Horror Is Universal: “Phantom of the Opera” (1943)

So, what are we doing here? I’m breaking my own rule just a bit, after all. The Phantom of the Opera isn’t one of the Canonical Six that I’m supposed to be focusing on. What’s the reason for this detour?

There are a couple of reasons, actually. The most important is that this movie came bundled with my Classic Monsters box set, so I wanted to include it. The other reason is that we’ve already discussed Universal’s first Phantom adaptation, so it’s only natural that we include this version in order to compare.

The 1925 version of Phantom is an important movie in a lot of ways. Not only is it the film that really launched Universal Horror, but it remains the definitive screen adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel. Its impact is even greater when you take into account the influence it had on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. In sharp contrast, the 1943 film has been largely forgotten. Why is that? It must be a bad movie, right?

It’s true that this movie lacks the great thrills and chills of the Lon Chaney version, and it’s technically a bad adaptation when you judge it by adherence to the book. But it’s still an entertaining movie, and I think its creative choices make it unique among Phantom adaptations. There are many retellings of this classic story out there, but you won’t find another one quite like this.

The Plot: Welcome to the Paris Opera, a well-oiled machine that expects and delivers nothing less than perfection. Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) is a talented and ambitious young singer trying to work her way out of the opera chorus and into starring roles. She’s also trying to find a balance between her professional life and the attentions of her two suitors, opera baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and police inspector Raoul Dubert (Edgar Barrier). But unbeknownst to her, Christine has a third admirer: Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a shy violinist who works in the orchestra and aspires to be a great composer. Claudin wants Christine to have the magnificent opera career he knows she deserves, to the point that he’s spent all his money on secretly paying for her singing lessons. So when his age leads to him being dismissed from the orchestra, he’s left penniless. He desperately sends the only copy of his life’s work, a concerto, to a pair of snobby music publishers. When a misunderstanding convinces Claudin that the publishers are stealing his work from him, his fragile mind finally snaps, and he murders one of the men in a blind rage. He then flees into the Paris sewers, but not before getting splashed in the face with a tub of etching acid. Disfigured and insane, Claudin returns to the opera house to terrorize his former bosses and coworkers from the shadows. His ultimate goal? Elevating Christine to stardom…and then forcing him to join her underground forever. Can Christine, Raoul and Anatole defeat this mysterious Phantom? And what is the true origin of this Phantom’s obsessive, murderous love?

This film’s development period was pretty long for the time. Universal had first announced a Phantom remake back in 1935, and their original concept was way different from how the final product turned out. It was to be a much looser reimagining set in the modern day, with the Phantom as a WWI veteran whose facial disfiguration was only his delusion. This plan was scrapped in early 1936, when the Laemmles got ousted from the studio. Universal wouldn’t return to the idea until 1941, and the modern-day script was rejected in favor of a more faithful adaptation. Faithful except for a key creative choice that we’ll discuss later on.

George Waggner is our producer yet again, and the director he eventually chose for this project was Arthur Lubin. Lubin had a long and varied career as a filmmaker. He directed the likes of John Wayne, Abbott & Costello, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and a then-unknown Clint Eastwood. In his later years, he become known as an “animal” director, working on the Francis the Talking Mule film series and the TV show Mister Ed. But when Lubin was put in charge of Phantom, he was at the top of his game and recognized as one of Universal’s main directors.

Lubin was also the one who cast Claude Rains: originally the role of the Phantom had been intended for Boris Karloff, but he’d had to exit the project. We know what Rains could do by now, but his co-stars were no slouch either. Edgar Barrier had been part of the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles, and Nelson Eddy was a classically trained baritone with a huge mainstream following. Susanna Foster was an up-and-coming singer herself, having done a few films as well as a private recital for William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Phantom was set to be her big break. She did do quite well because of the film, but she quit Hollywood only a few years later.

With any Phantom adaptation, you need spectacle, and you need a lot of it. That need is baked into the story itself, with the plot relying so heavily on theatrical performances, shocking reveals and in-your-face disasters. Luckily, the 1943 Phantom comes with plenty of spectacle. Right from the opening shot, the sweeping camerawork and lavish visuals demonstrate that Universal is pouring a lot of money and effort into this film. We get started with an opera sequence that shows off the fine sets and costumes of the in-universe production. The Paris Opera House set is the same one built for the 1925 Phantom, and it still looks amazing. This opening scene, and the movie as a whole, also takes advantage of what was then a powerful new weapon in Hollywood’s toolkit: Technicolor. This wasn’t the first time that color had been used in a Universal horror film. The 1925 Phantom had presented the masquerade sequence in color as an audience-wowing gimmick. But as far as I can tell, this was the first Universal horror film to be made completely in color. This was at a time when color film was still somewhat unusual and associated with big prestige pictures, so it’s another indicator of what a big deal this movie was for the studio. And I think the color does genuinely add something to the film. It gives extra life to the shadowy rafters of the theater and the dank catacombs of the sewers, just as it does for the gaudy finery of the opera performances.

