1943)
No. This is not the Lon Chaney 1925 silent picture. Just so we’re clear from the get-go. Its a understandable mistake. Many, including myself, typically associate the Phantom tale with that of the infamous Man of a Thousand Faces. The 1925 movie is one of the few silent films most everyone, even those who don’t care much for silent films, can sit thru and enjoy with some measure of comfort and, dare I say, thrill. The 1925 Phantom of the Opera was an amazing piece in the records of horror. Chaney brought his custom made makeup and prosthetics to bare with great admiration from Universal Studios who quickly dubbed the man with his moniker. The film was dark and brooding and haunting and all together wonderful. But guess what…so was the 1943 reboot. Oh God yes, I went there. A reboot worthy of the title in every way imaginable, and lord, shall I go further? Perhaps, maybe, by a smigin, the 1943 was slightly better…YES, I know, I know. How dare I say. But still…I beg you to watch this movie and tell me if I’m wrong, because when I sat down last night to screen this film for the first time, my expectations were actually really low, considering my fondness for the original Chaney film. Starting in the opening scene, at first I mocked the broadcasted “Brought to you in Technicolor,” and honestly thought how can this “colorized” adaption be anywhere close to as good as the silent black and white? However, as the camera panned out and the singers and orchestra took the stage, I discovered how wrong I was. This film, this 1943 Phantom of the Opera, is a masterpiece of stage, sound, and characterization. And given the era, when “technicolor” was still a decade away from really catching on in Hollywood, the movie was also technologically superior.
Before we move on, here’s a quick lowdown on what Phantom of the Opera is about:
Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) is unaware that her singing lessons are being funded by a secret admirer, Erque Claudin (Claude Rains), a mysterious violinist who is “let-go” from the Paris Opera House after twenty years of dutiful service due to aged hands. When Erque pens a concerto in the hopes of continuing Christine’s singing lessons, in rush of maddening confusion, he murderers the publisher and is horrible scarred from the incident. Soon-there-after, mysterious accidents start occurring at the Paris Opera House, deaths coinciding with Christine’s meteoric rise to stardom. Following her disappearance during the final show, Christine’s suitors, Raoul (Edgar Barrier) and Anatole (Nelson Eddy), brave the dark recesses of the opera house to find the true culprit.
You may not know this, but my first experience with the Houston stage was a musical showing of Phantom of the Opera. I believed I was in store for something lame, thinking “a musical…gee whiz, no thanks!” Again, I seem to always underestimate the Phantom’s ability to capture my imagination. While the stage production and movie are labeled typically as “musicals,” it is only so because of the nature of the story, which is the vocal contributions of the characters, sewed between the normal rolls of acting and actions and dialogue. This is the only real obvious difference between a true opera and a musical, the spoken word. Regardless, the Phantom of the Opera benefits from being a musical, instead of the full fledged moniker of opera, because you need those in-between moments with the characters. For example, I can still remember sitting in our seats (my wife and I) and watching the play start and then hearing the booming sound effects as the chandelier broke and crashed to the stage. I was hooked ever since. And you may also not known, my wife and I are season ticket holders, for two years running (we took a break this past season), of the Houston Grand Opera. That’s right, deep in the heart of Texas, we witnessed such performances as Aida, Die Fledermaus, the American premiere of The Passenger, Rigoletto, Das Rheingold, Otello, Madame Butterfly, Die Walküre, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Though we do not have season tickets for this year, we are planning on attending an October performance of Faust. So, not to brag or anything, but I feel I have a sense or itch for these kind of entertainment.
There was a moment, more than a few to be honest, when the movie took hold of my attention and refused to let go. I had brought out a notebook and was planning on jotting some notes for the opening paragraph in a new book I’m working on, however, as the actors took the stage, notably Biancarolli, Anatole, and Christine, my pen never found the paper. My eyes, ears, soul (dare I say) was seized and mesmerized by the vocal range and talent I was witnessing on the screen. Sure, perhaps not as powerful as seeing the performance live, but still…amazing nevertheless. And how could I forget the captivating and disparaging mutilated anti-hero of the tale, Erque Claudin, played by the ever-so-marvelous Claude Rains. The only other movies I can recall Claude were his roles in The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, both Universal Classics and reviewed here on our Universal Monsters in review series. Though I loved his other performances, especially the Invisible Man, I loved her role as Phantom even more. He seems perfect for the role. And in this adaptation, the audience actually feels sad for the man, as he truly goes about to do good, wanting nothing more than to help the career of one young singer, only to have all his efforts thrown back in his face, including a pan of acid.
The Phantom of the Opera is entwined with comedy as well. This is typically seen as Raoul and Anatole try to out-wit the other, seeking the attention and love of Christine DuBois. Most of these scenes were fun and helped balance the horror elements in the story, however, there we moments when the comedy was a tad heavy-handed and felt…well…befuddled. The ending was also peculiar, though I will not ruin it for you, but will say it seems to be a habit of Universal Studios of setting back the apple-cart. And this can be forgiven, but at least make us doubt the tenacity. In the original (SPOLIERS) the phantom is beaten to death by a mob of angry townsfolk, leaving us to doubt just who the monster really was. The 1943 version had less than a punch, I think.
If you’ve yet to see this movie, you should. Don’t get taken off guard, this is a period-piece, set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. Also in Paris with loads of funny French accents. But once the actors let loose their vocal cords, and the story takes off, you will not turn away. Claude Rains gives one of his best performances. Dignified and horrifying, especially at the end when it seems his mind has truly snapped, dragging poor Christine down into the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, his motive lost in his madness. My only real qualm is the all-too-sunny ending between duel suitors Raoul and Anatole.
My Rating: 4/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.