Considering how fertile Gaston Leroux’s classic tale of obsession, murder and opera is, I’m not surprised that Universal took another crack at it after their silent 1925 version (starring the flaring, skull-like nostrils of Lon Chaney) seeing as the advent of sound and colour would be a fairly seismic game changer about a suspense laden tale set at the Paris Opera House.
Decades later, this version (but not the Lon Chaney one) would be banded together with the rest of Universal’s gaggle of classic monstrosities like Dracula and the Wolf Man to form the collection known as the Universal Monsters, but if we’re being honest, Phantom Of The Opera stands slightly apart from his more inhuman brethren for a myriad of reasons. For a start, it’s the only one of the official thirty titles that was shot in searing technicolor (it’s also the first version of Phantom ever shot in colour too) and it’s also the sole Oscar winner too as it bagged well deserved gold statuettes for Cinematography and Art Direction. But even with all these glowing accolades, is this particular go at a classic character actually any good, or does it deserve boos from the cheap seats?
Quiet violinist Enrique Claudin is currently going through something of a bad patch. Having been singled out and dismissed from Paris Opera House due to sub par fiddling thanks to the loss of use of some of his fingers, everyone thinks he’s flush with cash after spending nearly twenty years with the orchestra. However, the truth is he’s blown all his savings by anonymously funding voice lessons for aspiring soprano Christine Dubois, a young woman whom he has become devoted to despite her not really knowing who he is. As his land lady puts the pressure on for rent, Claudin submits a piano concerto to a publisher, hoping that they will purchase it, but a string of unforeseen coincidences leads the lowly violinist to believe that his life’s work has been stolen and all the accumulated pressure makes him snap like a school ruler in a work vice. After strangling the publisher to death in a fit of rage, Claudin gets a face full of acid for his troubles and flees the scene horribly scarred to take up residence in the sewers directly under the opera house.
Meanwhile, Christine finds herself the focus of a love triangle when both opera baritone Anatole Garron and police Inspector Raoul Dubert compete for her attentions, but the still devoted Claudin – now stalking around the opera house in a mask and cape – out scores them all by drugging prima donna Madame Biancarolli and getting the object of his affections thrust into the lead role.
Christine is a sensation, but Biancarolli is incensed and demands to have her rival arrested for the crime – something that galvanises this vengeful “phantom of the opera” into further murderous action. But while both Anatole and Raoul concoct separate plans to bring the Phantom to justice, Claudin finally makes his move on Christine…
While there’s no doubt that this swing at Phantom Of The Opera is impressively and handsomely mounted, you often feel that the filmmakers gave forgotten that the movie is supposed to be a horror too. So much of the running time is devoted to the fact that this story hadn’t been told in both sound and colour before, it devotes large portions to having whole operatic performances play out from beginning to end. It’s certainly sumptuous stuff and the sets and costumes are more than up to the challenge, leaving an insane amount of detail smeared all over the voluminous screen; the stage itself is breathtaking, while the Phantom’s subterranean lair harkens back to the stark impressionism of the looming sets of Frankenstein – although making your home in a Parisian sewer in the 1880’s probably isn’t the best place to bring a girl back to…
But lush sets and ornate clothing is just something that comes with the Phantom’s territory and while the 1943 movie excels at this, it regrettably focuses more on the opera than it does the Phantom.
While various Phantoms over the years have ranged from hollow eyed ghouls (Lon Chaney), to skin flaying psychos (Robert Englund), to Gerard Butler (err… Gerard Butler), it has to be said that Claude Rains’ tour of duty behind the mask is a little underwhelming. Essentially a doughy, sad-sack of an older man who longs for a younger woman, the Phantom feels more like a mild mannered cradle snatching creep than the hideous murderer with the soul of a psychotic romantic and the fact that everyone keeps mention his age makes him sound like a disfigured sugardaddy. Even when he gets a chance to take centre stage and swing a mean cape, the actor is denied the chance to employ his explosive acting chops the way he did during his numerous, deranged rants throughout The Invisible Man. In fact, even at his most villainous, Rains’ Phantom still errs a little too much on the side of tragic and thus his vengeful acts of murder and carnage play more like manic depressive tantrums than the master plan of a tormented artist.
However, weirdly enough for classic horror movie, while the villain unfortunately drops the ball a tad, the heroes take up the slack somewhat. While Susanna Foster’s Christine seems a bit distanced from all the crimes committed on her behalf which gives her the air of not being particularly bothered, the desperate attempts of Anatole and Raoul to court her end up being genuinely fun. Maybe it’s the fact that they look virtually identical, maybe it’s because the actors have better chemistry with each other than they do with their female lead, but their escalating, petulant attempts to outdo each other end up being a highlight among the endless musical numbers and sneaking around corridors.
Yet, for all its faults, this version of Phantom still holds up by sheer presence alone and when you consider that all the pomp and grandeur must have been stunning when you realise that a lot of the audience might have never been to the opera in their lives, some of those extended musical moment make more sense.
Possibly the only Phantom that makes the grade by being extraordinarily pretty…