The Phantom of the Opera
Starring Claude Rains as Erique Claudin
Universal Studios, 1943, Technicolor, Romantic Comedy
After 20 years at the Paris Opera, a man is capable of anything!
I don't like ghosts. I'm a busy man.
Perhaps the pickled pig's feet will kill him.
~comments by managers during investigation (and missing items such as a jar of pig's feet)
He has a long nose and a big red beard!
~Joseph Buquet about the Opera Ghost
or Nelson Eddy of the Opera
This is the second Phantom movie by Universal studios. While their first Phantom movie focuses more on the elements of mystery and horror, this film focuses on the lavish, colorful, musical life of the Paris Opera House. It was filmed during the introduction of sound and technicolor to cinema, and so it follows the same type of formula seen in many pricey films of that time. A lot of movies during this transition became very "shallow" in their story-telling and focused instead on showing off lavish colors and fancy singing. Therefore, it should be no suprise that Claude Rains, who plays the Phantom himself, is not even given top billing. Instead, top billing went to the baritone Nelson Eddy first and then to Susanna Foster.
In other words, the rumor is true: all Opera, no Phantom.
Erique Claudin is an awkward aging violinist forced into early retirement because his left hand is going bad. His romantic interests in Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) sometimes come across as an obsessive, misguided desire to be some kind of father figure. He never provides singing lessons for Christine himself. Instead, he spends his retirement savings to anonymously provide a top-quality private tutor for her.
Raoul de Chagny fans will be disappointed to learn that their main man has been written off as an aristocrat. Instead, Christine is courted by the baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and a police inspector ... named Raoul D'Aubert (Edgar Barrier).
No one in this movie is villified, as far as I can tell. It seems the only real villain is a simple series of tragic misunderstandings which ultimately lead to disasters especially for Erique. Erique's life as The Phantom is a result of his lonely obsession over Christine combined with a series of misunderstandings. He tries to sell his music to a publisher who does not appear interested in buying. In the meantime, this piece is being played in the back room by another interested party - Franz Liszt himself (Fritz Leiber).
Believing his concerto has been stolen, Erique breaks out into a struggle with the publisher and kills him. The secretary who witnesses the murder splatters Erique's face with etching acid. Alone, broke, and now wanted for murder, a wounded Erique runs from the police by hiding in the sewers. Coincidentally, the sewers lead him directly under the Paris Opera House.
I'd still like to know how exactly Erique was able to get a piano down into the sewers all by himself in such a short period of time.
At this point, situations begin to snowball out of control. Biancarolli (Jane Farrar) is already suspicious of her understudy Christine, who appears to have the romantic interests of the leading baritone Garron. For some time, Garron has made it clear that he would love nothing more than to see Christine become a great and famous singer. When Biancarolli is drugged during a performance and Christine is able to come out and show her stuff, Garron is immediately suspected of this misdeed.
Biancarolli (renamed from Carlotta) makes it clear that she will not be pushed around by these kinds of games. When advised by the management to simply forget the whole mess on the grounds that any scandal will hurt everyone in the company, she concedes to do so under two conditions. First, she demands to have a new understudy and to have Christine moved into the chorus. Second, if it is to be agreed that she forget she was drugged, then it is only fair that the newspapers forget that Christine ever came out to sing. Erique later goes into Biancarolli's dressing room and warns her to let Christine continue to sing. Not one to be easily intimidated, she becomes confrontational with Erique and demands he remove his mask. For this, Erique kills her along with her servant.
Christine is adviced not to perform until the situation is back under control. The Paris Opera House management hires Lorenzi (Nicolle Andre), the only soprano they could find who is bold enough to perform in spite of the danger as the authorities look watchfully on. Erique is able to climb over the chandelier without anyone seeing him, as he saws the chain supports enough to make the chandelier fall. In all of the chaos, Erique makes Christine believe he is a bodyguard of some kind who must escort her to safety. She learns too late that this is The Phantom who wants her to sing only for him. At this point, it becomes all too clear that Erique has gone mad as he tells Christine of all the things he did out of his love for her and about the happiness she will enjoy down in the catacombs with him.
Enough people suspect Erique to be The Phantom and so a new plan emerges to bring him out of hiding. Franz Liszt, who was originally interested in Erique's concerto, comes to the Opera House and plays the concerto on stage for Erique to hear. In the meantime, Garron and the policeman Raoul search the sewers for Christine. They are able to find them by following the sound of Erique's piano and Christine's voice.
In the meantime, Christine is able to sneak up on The Phantom and pull off his mask. Staying with the lighthearted nature intended for this movie, the unmasking scene has no shock value especially compared to other versions. The right side of Erique's is scarred by the acid but it almost resembles a bad rash, and it has made his right eye red. Garron and Raoul come in on the scene, a bullet is fired as Erique lifts a sword, and the walls collapse on Erique resulting in his death.
Just before the credits roll, you can see some of the rubble still moving around the mask and violin. Apparently, Universal had intentions once again to create a sequel titled The Climax but, as with the 1925 Lon Chaney movie, the idea fell through for various reasons.
