Universal // 1943 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 29th, 2000
The classic tale of the masked man in the Paris Opera House...in Technicolor!
Gaston Leroux wrote the novel Phantom of the Opera in 1910, and it went on to be remade into many films and stage plays. 1943 saw Claude Rains at the height of his popularity, having recently done Casablanca and having already done Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and a couple of other Universal horror films. This version of the film would be kept in the shadow of the original silent starring Lon Chaney by history, but at the time of its release it was quite a hit, and it still has its charms and beauty. A truly luscious film in terms of beauty and set design, it would be nominated for four Oscars and win two, for Art Direction and Color Cinematography. More of a musical than a true horror film, it still holds up well on its own. Universal provides a beautiful transfer, a fine soundtrack, and the usual encyclopedia of extra content on this entry into the Classic Monster Collection.
Erique Claudin (Rains) is a troubled violinist for the Paris Opera and has a strange obsession with the young soprano Christine, played by the gifted and beautiful Susanna Foster. Pain in his hand cost him his position and the ability to pay for Christine's singing lessons (paid without her knowledge), but he believes that the concerto he has written will take care of his financial needs. When a misunderstanding makes Claudin believe his life's work has been stolen, he kills a man in a terrible rage, and the victim's wife throws acid in his face, causing terrible disfigurement. He then lives in hiding among the labyrinthine passageways of the opera house, hidden behind a mask, and orchestrates events in his madness meant to assure Christine will become the star of the opera, and be his forever. Police detective Raoul D'Aubert (Edgar Barrier) and star baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy), also court Susanna, and provide comic relief in their competition for her attention.
I think the most outstanding aspect of this film has to be the wonderful production values. A huge set that accurately recreates the Paris Opera House is lushly decorated in bold colors, offsetting the dank corridors of the sewers and catacombs beneath. Costumes are first rate, both the gaslight era of the streetwear and the striking operatic ones worn on stage during the many opera sequences. Enough money was spent by the financially strapped studio, quite a gamble at the time, in making this truly beautiful film, especially on the then-demanding Technicolor process itself.
The opera itself deserves mention, as it plays a huge part in the picture. Universal found real opera quality singers for the main roles in Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster, and the vocal quality of the singing is simply superb. Her range and clarity brought her fame that was tragically never realized. The opera productions were first rate and lushly choreographed and performed.
This film took quite a few years to get made. Finding the right actors for this million-dollar production was difficult at best. Originally it was intended that Lon Chaney reprise the title role, but he was under contract and did not want to do the film; and died in 1930 anyway. His son lobbied for the role, but was never truly considered. Ultimately Claude Rains was given the nod, as he was between contracts with Warner at the time, and his performance speaks well of their choice. He gives a nuanced and graceful performance as the touching and later mad phantom. For the female lead, several actresses were considered before Susanna Foster. She was mainly kept by Universal to keep their preferred songbird, Deanna Durbin, in line. Durbin turned down the role and gave Foster the break of her life. Phantom brought her fame, but Universal never seemed to get around to giving her another good part, and she left Hollywood a couple years later. Though she did stage operettas and other theater work, she ultimately had a very hard life, even living in her car for some time. Fortunately she's still around and appears in the documentary on this DVD.
The film is as much musical and even comedy as it is a horror film. Nearly half of the film is consumed by the opera performances, and many of the scenes off-stage are taken up by the comedic rivalry between Nelson Eddy (who was forced to dye his blond locks black, with a special wash-out dye developed by makeup guru Jack Pierce) and Edgar Barrier. Only a few scenes really emphasize the Phantom at all, though the standard unmasking scene and the chandelier scene are kept from the original novel. The book was at best a guideline for this version of the film, in which the Phantom is a tortured but originally sympathetic soul and is not so horribly disfigured as in other versions. In fact, it is clear during the film that they wanted to make Claudin actually the father of Christine rather than a suitor too old for the 17-year-old Foster. But the studio thought it too incestuous given the nature of the story and cut out any scenes that made reference to the nature of the relationship.
