The Phantom of the Opera (1943) *˝
Unlike the 1925 silent classic which preceded it (which really does deserve all the nice things people have been saying about it for the past 75 years), this thunderously dull remake succeeds only as a primer on how not to make a lavishly expensive, big-production horror movie. This version of The Phantom of the Opera, the first presented entirely in color and sound (the 1925 version featured a single Technicolor sequence and was once reissued with sound dubbing in certain scenes), also began the probably-inevitable process whereby each succeeding remake would pay less attention than the last to Gaston Leroux’s excellent novel.
The movie opens with its biggest display of disregard for the novel, providing the titular phantom with a new origin-story worthy of a Batman villain. (Come to think of it, this is almost exactly how Harvey Dent would become Two-Face... and considering that the first Two-Face story went to print in October of 1942, it isn’t entirely out of the question that the resemblance is no coincidence.) Eric Claudin (Claude Rains, of The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man) is a violinist with the famous Paris Opera. He’s quite a talented musician, but at the age of 48, he’s beginning to come down with arthritis in his left hand, leaving his prospects for the future decidedly limited. In fact, not fifteen minutes into the film, the conductor of the Opera’s orchestra calls him into his office to give him the sack. (Though he’s at least kind enough to give him a season ticket to the Opera along with his pink slip. Fucker.) Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, as the Paris Opera apparently pays its violinists quite well, but even though Claudin has lived thriftily almost to the point of miserhood, he hasn’t a sou to his name. Where did all that money go? Why, naturally, it went to pay for singing lessons for an up-and-coming young soprano named Christine Dubois (The Climax’s Susanna Foster), into whose pants Claudin would very much like to get. Really, this probably isn’t a bad strategy for old Claudin, paying for the girl to study under a teacher whose services she’d never be able to afford on her own-- for a middle-aged man in pursuit of a chick less than half his age, it makes good sense to try to sweeten the deal by throwing money around-- but in this particular case, there is one obvious problem. The movie never makes this completely clear, but it is strongly implied that Christine has no idea where the funding for her singing lessons comes from. As far as she seems to know, Claudin is just that sweet, shy old guy with the violin. Note to Claudin: the sugar-daddy thing only works if the girl knows who her sugar-daddy is!
And now that Claudin is out of a job, even this arrangement is no longer viable. But he has one last card he may still be able to play to keep himself solvent and Christine in her class. He’s written a concerto, you see, built around the melody of a folk lullaby from Provence, which he believes will fetch him a pretty good sum of money once it’s published. To that end, he has submitted the piece to a publisher of music whose print shop is not far from the Opera, and he has been waiting for some weeks for a response. Claudin goes to the publisher for a follow-up on the day after he loses his job (after making some pitifully desperate arrangements for Christine’s next few singing lessons), only to discover (by means of an overheard piano in the next room) that the smarmy-ass publisher has been giving him the runaround while he tries to get Claudin’s concerto into print under his own name! Now, it’s been a lousy week for Claudin as it is, and this is pretty much the last straw. The violinist lunges at the dastardly old crook and strangles him to death, but he is driven off when a printer’s apprentice attacks him with a tray full of engraving acid, splashing the caustic liquid all over the right half of his face. Claudin flees, evading the police and the crowds until nightfall, when he sneaks down into the sewers of Paris to embark on a new life as a troglodyte.
Meanwhile, Christine is having trouble balancing the demands of work and romance. Her cop boyfriend, Inspector Raoul D’Aubert (Edgar Barrier, who would go on to appear in War of the Worlds and The Giant Claw), wants her to quit the Opera, marry him, and become a nice, respectable housewife. Her bosses and coworkers at the Opera think this is a terrible idea, and one actor in particular-- baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy, whose long list of credits for appearing in 30’s and 40’s musicals hints at what’s really wrong with this movie)-- hopes to out-maneuver D’Aubert and win Christine for himself.
Then, on top of this less-than-compelling love-triangle subplot is layered another concerning cast politics at the Paris Opera. Christine is the understudy for Biancarolli (Jane Farrar), the Opera’s female lead. The latter woman has the good sense to perceive Christine-- who is a much better singer-- as a threat to her career, and repeatedly demonstrates her willingness to do just about anything to keep the girl from taking center stage. So when Biancarolli is suddenly incapacitated by a glass of drugged wine halfway through a major performance, giving the Opera’s director no choice but to put Christine on in her place, the jealous prima donna instantly suspects that Garron and her understudy have something to do with it. She’s wrong, of course. We know that Claudin, in his new and improved guise as the Phantom of the Opera, drugged Biancarolli’s wine, as we would have even had we not seen it with our own eyes. It’s just a good thing for Garron that D’Aubert is a pro-- you know he’d just love to see Garron put out of the way, and a prison sentence tends to be most efficacious in that capacity.
