Sunday, October 21, 2012

Stubs - Phantom of the Opera (1943)

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943) Starring: Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, Claude Rains, Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, Jane Farrar, Directed by Arthur Lubin. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein, Eric Taylor, Hans Jacoby. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux.  Music by Edward Ward.  Produced by George Waggner Run Time: 92. Color U.S. Horror

Okay, this week we go from a really good horror film (Psycho) to one that is not so scary or all that good, Phantom of the Opera (1943). In an earlier post, I stated that I wouldn’t watch a musical with Jeannette MacDonald in it. Let’s add to that list her frequent musical partner, Nelson Eddy, as an actor to avoid. The main thing wrong with this version of Phantom is that there is too much music and opera music at that. While I’m aware that the movie takes place at the Paris Opera House, there is no reason to bore the audience with staging production numbers. And guess which baritone is in said production numbers. Three guesses and the hint is that his initials are the same as New England’s.

While I am well aware that movies worked at a slower pace back then and usually I don’t have a problem with it, this movie seemed to move at a sleep inducing pace. Horror films are supposed to scare the viewer out of slumber rather than assisting them in falling into a confused one.

These of course are only a few of the issues I have with this movie. While I’m sure Universal meant well, casting Claude Rains as Erique Claudin/the Phantom was the first mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually a big fan of Mr. Rains’ work. However, in this film, he seems to be out of place. Not so much as Claudin, the 20 year veteran of the Paris Opera Orchestra who is summarily dismissed when he starts having problems with the fingers on his left hand. Rains is miscast as the Phantom, especially when compared with perhaps the quintessential movie phantom, the one played by Lon Chaney in the 1925 version of the film. Rains is too slight a man to be scary, even when disfigured.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom (1925)

Claude Rains as the Phantom (1943)

When he’s fired, everyone assumes that Claudin has saved enough money to retire comfortably; his landlady and the conductor who fires him both assume this. But that is simply not the case. Rather than saving his money, Claudin has used it to sponsor the training of a young soprano, Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster). Claudin is obviously in love with Christine, but she has two other suitors: Anton Garron (Nelson Eddy), a baritone with the Opera and Raoul D’Aubert (Edgar Barrier), a police inspector. The two men look so much alike even down to the same style of moustache.

In order to get more money, Claudin tries to get a concerto he’s written published. When he doesn’t hear from his publisher, Pleyel & Desjardins, he goes down there to find out about it. But Pleyel doesn’t know what happened to it and doesn’t seem to care. He tells Claudin to leave so he can get back to the etching he’s working on. Claudin is about to leave when he hears his concerto being played and praised by the great composer Franz Liszt (Fritz Leiber). Thinking Pleyel is trying to steal his concerto, Claudin attacks and strangles him to death. Georgette (Renee Carson), the publisher’s assistant, walks in and throws etching acid into Claudin’s face. Yelling in pain, Claudin flees the scene and, being chased by police, retreats into the Parisian sewers under the Opera House.

Claudin steals a mask from the prop department to hide his disfigured face, but is still obsessed with Christine. The soprano is currently the understudy of Biancarolli (Jane Ferrar), but Claudin drugs her wine allowing Christine to go on in her place and is a hit. Biancarolli initially blames Garron and Christine for drugging her, but she is forced to back down when there is no evidence of their involvement. But Biancarolli refuses to let Christine sing again on stage, but when Claudin finds out he enters her dressing room and kills her and her maid (Elvira Curci).

D’Aubert comes up with a plan to lure Claudin (whom they know is the Phantom) out into the open. He will not let Christine sing at the next performance and Garron will have Liszt play Claudin’s concerto instead. But Claudin strangles one of D’Aubert’s men and heads to the top of the Opera’s domed ceiling. There he cuts loose one the large chandelier down onto the audience, causing chaos and havoc. In the confusion, Claudin grabs Christine and takes her down to his lair in the sewers with the police in pursuit.

Above in the auditorium, Liszt sits down to play the concerto. When Claudin hears it, he plays along with a piano he has in his lair. He even encourages Christine to sing along. The police are getting closer and closer. Christine pulls off Claudin’s mask and sees the damage done to his face. At that moment, D’Aubert and Garron make it to the lair. Shots are fired, which miss the mark, but they bring down the lair in on top of Claudin. D’Aubert and Garron manage to get Christine out just before the walls collapse. It is only after Claudin is dead that Christine learns they are from the same district and she admits to being drawn to him.

At the end of the story, Garron and D’Aubert demand that Christine make a choice. Instead of choosing either man, she chooses her singing career. The men go off together to commiserate and Christine goes off to be with her adoring fans.

While this retelling was popular enough at the time for a sequel to be considered, this is not a film that holds up over time. Technicolor is almost too lush for horror and there is too much opera for my tastes. I think this film isn’t quite sure if it wants to be a love story or a horror film. I’ve already commented about the casting of Rains, who seems like an odd choice for the Phantom role. I also think it would have been better to have cast male leads that didn’t look so much alike.

Nelson Eddy as Anton Garron

The film did receive four nominations and won two Academy Awards, one for Art Direction (Color), back in the day when there were still a lot of Black and White films also being made, and for Cinematography. I did like the loft they designed for Claudin. With its angular walls, it reminded me more of German Expressionistic influence, which is what this film could have used more of.

During this horror film season, if you have to see a Phantom of the Opera film as part of your viewing, this is not the one to watch. That is unless you suffer from insomnia.

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