But all this visual splendor is where we start to encounter the issues with this film. One reason why it may not be remembered as fondly as other Phantom adaptations is because there’s a little too much opera and not enough Phantom. There are three lengthy sequences in this movie where we’re just supposed to watch the operas being performed, with the plot-relevant interruptions only coming in after several minutes. And the first of these sequences is right at the start of the movie, meaning that viewers hoping to jump right into the action will end up stuck for a while. This is partially a result of how the script diverges from the original story. Phantom traditionally begins in medias res, with the title character already training Christine and getting up to mischief in the opera house. This version of the story devotes its first act to actually showing the Phantom’s descent into criminal madness — his Joker-style origin story, so to speak — so the opening of the movie proceeds at a slower pace. But much later in the movie, once things have properly gotten underway, there’s less of an excuse for the opera scenes to be as long as they are.

This is not really helped by the operas themselves, which may look good but aren’t that interesting to watch. Only one of the operas we see in the film is actually real: the others are fictional compositions based on preexisting classical music. And they all kinda have the same structure and choreography: the chorus has a party, the leading guy and leading lady enter to sing a duet, and then curtain. Compare that to how the 1925 movie uses excerpts from Gounod’s Faust for its opera sequences, which makes thematic sense. Nor do those sequences last any longer than they need to and get in the way of the story.

But what about the story? I’d like to get into that, because I think the most interesting discussion to be had here is about what got changed from Leroux’s novel and how those changes both enhance and hinder the plot. And there are a lot of changes to discuss.

The biggest difference is probably the Phantom himself. While the basic essence of the Phantom is still present, this film makes two radical changes to the character that completely overhaul his backstory and put his motivation in a much different light. The first major change is his ugliness being the result of disfiguration rather than a natural deformity. And the second change? He’s supposed to be Christine’s long-lost father.

…Well, sort of. The original script explicitly spelled out the familial connection between the Phantom and Christine, but the studio feared that including such a twist would have incestuous undertones. Not a baseless fear, since the Phantom’s interest in Christine is traditionally romantic. This is ostensibly the case in the final film, where the characters theorize that Erique fell for Christine after years of watching her from the orchestra pit. But here’s the thing: the script is written in such a way that either interpretation of the Phantom’s feelings for Christine could be valid. In fact, the film is probably better if you watch it knowing that they’re supposed to be father and daughter, because all the clues pointing to that revelation are still in the story. The most obvious one is an instrumental lullaby that’s first heard when Erique plays it on his violin, then reappears later when Christine plays it on a piano. There’s also the fact that Erique has no money despite having worked for the opera for twenty years, because apparently all his wages have gone towards supporting Christine. The tells are very obvious, and they end up making Erique’s obsession easier to sympathize with.

I really want to talk about Claude Rains’ performance here because it’s such a key part of the film. We’re used to the Phantom being portrayed as this over-the-top, hysterical menace, at least in the most famous adaptations. Rains, however, gives us a much more restrained take on the character. Erique is very quiet and socially awkward when we first meet him, and we get the impression that he feels more comfortable around music than he does around people. He genuinely cares about Christine and is desperate to have some kind of relationship with her, but he can’t work up the courage to offer more than a simple conversation. The only other thing he has to live for is the concerto that he’s been working on for years. Erique may be nonthreatening on the surface, but his strange behaviors indicate strong passions simmering just below the surface, passions that might cause him to snap if he’s pushed hard enough. And when he thinks his concerto is being stolen? He snaps, alright. It’s a great moment as you see Claude Rains’ eyes slowly bug out and his timid demeanor melt away. And once he has nothing left to use, he has no reason to hold back. I’d say this is one of the more ruthless incarnations of the Phantom. Compared to other versions of the character, he starts out being much more focused on hurting people and more willing to use lethal force. He straight-up murders Christine’s opera rival, something that he doesn’t do in either the novel or most other adaptations. And like the 1925 version, this film leaves out the Phantom’s decision to let Christine leave him.

The character of Christine is the other really interesting figure here. She’s also quite different from how she’s usually portrayed, though I think the changes don’t work quite as well as they do with the Phantom. This version of Christine comes across as less of an ingenue. She’s an ambitious and hard-working who’s continually looking for new opportunities and trying to improve herself. Because the Phantom doesn’t directly teach her in this version, she comes off as more of a self-made woman. And while the focus of her plot is whether she’ll pick Raoul or Anatole as her love interest, the bigger decision to be made is whether she’ll marry or choose to pursue her career instead. Most Christines implicitly or explicitly pick the former: at the end of the film, this Christine picks the latter.

