Universal went all the way back into its own antiquity, digging up Gaston LeRoux’s celebrated tale of death stalking the Paris opera house for Arthur Lubin’s lavishly appointed Phantom of the Opera (1943); a spectacular, even mind-boggling excursion in glorious Technicolor, alas, predestined to utterly fail in its primary objective – to thrill. The original 1925 Phantom starring Lon Chaney had been a phenomenal success for the studio. But this remake proved problematic on several levels. First, LeRoux’s classic was heavily tampered with by screenwriters Eric Taylor and Hans Jacoby in their attempt to showcase some gargantuan production numbers composed by Edward Ward, who basically took operatic masterworks already in public domain, re-orchestrating them with newly written lyrics.
Alas, Universal’s decision to transform the macabre tale into a horror/musical hybrid was further encouraged after the studio had secured the talents of baritone, Nelson Eddy and soprano, Susannah Foster to costar as the ill-fated lovers. By this time, Eddy’s popularity had cooled at MGM, particularly after the end of his pairings with their resident soprano, Jeanette MacDonald. He had sincerely hoped Phantom of the Opera would reestablish his imminence in the musical milieu. Although in fine voice, Eddy remained true to his own limited appeal as an actor, more wooden than dynamic and suffering from the added folly of having to play a rather foppish romantic suitor who never entirely wins the heart of this tale’s dreamy-eyed, though decidedly fickle princess.
Yet, in Claude Rains’ phantom (herein rechristened Erique Claudin) the film succumbed to an even more self-conscious performance, threatening to sink the enterprise. Rains, a superb actor elsewhere in his repertoire, herein somehow manages to make the least of his part. It’s odd too, because Rains had already played a superb villain in Universal’s The Invisible Man (1933), exploiting his mellifluous vocal range with exceptional dexterity. But in Phantom he begins as a rather unsympathetic soul, thoroughly misguided in his ambitions to elevate aspiring singer, Christine Dubois (Susannah Foster) from the chorus. In the original draft, Christine was Erique’s illegitimate offspring from a clandestine affair. Alas, censorship of the day precluded this back story from ever seeing the light of day; screenwriters Samuel Hoffenstein, Hans and John Jacoby and Eric Taylor simply choosing to omit any explanation as to why a middle-age, near penniless violinist should choose to spend all his hard-earned money on the education of this winsome ingénue. However, in this light, Erique’s obsessive fascination with Christine managed to acquire an even more perverse – and unintentional – double-entendre, along the lines of a May/December infatuation with a whiff of the lascivious and depraved.
It also didn’t help this remake the Production Code was forbidden from revealing the more obvious gruesomeness that had helped Chaney’s phantom yield its carte blanche shrieks of terror, particularly during the phantom’s climactic unmasking. As such, this new Phantom of the Opera became a rather tame excursion, the chills taking the proverbial backseat to Alexander Golitzen’s resplendent production design. Because Universal never bothered to film its trademark glass globe with the iconic ‘Universal’ logo circling around it in Technicolor, Phantom of the Opera opens without this memorable fanfare; a rather lackluster title card reading ‘Universal Presents’ inserted before the opening credits instead.
As scripted, Erique (Rains) is a violinist with the opera company who has lost all feeling in the fingers of his left hand. Unbeknownst to the management or even the benefactress of his philanthropy, Erique has spent virtually all his money anonymously to fund Christine Dubois’ musical education. Dismissed from the opera’s orchestra, Erique becomes increasingly desperate for money. To continue Christine’s patronage, Erique approaches the music publishers, Pleyel and Desjardins with a concerto he has toiled on for many months.
After several days, Erique returns to inquire about his piece. He is rudely ordered from the premises by an irritated and preoccupied Monsieur Pleyel (Miles Mander). Hearing his composition being played in the next room by Franz List (Fritz Leiber), Erique assumes the publishers have stolen his music for their own. Enraged, Erique attacks and murders Pleyel. His assistant, Georgette (Renee Carson) retaliates by throwing acid in Erique’s face, thus horribly disfiguring him for life. The wounded Erique takes to the sewers beneath the city and later, finds his way to the Paris opera where he steals a prop mask to conceal his hideously scorched flesh.