Claudin makes things easier for the suspect not-quite-a-couple when he starts leaving notes in the director’s office threatening violence if Christine doesn’t start getting some good roles. Both D’Aubert and Garron have plans to catch the Phantom, and seeing as both men figure out his secret identity almost immediately, both plans would seem to hold promise for bringing him out. D’Aubert wants the Opera to stage a lavish, star-making production, in which the leading role will conspicuously not go to Christine, figuring that Claudin will be so incensed that he will make an appearance, get sloppy, and get caught. Garron, who knows about Claudin’s pilfered concerto, wants to have Franz Liszt himself come to the Opera to perform it after the show, on the theory that Claudin won’t be able to resist watching the performance from somewhere above the stage. Neither strategy quite pans out, though, and all that D’Aubert and Garron really accomplish is making Claudin mad enough to drop the Opera’s huge chandelier on the audience and abduct Christine in the ensuing chaos. Claudin takes her to his home in the Opera’s sub-basement, where he makes her sing along as he plays his concerto on piano, in time with Liszt’s performance upstairs. While Claudin is thus caught up in the rock, Christine sneaks up behind him and snatches off his mask, providing us with our first really good look at his post-burn face. Lionel Atwill’s was much better in The Mystery of the Wax Museum ten years before. This happens just as D’Aubert and Garron burst into the room. D’Aubert shoots Claudin dead, and our three heroes flee to the surface as the Phantom’s lair caves in for no good reason, somehow failing to destroy the Opera house for which it is the foundation in the process. And as if that ending weren’t bad enough, it is followed up by some of the most dreadful comic relief you could dare to imagine, in which Christine’s two suitors try to force her to choose between them, and the girl chooses her career instead, leaving the two rivals to go out on a date with each other.
There are two big problems with this version of The Phantom of the Opera. First, there’s the fact that the filmmakers seem to have had no idea what makes Gaston Leroux’s novel (or the very faithful 1925 film adaptation of it) work. Leroux’s Phantom (and the older movie’s too) is less a villain than a tragic anti-hero. He was born monstrously deformed, and if he is now also a monster in the moral sense, we can forgive him because of the profound psychological damage he must have suffered throughout his life. As Leroux made him, his character has a definite logic to it. He lives in the catacombs beneath the Opera because he is too hideous to live anywhere else; the employees of the Opera know him as the Phantom because he has been there for decades, using his great innate intelligence and his intimate knowledge of the building’s internal layout to mythologize himself as something more than natural, protecting himself from the hatred of those not like him by playing upon their fear of him. He has loved Christine since she first appeared at the Opera, and he has spent years ingratiating himself to her by teaching her to out-sing any rival she may ever acquire. We thus understand what the Phantom is thinking when he hopes that Christine could love him despite his bizarre lifestyle, even if we recognize that he’s mad for thinking it.
But with the new origin presented here, the character of the Phantom no longer makes any sense, and worse still for the purposes of the movie’s total effect, he loses all the complexity that made him so compelling a character in the novel. This Phantom isn’t tragic; he’s just nuts. In Leroux’s novel, we pity the Phantom’s hopeless love for Christine, because it is truly and irredeemably hopeless-- chicks don’t like guys with skulls for faces. But Claudin’s love for Christine is only hopeless because he was too chickenshit to make a play for her even before half his face got burned off by that tray full of acid. Sure, none of us know that many viable romances between 48-year-old men and 20-year-old women, but pick up a copy of Entertainment Weekly sometime, and you’ll certainly be confronted with glamour photos of at least three or four such couples. This is show business we’re talking about here-- it would have been worth it to Claudin to at least take a shot. Worst of all, Claudin’s short tenure as the Phantom makes it patently ridiculous that all of the stage-hands know and fear him-- it takes more than a couple of weeks for a legend to spring up, you know!
Now, I said that The Phantom of the Opera had two big problems, and it is the second of these that truly kills the film. Had the aforementioned problems with the story been all that was wrong, it would merely have been a dumb movie, and we all know how forgiving I am of those. What wrecks The Phantom of the Opera beyond hope of salvage is something of which I am not forgiving at all-- all the goddamned singing! Yeah, this movie is set in an opera house, and as such, I expect a certain amount of opera to be on display. But if you removed all of the gratuitous singing from this film and distilled it down to only those scenes that advance the story in some way, you’d be left with maybe 35 minutes of film! Gratuitous sex is fine, gratuitous violence is fine-- hell, I’d probably even watch a movie composed to a frightening extent of gratuitous midget foosball if such a film existed!-- but I have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw it at gratuitous opera, especially when so much of it is present that I have to think for a moment about where the plot left off last time when the singing finally stops! Stick with the Lon Chaney version if you know what’s good for you-- they can’t ruin a silent movie by singing too much, after all...