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.
Professor of German and Film & media, Anton Kaes, discuses, to some extent, butchery, madness, and the loss of innocence in his article on Fritz Lang’s cult film “M.” This seemingly simple letter for the film title is suspect. Consider how, according to Professor Kaes, “M was not among Germany’s top ten features of 1931 [and] the film received mixed reviews… [with] only modest box-office returns” (pg.138), yet despite being overshadowed by the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, M is richly historic and symbolic in the midst of its own history, but also as a time piece standing on the precipice of the emerging National Socialist Party. Professor Kaes “unmoors” M from its historical base in which in the film was emerged and discusses our own obsession with serial murder, the historic crisis in Germany during the development of the film, and what M represents for us today.
M is filled with shadows that cut against the backdrop of “be-on-the-look-out” posters on walls notifying that there is a child murderer amongst the people and high angle shots showing a circle of children singing an eerie nursery rhythm mixed with silent stills and unnerving echoes of a mother’s anguished calls for her baby girl to come home for lunch, to come up the empty stair case; but Elsie Beckmann never comes home. Once invoice is lost, it can never be returned. According to historian Kaes, “anyone who has seen Fritz Lang’s M even once will remember these images and sounds” (pg. 138), and yet somehow after M’s 1931 release in Berlin, it only generated moderate reviews. So, if M wasn’t a major blockbuster for its time, what is it about M that entices us to pay attention today, what draws us to look deeper into the story? According to Kaes, we need look no further than our own newspapers, full with “stories of serial killers, mass murderers, and school shootings…veterans carrying the war into the cities” (pg.138) and so forth. Besides our obsession, Kaes forces us to look outside the media and provokes the introspective question: “[are] killers naturally born, or are they a product of their environment?” Do historical events and culture shape and motivate murderers and mayhem? According to Kaes, “Lang’s M is implicated in these current questions, but responds to them by suggesting through its very form that something else entirely might be negotiated in these films – something that has to do with us, with our lives, our communities, [and] our culture” (pg.138).
M is considered one of the greats, not just because of the film’s symbolism’s, but also because of its receptor of acting. Consider Peter Lorre’s performance as Hans Beckert as genuinely chilling. One of the most haunting scenes was during the mock trial with the cities criminals sitting in as judge and witness. Beckert is forced to defend himself against the anger of a town tired of being afraid and of police harassment. It questions everything. This film, for its time, used scientific forensic techniques that was considered in 1931, to be rather progressive. This was a CSI-esk film sixty-nine years before its time. But at the same time it begs us to question the use of such modernization; in the tormented face of Beckert, M begs us to question the duality of man. We know better, but cannot help ourselves. Here is one of the films most chilling moments:
What is so real about this moment, so unnerving? Read again what Beckert has to say:
“What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn’t need to do all that if you’d learn a proper trade or if you’d work. If you weren’t a bunch of lazy bastards. But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment! It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! [But] I’m pursued by ghosts” (M, 1931).
The history surrounding M, the political and social crisis of the Weimar Republic, cannot help but have some kind of impact on the film. In a way, M captures the ghosts of 1930’s Germany, the surrounding worldwide recession of 1930, the mass unemployment and rise of criminality and political discontent that eventually lead to the rise of National Socialism, the Nazi Party (pg.140). According to Kaes, “the original title [of M] was Mörder unter uns (meaning…Murderer among Us),” which, in a strange way, combines the “explosive atmosphere of Germany two years before Hitler’s assumption of power” (pg. 141) and the infamous murder trial involving Hitler’s “Storm Troopers,” hit men who murdered a member of the Reichstag communist party in the late fall of 1930. Besides using M as a modern interpretation of our own obsessions and crafting of modern day killers, Kaes reflects on the films own history and asks if indeed, “were the Nazis ‘murderers among us’” (pg.141)?
Looking at how M impacts us today and what was going on during the films own particular history, historian Kaes probes the deeper meaning of M, basically, what M represents as an historic achieve of 1930 Germany. According to Kaes:
“M presents a society at war with itself. Serial murder recalled wartime slaughter, and the heightened state of mobilization of an entire community echoed experiences from the home front…[focusing] on the downtrodden lumpen-proletariat, [including] washerwomen and fatherless children, criminals and beggars, haggard prostitutes and slovenly policemen” (pgs. 143-144).
According to Kaes, M was a representation of the public’s strange fascination with murder, suggesting that imitation murder “displaces and shields us from real murder” (pg.146), thus, in an ironic twist of things, “murder and its mass marketed representations feed on each other” (146). Basically, murders are covered by the media in noir-esk fashion, inspiring future killers to commit asks of greater violence, which in turn is reported by the media, and so on and so forth; all the while, sitting on the backdrop of current events relating to culture and social n(m)ormality.
Historian Kaes interpretation of M is provoking in many ways. While we watch the film and enjoy the artistic nature of a cult classic during the sound revolution, Kaes forces us to see the things hidden underneath, the film as a representative model of not only our own culture, but also the particular culture history of 1929-31 Germany. Kaes reminds us that even in 1931, the Great War was still a “living memory [of] national shame of defeat and [resentment of] the financial and moral burden” (pg. 151) embodied in the Treaty of Versailles. The most provoking notion Kaes leaves us with is how interconnected everything seems to be; yet how we never seem to notice.
Thomas S. Flowers writes character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.