(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Arthur Lubin directs Universal’s attempt at Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera and the results aren’t pretty. This 1943 picture may feature exciting Technicolor and may include some elaborate sets, but the plot is preposterously misguided, the acting is stilted and the illogicality of certain sequences is nearly beyond explanation.
Lubin’s interpretation of Phantom of the Opera was shot on the same set used for the superior 1925 silent version, which had the good sense to feature Lon Chaney as the titular character and didn’t sully the proceedings with futile comedy. The screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein, Eric Taylor and Hans Jacoby plays fast and loose with Leroux’s novel, rendering much of it unrecognizable.
The picture opens on Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) as a failed violinist with the Paris Opera House. He’s canned from his position after 20 years, which is a problem because he’s been financing singing lessons for Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) and can no longer afford it. After an incident in which he’s burned with acid, Erique flees to the sewers and carries on his obsession with Christine. Kind of.
Christine, meanwhile, is living the life as the understudy for the diva Madame Biancarolli (Jane Farrar). The detective Raoul Dubert (Edgar Barrier) is in love with her, as is the opera’s baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy). This love triangle is put to the test when Erique starts wreaking havoc in order to get Christine on stage.
The good news is that Phantom of the Opera is a lavish, full-blooded production. It brims with colour and scale, with several scenes showcasing the stretch of the stage. Edward Ward handles the score and loads in several lengthy operatic sequences, adapting music from Tchaikovsky and Chopin along with his own compositions. Foster has a nice, clear singing voice and Eddy’s baritone is rich.
The bad news is, frankly, everything else. There is little to no connection between Christine and Erique, despite an early scene revealing his financing of her music lessons. There is no “Spirit of Music” element, no sense of haunting or fascination. Christine spends most of her time between the advances of Raoul and Anatole, with Erique essentially an addendum.
The film’s interest in the love triangle is apparent in the multiple comedic scenes between Christine, Raoul and Anatole. Phantom of the Opera insists on having Raoul and Anatole compete for the hand of the young woman, which means they have to talk at the same time. It also means they have to leave the room at the same time, which presents the opportunity for a gag Lubin turns to at least three times.
It doesn’t help that Raoul and Anatole look so much alike. Were it not for the former’s police uniform, it would be hard to tell them apart. Christine presumably can’t tell them apart either and she remains evasive. She clearly enjoys the attention, however, and grins her way through her scenes. There’s never any feeling that she’s being haunted or stalked by any kind of “Opera Ghost.”
There are many weird choices in Phantom of the Opera. One is the famed chandelier sequence, which plays out like something from a Mel Brooks movie. Erique scurries up to cut the thing down with a hacksaw and spends an interminable amount of time carving away while the camera darts back to a chaotic opera on stage.
When Erique finally saws the thing down much in the style of a Looney Tunes character, the camera cuts away to a selection of haphazard shots and ultimately decides to show the devastated chandelier in the far right of the screen. Nobody is near it and there’s no real sense of chaos. It’s a far cry from the 1925 silent feature accomplishes with the scene.
Everything that makes Leroux’s novel special is absent in Phantom of the Opera. Everything. There is no Masked Ball, no obsession, no point to Erique and his distressing ways. The mask is silly and the big reveal of the damage underneath is among the most anticlimactic in film history. Rains can only do so much with this level of foolishness.
Leroux’s novel deserves better than this, but Lubin’s Phantom of the Opera has the distinction of making Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation look like a masterwork. This is a messy, insipid, senseless film. There’s no excitement or tension. Christine Dubois is an utter waste of a character. And the sewer collapses without damaging the Opera House above it. Go figure.