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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

After The Jazz Singer (1927) ushered in the unavoidable age of sound, M-G-M saw an opportunity to refashion one of their biggest hits. Much as record labels later tempted 1980s buyers to ‘double-dip’ by selling them the same albums twice on both vinyl and then CD, the studio wanted to re-release 1925’s Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney retro-fitted for sound to encourage more revenue. At a relatively low cost of $113,000 against its original budget of $632,000, they shot new spoken dialogue scenes to replace 40% of the original silent version (ultimately reaping $419,000 profit as a result). M-G-M wanted Chaney to dub his famous performance, but the visually breath-taking actor long held an aversion to being de-mystified by sound, only eventually relaxing his stance once for the 1930 remake of his earlier classic The Unholy Three. Such was Chaney’s resistance that his contract had a clause forbidding the studio from post-dubbing his scenes on screen. They circumvented this by writing third-person narrative dialogue for another actor and applying the lines over shots of Chaney’s phantom in shadow. The result was a profit of $419,000. A tragic post-script is that due to his death in 1930, audiences never got to see Chaney in the talking role he could not have turned down, the immortal Dracula (1931) that instead shot Bela Lugosi to stardom.

A less successful technology used in the 1925 version was the still-new feature film use of two-colour Technicolor (Process 2 in its history), which gave us the unforgettable scarlet-drenched grotesquerie of the Phantom’s posturing in the Masked Ball scene. Although the format dated from 1916 and produced vibrant colours, it suffered from a number of problems including focus issues due to the special Technicolor cameras exposing consecutive frames of film to either a green or red filter that weren’t quite in sync with each other when later combined onto a single print. The next generation of two-strip (Process 3) was used in horror films such as Warner Brothers’ Dr X (1932) and 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (reviewed here and here), but despite its superiority of image never caught on in the post-Depression austerity years.

Into the later Thirties, Technicolor had advanced to ‘three-strip’, a three-colour camera, which so impressed pioneering animation boss Walt Disney that he had the process under exclusive contract for his Silly Symphonies shorts (e.g. 1933’s Three Little Pigs) up to 1935. Disney’s huge box-office success with the full Technicolor cartoon feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) convinced other studios to risk shooting their live-action features in the format. There were still limitations – the size and weight of the special Technicolor cameras, with attendant costs pushed higher by needing specialist technicians and colour supervisors, and the stifling heat caused by the slow film speed requiring much stronger lights on set.  The cast of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz suffered for their gloriously photographed art under temperatures beyond one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and reputed cases of permanent eye damage from the brightness.

By the time Universal came to remake Phantom of the Opera in 1943, Technicolor was a luxury mostly reserved for lavish musicals, so we’re very fortunate to have these vibrant colours available in a horror film of the period. However, this also hints at the controversial concessions made for this version of Phantom in favour of a light musical more than a straight horror movie. Versatile director Arthur Lubin’s credits included the first five star vehicles for Abbott and Costello, combining comedy and music. 1941’s Hold that Ghost (reviewed here) also added frissons of chills – and in that year Variety named Lubin Hollywood’s most commercially successful director. As far as full-blooded horror movie credentials go, Lubin had directed Karloff and Lugosi in 1940’s entertaining Black Friday and producer George Waggner had previously scored a franchise-generating hit with The Wolf Man.

The casting also reflected Universal’s slant toward a wider musical genre audience. For the crucial central role of ingénue soprano Christine Dubois, they chose 17 year-old Susanna Foster, a gifted singer under contract with an awesome range reaching a rare piercing high C top note. The part was a dream come true for Foster. She idolised operetta star Jeanette McDonald who’d starred in eight musical films opposite classical baritone Nelson Eddy such as Naughty Marietta (1935) and now she was about to co-star with Eddy as one of her romantic suitors in Phantom, the Paris Opera’s baritone Anatole. Eddy was a huge star both as a classical recording artist and musical film actor. To fit him into this role, Universal insisted on dying his blonde hair dark brown, a move which he only agreed to when resident make-up supremo Jack Pierce concocted a special dye for him.

