Surprise blogathon time…
From the 1925 Lon Chaney classic to the beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber leviathan of a musical, The Phantom of the Opera is a perennial showstopper with its soaring music, swinging chandelier, and all-around creepiness. Sandwiched among the many onscreen iterations is the 1943 version starring Claude Rains as the Phantom with Nelson Eddy as Anatole and B-player Susanna Foster as Christine getting top billing for some reason.
I’ll be honest: I tried watching this movie twice before and something has always derailed me. Maybe it was a timing thing or the movie just didn’t grab me; I’m not sure which. This was Attempt Number Three.
Unlike the book and the Lon Chaney film, this version of Opera opens at, well, the Paris Opera, but there’s no ghost haunting the theater. Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy), Christine (Susanna Foster) are giving out with the Riese-von Flotow opera, Martha. The audience is enraptured and wildly applauds when the curtain comes down. Christine is oblivious, though, because the very intriguing Inspector Raoul Daubert (Edgar Barrier) is smiling at her from backstage, and she skips the curtain call to go say hi to him.
This, of course, is kind of a faux pas, and Christine is called into the conductor, Lecour’s (Fritz Feld) office. She’s green. She’s got a lot to learn. No harm, no foul as long as it doesn’t happen again. Christine understands.
Also waiting to see Lecour is violinist Erique Claudin (Claude Rains). He’s been with the Paris Opera for about twenty years, and Lecour has noticed he sticks out in the string section but not in a good way. Erique has arthritis in his left hand, so he can play simple melodies, but anything more complicated is painful. Lecour is very sorry to let him go, but the Paris Opera is all about perfection.
Erique goes home to his poor little room at the top of a poor little boarding house, where his disgruntled landlady brings him his nightly soup. This guy has plenty of money, but he lives extremly cheaply, so much so that he hasn’t paid his landlady in six days.
He might not be with the Opera anymore, but Erique’s got some other irons in the fire. He secretly pays for Christine’s voice lessons and he’s also trying to sell a symphony to a publisher. He thinks Pleyel’s (Miles Mandel) is his man, but Pleyel’s a little slow.
One day Erique goes to Pleyel’s office to check on the progress of his symphony, and unbeknownst to him, Franz Listz (Franz Leiber) is playing his symphony and telling Erique’s friend Desjardines (Paul Marion) that he wants to publish it because it’s wonderful. Erique jumps to conclusions and thinks Pleyel’s stolen his music, so he strangles him. Pleyel’s assistant, Georgette (Renee Carson) throws carbolic acid on Erique and he stumbles out into the night, hiding in the sewer.
From there, the movie is pretty close to the novel and other film versions. Erique haunts the Paris Opera, supports Christine in secret, and makes sure she becomes a huge star. He can only watch from afar for so long, though, because pretty soon he wants Christine to share his life under the streets, where he’s set up a sumptuous apartment. And naturally, the full horror of Erique’s damaged existence comes to light.
So what did I think after seeing Phantom all the way through? First off, the film looks gorgeous. It was shot on the sadly erstwhile Stage 28, where the 1925 Phantom was also filmed, only now we get to see the set in color, so how cool is that? The Technicolor is flawless, especially on a 4K TV, and the look of the sets is sumptuous. It allows the iconic chandelier to be used to great effect.
Nelson Eddy is a completely natural Anatole because in most respects he’s playing himself singing opera. He looks really happy in the role. Susanna Foster as Christine looks genuinely awed to be in a movie with Nelson Eddy, which is no shock because the guy was a huge star, and this works nicely into the Anatole-Christine dynamic of an established star helping an up-and-comer. The movie ends on a good note which I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say, it left me with a good taste in my mouth.
Claude Rains was the only cast member who didn’t sit quite right with me. Now, I like Claude Rains a lot. You all know. He was a tower of strength. His Erique is kindly but desperate and then broken, as opposed to menacing like other Phantoms. However, this may be one of the few times when he doesn’t hit the bullseye. The target, maybe, but not the bullseye. It’s really tough to pin down why, because voice-wise his acting is as competent as it always was.
The scenes when he’s just Erique are his best, but once Rains puts on that phantom costume it feels like the costume is wearing him. It’s not the worst performance, but it doesn’t have the creeping punch it needs. The big reveal when Christine takes off the Phantom’s mask is ugly but there’s not much shock value to it. Although, I will say this: The makeup job is pretty impressive.
Apparently when the film came out there were those in Hollywood who thought Rains wasn’t right for the part, either. Lon Chaney, Jr. thought he should have played the Phantom because legacy, but I don’t know if that would have worked so well either, because then people would say Chaney had only gotten the role because of his dad. Variety loved the film; the New York Times did not, and that seems to be the prevailing consensus. Audiences were kind of positive about the film, to the tune of 4.6M in United States box office returns, according to Ultimate Movie Rankings, and there was a Lux Radio Theatre version of the film broadcast on September 13, 1943. There was also a sequel planned but it never panned out.
I think what tips the balance on this movie is expectation. Someone who has read the book or seen the Lon Chaney film and expects more of a horror movie might be bored to non-plussed, but others with less prior knowledge may see it differently. Either way, it’s definitely not a waste of time.
For more Code Classics, please see Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting, ladies–so glad we could do this!
Coming up in August (click on the images for more information):
School is starting next week, and that means I’ll be standing outside at my stop in the toasty summer heat, but at least there’s a nice big tree on the corner. Things are going to be crazy. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you next week for a new “Page To Screen”…
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