The wizard of makeup for Universal at the time, Jack Pierce, who made the original Frankenstein come to life among many other creations, had to work hard with Rains to meet guidelines for the Phantom. Rains did not want to look too horrific lest he be typecast in horror films, and there was a certain sensitivity toward veterans, some of whom were returning disfigured from the war.
Universal has really come through with this DVD; providing a strikingly beautiful transfer, a wonderful soundtrack, and quality extra content. The original aspect ratio is retained with a full frame transfer that looks simply gorgeous. The vivid, rich colors and sharp level of detail combine to deliver a quality viewing experience. There are a few blemishes and nicks, but obviously the source print has been cleaned up, and I'm quite satisfied with the picture quality on this film that is almost 60 years old.
The soundtrack is two-channel mono, and is very good with a spacious quality that belies its monophonic nature. There is no annoying hiss or distortion, and the music comes across beautifully. My only complaint is that the music is mixed louder than the dialogue and required some adjustment for comfort.
Universal has really came through on the extras with these classic horror films. Again film historian David J. Skal works to put together a documentary, along with fellow historian Scott MacQueen. The 51-minute documentary "The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked" is quite thorough in its treatment of the phenomenon of the Phantom itself, though less so about this version of the film. Much of the time is given to the original 1925 silent production, and some of it is even given to the 1962 Hammer version. However, any slack left for this 1943 version is taken up by the comprehensive commentary track by Scott MacQueen. Again the level of knowledge given by a film historian and aficionado of the film is as complete as I've ever seen. The only problem with some of these commentary tracks is that there is more information than you can absorb in one listening, but I don't mind that a bit. This is what I buy classic films on DVD for; to get everything you ever wanted to know about the film as well as a beautiful depiction of the film itself. Of course there are production notes, a photo gallery, cast and crew info, and the theatrical trailer as well.
My biggest complaint with this film is that it only marginally seems to be a Phantom of the Opera. While I liked the opera scenes, they are too long and take up too much real estate for the main story to get proper attention. I actually like the film itself, but not as a Phantom of the Opera tale. I prefer both the Lon Chaney silent and the Hammer version to this one in terms of telling the horrific story properly. I think Claude Rains did a fine job with the role he was given, but he wasn't given enough. I especially didn't like the murkiness of the relationship between Claudin and Christine. Rains was obviously too old for the underage Foster, and letting him be her father, and perhaps changing a scene or two to better reflect the paternal relationship could have made it a better film. Instead we are left hanging and given the uncomfortable feeling that the Phantom was just a dirty old man.
This complaint is a general one rather than attributed to this film itself. I myself couldn't help but fall for Susanna Foster in this role, and to see how Universal treated her in the following years was unthinkable. We lost out on many great musical films that she could have starred in. Talent like that should not have been ignored.
Likewise I have a general complaint, which I've been amiss to discuss, about Universal discs in general. That is the inability to switch audio tracks on the fly. To hear the commentary track you must go back to the menu, making it more difficult than it needs to be to hear comment on a particular scene. While I'm quite a fan of this studio's efforts overall, this is one thing I'd like to see changed.
Fans of the film will absolutely be satisfied with this DVD. While it is not the best film in the bunch, I would not rule out buying the box set because of it. Some film has to be the weaker horror film, and this one is a very nice film, if not a great Phantom. The disc itself is nearly beyond reproach.
In closing I'll mention again the wonderful set of the Paris Opera House. It was originally made for the Chaney silent film, and has been used in innumerable films since. I suggest you take a good look at it and see how many other films you find that use it.
Universal owes Susanna Foster an apology but is acquitted for this fine disc. Claude Rains and the other actors remain in my respect as well.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1943
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track
* Production Notes
* Production Photographs
* Cast and Crew Info