Christine tells her rescuers that he must have come from the same village where she was raised, which could be why his concerto has the same melody as a song she had been writing. It must have come from an old lullaby they both knew. (In Leroux's novel, Christine is Swedish and Erik's name suggests possible Nordic roots in contrast to the rumors of his birthplace as a village near Rouen.)
After these series of tragic events, Christine is cornered by Anatole and Raoul into making her choice between the two young suitors. Of course, this time she is under no fear of the Opera House exploding if she makes the "wrong" choice. Christine smiles at the both of them as she makes it clear that she chooses her career as an operatic soprano star above the both of them. (Of course, in a way, this means The Phantom has won.)
The rest of the music in this film is fictional opera. The piece composed by the Phantom in this movie is "Lullaby of the Bells," written by Edward Ward. The aria Christine sings is "Amour et Gloire," lyrics by William von Wymetal and music borrowed from Frédéric Chopin. Near the end of the movie, when Garron and Lorenzi sing together as the chandelier falls, is Le Prince de Caucasie. The English libretto is written by George Waggner and the Russian translation is by Max Rabinowitz. The music itself is borrowed from Peter Ilich Tchaikowsky's Fourth Symphony.
With the introduction of technicolor and sound to cinema, I would have expected a spectacular movie inspired by Gaston Leroux's novel. At last, at last, a chance to hear The Voice, the Angel of Music himself. I enjoy this film as a movie in and of itself. It has a lot of cute, funny, light-hearted moments that always bring a chuckle out of me. Yet the original story about the mysterious Phantom is re-written so much, I sometimes wonder why title is even kept or even any mention of Leroux.
You have probably read it elsewhere and you will read it here, too... THERE IS JUST WAY TOO MUCH SINGING! When Nelson Eddy can stop singing long enough to act, he is charming and funny. Meanwhile I keep finding myself saying in aggravation, "Will you stop singing already?" I realize it is an opera house but there is way too much focus on singing and singing and singing and singing. This is further aggravated by the fact that the majority of it is fictional opera that has little or no relevance to the plot within context of its own movie. If they wanted to write their own operas, they should have done so. Otherwise, keep fictional opera delegated only to the Phantom and use real, relevant operas and arias for the rest of the players, like they do in the movies that follow. (Yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber has a few fictional operas in his musical, but the arias are short, sweet, and relevant. The end.)
None of this is intended as a put-down, mind you. I understand the times in which it was made. Color film was a rarity and talkies were still relatively new. The country had just endured one World War and the Great Depression. A second World War was on. Times were very hard and very uncertain. People needed the light-heartedness, fluff, and romance as seen in a movie such as this. Whenever I am feeling down, I enjoy it for the same reasons although there is really no comparison to my hardships and those endured by a lot of people during those days.
I like Joseph Buquet in this movie. He's an amusing fellow who is so sure of himself. He believes the Phantom has a long nose and a big red beard. Every time there is a strange occurence, he does this cute little hand gesture. During one occurence, he makes that gesture to an actor backstage... who happens to have a long nose and a long red beard. The look on Buquet's face draws a chuckle out of me every time.
Bianarolli is not any kind of mean villainous Prima Donna in this one. She is a "clean" diva in that she has her career because of her own merit. She does not have delusions of grandeur that she runs the company just because she "puts out" for the managers, nor does she seem "impossible." She is attractive, talented, and intelligent. She is rightfully upset over what she suspects is going on, but unfortunately is angry with the wrong people. I admire her. She's not easily intimidated yet she also does not engage in bullying. I also like Lorenzi for her boldness in the face of mortal danger. A very long time ago, before I even started on the internet, I used to feel a bit sorry for Carlotta because I had, for some odd reason, imagined her to be a lot like a cross between Biancarolli and Lorenzi. It changed with time but even at that, after doing some research, I was in for quite a suprise.
I was impressed by Susanna Foster as Christine. She's beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and ambitious. Her voice (or whoever provided the voice for operatic dubbing) is remarkable. She is all the more admirable when one considers that she was only 17 years old when she played this role. This was the days of Rosie the Riveter, so the idea of Christine choosing her career over her suitors works well for its time. I am suprised not to see it in any other versions that follow, especially after the waves of feminism during the 1970's and again during the 1990's. Eh, well. What are you going to do? While Maria Gianelli is intelligent and ambitious in the 1983 film as is Phoenix in the 1974 film, neither one chooses a career over any suitor. They go for both. Gianelli wins both but is emotionally severely traumatized in the process, while Phoenix miserably loses not just lover and career but also a truly good friend.
This movie was the beginning of a trend for the Phantom in that it provides a much more sympathetic portrayal of a human being (verses a "real monster") who has suffered. We do not get a chance to see that much in the silent movie; in the silent movie we mostly see the "monstrous" end result. From here on out, we the audience will almost always see a lot of the story from the Phantom's point of view (or at least see what he suffers). I also think if "my Erik" watched this film, he would like the part where he gets to kill Christine's rival diva.
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