Now this is all well and good on paper and makes this version of the character stand out, but I also feel like it makes the character of Christine a little less interesting and complex than she normally is. Her character arc of growing a spine and breaking free of her naivete isn’t really present here because she doesn’t have that fatal flaw to begin with. She’s not being directly controlled/manipulated by her Phantom, so she doesn’t have that obstacle to overcome. The only time she really gets tested is when the Phantom kidnaps her at the end. In short, we get this weird situation where she’s not as involved in the story as she traditionally is. It’s even a bit of a stretch to call her the protagonist.

Christine’s two love interests feel weirdly flat as well. Anatole fills the role in the love triangle that the Phantom normally does, being the musically-inclined suitor who encourages Christine to sing. Raoul, meanwhile, is the more conventional suitor who does love Christine but doesn’t get this whole “opera” thing. A rivalry develops between the two men, of course. At first it seems like it’s going to go somewhere interesting, with Raoul suspecting Anatole of being the Phantom. But for the most part, their interactions are played for comedy. There are many gags with them trying to one-up each other in front or accidentally copying each other: the filmmakers seemed to especially love the joke of them walking through Christine’s front door at the same time and getting stuck. It even gets repeated at the very end of the film, when they decide to leave together after Christine ditches them both. Perhaps their story was the real romance here this whole time. The scenes with them are fun to watch, but like the changes made to Christine, it results in the characters feeling less developed than they usually are.

Another area where this Phantom doesn’t hold up against its counterparts is with some of the effects — specifically, the makeup effects for Erique. In the filmmakers’ defense, the odds were stacked against them for this one. Trying to meet or outdo what Lon Chaney accomplished with his makeup would have been a fools’ errand. But it also doesn’t feel like they were trying very hard. Even with Jack Pierce himself handling the makeup, it’s not very impressive or gruesome when you finally see it. Claude Rains just kinda looks like he’s wearing some Freddy Kreuger makeup over half his face. Apparently he didn’t want to wear overly elaborate makeup for the part, so Pierce had to design something that was more toned down. It’s not bad, it’s just…well, you gotta remember what it was competing against.

That’s kind of a running theme with this movie, isn’t it? Not bad, but not as good as the works that came before it and would come after it.

However, that doesn’t stop this Phantom from being a fun and stylish movie. It won two Academy Awards for its art direction and cinematography. There’s great camerawork and some really clever shots, like when two characters are discussing how the Phantom can’t possibly be real and it silently cuts to a shot of the Phantom’s shadow on a wall. There’s some great tension here as well, like Anatole chasing the Phantom above the opera stage and nearly falling to his death. And there’s a longer build-up to the chandelier drop, creating suspense over whether the heroes can stop Erique before he goes through with his plan and whether Erique will commit to it.

So, why has this movie largely been forgotten? Not through any fault of its own, I would argue. Like a lot of other Phantom adaptations, it’s trapped in the shadow of both the 1925 film and the musical. But there’s real effort here, and the changes that the script makes from the novel are interesting ideas. You can find Phantom adaptations that are far worse, not only as adaptations but as movies (yes, Dario Argento, that means you). A couple of the plot points from this film even found their way into the 1974 cult classic Phantom of the Paradise, a rock musical inspired by Phantom and several other works of Gothic fiction. Maybe someday it will get its due as a film worth watching. You never know.

Universal’s 1943 take on Phantom is a mixed bag. Its script plays fast and loose with the plot and characters of Gaston Leroux’s novel, something that will alienate most fans of the story. Several of the changes it makes end up taking away elements that made the original story so good in the first place. But others, like the implication of the Phantom being Christine’s father, add new depth to the characters and take the story in unforeseen directions. Claude Rains turns in an excellent performance as a Phantom who’s restrained but still deadly and menacing. The film’s ambitious cinematography and use of Technicolor make it a dazzling feast for the eyes, even if we spend a little more time than necessary watching the operas themselves. The 1925 movie still has greater thrills and chills and the more iconic villain. I think this is a movie that knows what a tough act it has to follow, so it feels more free to venture off in a new direction. And that experimentation paid off: it may not be the most memorable film, but it’s well worth your time.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Next month, we’re back to business as usual with the long-overdue reappearance of a certain creature of the night. It’s been a while since we had some good bloodsucking fun!

UP NEXT: Son of Dracula (1943)

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