Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Phantom Of The Opera (1943)

Late in 1942, Universal Studios began re-dressing the still-standing opera set from The Phantom of the Opera (1925) for the film's planned remake as a glossy musical extravaganza to be directed by Arthur Lubin, who would later achieve a kind of dubious celebrity as the director of the popular Francis, the Talking Mule film series.

Singing idol Nelson Eddy and rising star Susanna Foster were cast as the romantic leads, with the great Claude Rains tapped to play the Phantom.

Eddy was a classically-trained baritone and former opera singer who shot to fame literally overnight when he gamely filled-in at the last minute for German Soprano Charlotte Lehmann at a sold-out Los Angeles concert in 1933. The promoters were terrified, however Eddy's bravura performance won the day. He took over a dozen curtain calls, won rave reviews, and was instantly inundated with film offers. By the time he appeared in Phantom of the Opera ten years later, he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, primarily due to a series of popular romantic musicals in which he had co-starred with the Broadway-trained soprano, Jeanette MacDonald

Susanna Foster was a gifted singer whom MGM had begun grooming for stardom at the age of twelve. A former schoolmate of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Foster was initially offered the Elizabeth Taylor role in National Velvet but turned it down. She worked for MGM, Paramount and Universal, and had an illustrious stage and film career, even performing for President Harry S. Truman as guest soloist at the White House Press Photographer's Ball, however it is her role as Christine in Phantom of the Opera that she is most remembered for. 

The new film differed from the original in both tone and plot, deemphasizing the horror elements in favor of light romance. Unlike the Chaney version, the Phantom was no longer the star of the show. 

Rains plays the unfortunate Erique Claudin, a fading violinist with the Paris Opera who harbors unrequited love for chorus girl Christine Dubois--so much so that he's secretly been paying for her voice lessons, the sap.

When Claudin is sacked from the orchestra for missing one note too many, he can no longer afford to pay rent or support Christine’s music lessons. Desperate, he tries to sell one of his original compositions, but ends up throttling a music publisher whom he mistakenly suspects of having stolen the piece. Splashed with acid during the scuffle, Claudin takes refuge in the sewers beneath the opera house, from whence he launches a delusional campaign of terror against those who would hinder Christine’s rise to her rightful place in the Paris Opera. 

The ever-eloquent Rains was an excellent choice for the role, however his minimalist makeup (scroll down here for a peek) is hardly a scare, and we barely even get to see it. Writing about the film in his book The Complete Phantom of the Opera, author George Perry was sufficiently underwhelmed by Rains' makeup to describe it as looking less like a disfigurement than an 'unpleasant skin ailment.'

Rains arguably has one of the most stylish-looking Phantom costumes, however Eric Taylor and Hans Jacoby's script unfortunately gives him little to do other than to saw down the chandelier, which is the film's only real thrill. Aside from that, the Phantom seems to serve little purpose other than to provide occasional relief from the sappy ersatz opera music and the nitwitted love triangle between Christine and her flabby middle-aged suitors, Anatole (Eddy) and Raoul (Edgar Barrier, mugging shamelessly). 

Curiously, in this Phantom nobody gets the girl. When Anatole and Raul are both given the brushoff by Christine--who is clearly (and justifiably) more interested in her career than their silly romantic intrigues--the boys merrily march away arm-in-arm for a little light supper, and presumably drinks, and perhaps a little dancing afterward, who knows? It is quite possibly the gayest moment in any Phantom film, and that's up against some pretty stiff competition. 

At the end of Phantom of the Opera, Erique's subterranean lair collapses, ostensibly burying him under tons of rubble. As the camera moves in on his eerie mask, the faint but unmistakable sounds of movement can be heard off camera, as if the injured Phantom is still alive and is attempting to climb out of the rubble. The mysterious ending seems to have left the door open for a sequel that was never shot. 
According to film historian Scott MacQueen's audio commentary for Universal's Classic Monster Collection, Universal had indeed planned to film a Phantom sequel in which Foster, Eddy, and Rains would reprise their respective roles as Christine, Anatole and the Phantom, however producers were unhappy with initial drafts of the script; when Eddy and Rains became unavailable due to other projects, the project was dead in the water. 

Universal still had a commitment from Foster, though, and they still had that great old opera set, so the script was rewritten into a Boris Karloff vehicle called The Climax, about a murderous doctor who becomes obsessed with a young opera singer.

Nelson Eddy, Claude Rains
Susanna Foster
Nelson Eddy, Claude Rains
Susanna Foster

Climax [VHS]

Boris Karloff
Susanna Foster



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