The amorous love triangle in this conception of Phantom was another conceit in Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay that wasn’t in the original Gaston LeRoux novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra nor any past or future film adaptations. Though experienced pure horror writers (Taylor on The Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula, and Hoffenstein on the 1931 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for example – all covered in this blog), they invented a comedic rivalry between police Inspector Raoul, a noble Vicomte in the source book, and the newly-inserted Anatole. This pandered shrewdly to light-hearted musical convention and was an excuse to shoehorn in operatic numbers during the film. Their vying for Christine’s attention works quite well with running gags of repeatedly trapping each other in the doorway as they pursue her, and both speaking the same wooing lines in synch. Balancing Eddy’s ardent artist, the philistine Raoul by contrast is played with an effective formality by Edgar Barrier, the mystery mask shop owner we shall see later that year in Flesh and Fantasy.

The most interesting change of emphasis comes in the conception and portrayal of the title opera ghost himself. Firstly, Universal selected the elegant and highly-regarded Claude Rains, who at that time was between studio contracts. Somehow the tasteful Rains always seemed to avoid the worst of Hollywood horror in his career, allying himself with the better genre projects. His distinctive honeyed tones caressed and bullied with surprising menace in James Whale’s marvellous The Invisible Man (1933) and he made a touchingly sympathetic father to Lon Chaney Jr in The Wolf Man (1941).  This reiteration of Phantom of the Opera called for an actor of his subtle sensitivity (also memorably showcased as Captain Renault in 1942’s classic Casablanca) as it front-loads his character with an origin story right from the beginning aimed at maximum audience sympathy instead of fearful alienation.

Rains’ Erique Claudin is not a remote monster but a warped, lonely soul we see corrupted by unrequited romantic yearning, misunderstanding and then a terrible, all-consuming revenge obsession. We are introduced to him as a humble violinist in the Paris Opera worshipping understudy Christine from the orchestra pit. Such is his love for her that he’s been ploughing almost all of his low salary into funding her training as an undisclosed benefactor. When they meet outside the manager’s office there is a poignant tenderness to his awkward conversation.

His boss regrets being forced to fire him due to revealed arthritis, prompting the desperate Claudin to seek a buyer for a concerto he wrote. Seeking submission feedback from publisher Mr Pleyel (Miles Mander), he is rudely dismissed; however when he overhears the famous Franz Liszt playing it in a back room, he confuses the overheard maestro’s appreciation as a cover-up for disguised theft, and launches himself in fury at Pleyel - “Thief! You stole my music!” In Claudin’s fatal homicidal rage upon Pleyel, he is doused with etching acid by an assistant. By the time the fatally scarred fugitive flees into the Opera House sewers (brilliantly interpreted by Alexander Golitzen and John B. Goodman) his conscience and face are scarred by double murder.

A hastily-grabbed prop mask before his disappearance begins the crafting of the Phantom’s iconic look that will haunt the Opera in caped shadowy form from now on. A useful existing Opera Ghost legend precedes him, preserving his mystique under the erroneous description of possessing a protruding chin and long nose. (An amusing later gag sees the bumbling co-manager Vercheres (Steven Geray) pantomiming the Ghost he is chasing to a bemused chorus actor whom he suddenly realises shares the same features).