All-consumed with his protégée, Erique now vows to make her a great star. Topside, Christine is wooed by two men; baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and the amiable police inspector Raoul D’Aubert (Edgar Barrier). The two are cordial, though jealous, rivals for the chanteuse’s affections. To secure his soft spot in Christine’s heart, the phantom decides to murder Mme. Biancarolli (Jane Farrar), the pompous diva who is standing in the way of Christine rising to the top of her profession. Alas, this heinous act sends the entire opera company into a panic, with Raoul setting into motion a plan of action to snuff out the phantom.
Refusing to let Christine sing, Raoul has List play Erique’s concerto. The phantom murders one of Raoul’s officers and then takes to the vaulted auditorium ceiling, cutting loose its massive chandelier and causing it to plummet into the audience. Amidst the chaos, Erique reveals himself to Christine as her most ardent admirer. He steals her away into the bowels of the opera house. But his hideous visage frightens Christine and she screams, alerting Raoul and Anatole to their whereabouts. The phantom is confronted by both men and destroyed. In the final moments, Christine is seen pursuing another suitor, leaving Anatole and Raoul to set aside their mutual jealousies and walk away together, arm and arm as friends.
It is exceedingly difficult not to admire this Phantom of the Opera as it remains an ultra-glamorous affair. W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr’s eye-popping and sumptuous cinematography is a visual feast for the eye. Vera West’s costumes are quite simply gorgeous. And Edward Ward’s musical re-orchestrations truly take on the flavor of legitimate opera; virtually indistinguishable from the real thing to the untrained ear. But it’s the story that so utterly lacks in spirit and spark – this phantom relegated to skulking the dank sewers, seedy alleys and gloomily lit byways, glimpsed in evaporating shadows racing along the wall and only momentarily made a figure – not of great human tragedy – but maniacal and vial retributions inflicted on the unsuspecting and undeserving of his wrath. This phantom is not to be pitied, but feared – a miscalculation from which the movie never entirely recovers.
As the isolated figure, alone and friendless, plotting his supreme revenge from within the bowels of the Paris opera house, Claude Rains never assuages beyond a level of cloying menace; seemingly too much the gentleman to be evil incarnate. To be sure, Rains had played bad boys before. His Alexander Sebastian in 1946’s Notorious is as disreputable as he is sly and calculating. But Rains’ phantom shares none of these more wicked attributes. He’s tyrannical, plotting and venomous – in short – wholly unlikable. The best movie villains are those we love to hate. Regrettably, Rains phantom is someone we just wish would go away. Nevertheless, there is lots to admire in this version of the time-honored tale and since Rains is all but obfuscated behind the love story, the music and a myriad of gargantuan sets and costumes, we can overlook – if hardly forgive – the movie for failing to tingle our spines. But in the grand scheme of Phantoms revisited, this one’s more an anomaly than a bona fide part of the respected canon in screen incarnations.
Universal Home Video’s re-release of Phantom of the Opera, with uninspired cover art – no less - on Blu-ray is good, though not great. The image infrequently suffers from minor Technicolor mis-registration. When the image is properly aligned we get a profoundly regal, and rather stunning presentation with so much visual splendor on tap one can simply sit back and bask in the sumptuousness of the exercise. Regrettably, this makes the momentary lapses into ever-so-slight blurriness all the more obvious. Contrast is superior to anything we’ve ever seen before and fine details pop with breathtaking clarity. Given the infrequency of the aforementioned alignment problem it is a genuine shame Universal did not go back to tinker with the negative and fix these issues. But there it is and remains on this stand-alone offering – another catalogue title excised from Universal’s Classic Monsters box set released two years before.
The audio is DTS mono, yielding a stunning amount of aural refinement. Extras include a comprehensive ‘making of’ that covers not only the enduring popularity of Gaston LeRue’s novel, but also touches on the stage incarnations, the various film adaptations and also provides good background info on the making of this film. Universal also gives us a comprehensive audio commentary, and the Digital HD UV option, their main reason for repackaging this disc yet again. Ho-hum! Oh well, what’s here is solidly put together. Good stuff – mostly – and overall recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)