Although this 1943 remake somewhat waters down the raw Grand Guignol operatics of Lon Chaney’s seminal version, Universal clearly spared no expense in realising a ravishing chocolate box of visuals. Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus was always on set approving every superb costume piece and set decoration item that went before the lenses of the studio’s acclaimed cinematographer Hal Mohr and Technicolor’s own cameraman W. Howard Greene. Though by all accounts she was painfully exacting upon the crew and director, the results are ravishing and won the film richly-deserved Oscars for cinematography and art direction. Despite the lack of similarity with the 1925 original, the Paris Opera House interior was actually the same set from that version sumptuously redressed – going on to feature cost-effectively in many more Universal films e.g. The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

Another subtle departure was in the Phantom’s facial disfiguration eventually unmasked by Christine.
Chaney’s grotesque skull face was surely the most startlingly unforgettable of his ‘thousand faces’. Rains though was acutely aware of wanting to avoid the possibility of monster typecasting, a fear that ultimately discouraged a fellow front-runner for the part, Cary Grant from taking the role. More important than actor vanity, the early Forties had real-life scarred war veterans still returning home, and it was felt necessary to limit anything adding to the traumas of ostracism that may have already awaited some. Jack Pierce had to test many facial prosthetics upon Rains until a half-faced textured skin appliance with a drooping eye met his approval. To be fair, this allowed Rains to earn our sympathy with feeling from his unblemished side while repulsing his on-screen enemies.

As the Phantom, Rains channels a more refined vengeance in lieu of monstrous external theatrics. Both extremes and points in between can be justified in the same way that no two Hamlets are the same. Like all great mask performances, and indeed mask-work as therapy, this type of role ironically reveals, rather than hides, the personality of the player. This is not to say Chaney’s portrayal was simply surface bravura. His silent screen physicality denoted a wonderfully tuned instrument reflecting internalised conflict and grace as well. And for my personal preference, there is a satisfying grandeur of aspect to his Phantom that Rains lacks – a vicarious thrill we get in watching him avenge himself. I love the insane die-hard futility of his pretend grenade held aloft before the mob descends on him at the end of his reign of terror.

Rains on the other hand pierces our hearts with the corrosive implosion of his lonesome pain, and he has the advantage of turning his expressive voice into a macabre, childlike insistence to the prisoner of his perverted love. “Now you’ll sing for me and I’ll play – and we’ll be together for ever”, he urges, reminiscent of Andrew Robinson’s giggling wacko Scorpio in Dirty Harry. (Fans of Val Lewton may notice what could be an homage to 1942’s Cat People when he coos “You’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly and peaceful”. Simone Simon’s Irene also describes it as friendly).

Lubin also ensures that stacked against the Phantom are worthy supporting nemeses. Aside from the unfeeling company management, there is Jane Farrar’s splendidly haughty diva Mme Biancaroli. She schemes treacherously to eclipse show saviour Christine after the Phantom poisons her, until she gets a warm hand – terminally around her throat.

Raoul and his officers rescue Christine from the Phantom’s dank subterranean home just as the crumbling walls collapse. To Lubin’s credit, he doesn’t lose sight of the tragic plight of Erique Claudin behind the mask and the mayhem. Christine cannot help but feel sorrow for the man who gave up everything for the music in her. “I always felt drawn to him with a kind of pity…understanding”.

We are left with an enigmatic sign-off by the Phantom of an artfully placed violin, bow and mask across them. And was that the sound of his escape we heard in the background? Well, it was intended to be. Universal wanted to film a sequel, but this was rejected by Rains. A follow-on was made starring Boris Karloff; The Climax (1944) helmed by producer-director Waggner echoed Phantom in its dark themes of prima-donna murder and Svengali-like protégé influence, yet these alongside the return of Susanna Foster in a similar role were the only shared elements.


After a less stellar 1962 remake by Terence Fisher for Hammer, Phantom of the Opera was of course ultimately staged as a fully-fledged, industry-dominating musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber (as well as a successful non-musical theatre drama by Ken Hill). It is this incarnation that many people think of when the story is mentioned. This show cleaves closer to Leroux’s book and has made the Opera Ghost a happy home in London’s West End since 1989 – as well as spawning its own film starring Gerard Butler in 2004. Arguably, each generation’s interpretation just proves the longevity and flexibility of this classic tale. No doubt the Angel of Music will be a muse to inspire many more…

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