Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Phantom of the Opera, The (1943)

Universal Pictures
Director: Arthur Lubin

Honors:

Universal Pictures delves back into their horror picture history to reintroduce to an entire generation The Phantom of the Opera. A remake of the classic silent feature starring Lon Chaney, this time audiences would experience the Phantom in full color and sound with a reimagining of the story about the mysterious being that stalks through the darkness of Paris’ Opera House. Starring Claude Rains as the Phantom and featuring the vocal talents of Nelson Eddy and Susana Foster, this take on the classic Universal horror would attempt to expand on the story shared in the silent picture.

The Phantom of the Opera is a musical horror remake of the 1925 feature about a troubled musician that turns himself into a mysterious being that terrorizes the Paris Opera House to gain the notoriety of a young, beautiful singer whom he has fallen in love with. Losing his skill for the violin due to arthritis Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) is dismissed from the Paris Opera House orchestra. All the while he was anonymously funding vocal lessons for a beautiful understudy, Christine (Susanna Foster) whom he is secretly in love with leaves the ruined musician broke and desperate. Claudin becomes scarred emotionally and physically, through a grave misunderstanding while attempting to publish a concerto he wrote inspired by Christine.

Disfigured and wanted for murder Claudin seeks refuge in the sewers below the Paris Opera House and becomes a masked Phantom who terrorizes those he believes hold back Christine from becoming a star, sometimes with deadly force. Eventually he kidnaps Christin,taking her her to his underground sanctuary where he serenades her with his beloved concerto. Frightened yet curious of her captive Christine unmasks her admirer revealing his grotesque facial scars moments before her rescue at which the ceiling caves in on Claudin. Strangely saddened by his death Christine would go on to become a wildly success on the stage of the Paris Opera House, in a way fulfilling the dream of Claudin.

This picture, unlike the prior version, attempts to humanize the tale of The Phantom of the Opera by delving into a backstory that was not in the original source material or the silent feature. Endeavoring to satisfy more of the unanswered questions of just who this mysterious man is in fact might be more of a downfall of this telling of the story as it takes away the very enigma that pulls us into the tale in the first place. Here the Phantom is a troubled aging musician with a love for a woman he could never have in contrast to this shadowy figure filled with mystery and legend. This humanization brings more finality to the character, but fails to bring with it the supernatural aspects that the Phantom owned in the prior tellings. So depending on how one is drawn to the phantom tale, tied to the supernatural or grounded in reality, depends on how much one will enjoy this telling over the others.

A near two decades had passed since Lon Chaney donned his brilliantly hideous make-up and frightened curious audiences in 1925’s Phantom of the Opera, and a lot had changed since then. Universal was no longer owned and operated by the founding Laemmle family, having foreclosed on a loan with pictures that went over budget. Looking for avenues to produce features that would surely bring in revenue the studio looked back to its past and decided to reimagine a tale from its successful library.

1925’s Phantom of the Opera was a large hit in its day with mass appeal and was ripe for a retelling. Universal was going to one up what was great about the first adaptation of this horror classic. The original featured a segment in impressive early two-strip Technicolor. This new version was to full color throughout. 1925’s was silent, although it did see a re-release in 1930 with reshot scenes in sound and audio dubbing to revive audience’s appeal to the feature. This new version would go beyond just sound and would featured full musical numbers to recreate the feeling of the Opera for motion picture cameras. This feature was intended to not only bring back the fans of the 1925 original, but blow it out of the water with visuals and sound. Or so the studio hoped…

Filmmaker’s returned to the scene of the original feature as once again the Phantom returned to the famed Stage 28 of the Universal lot. Stage 28 in 1925 was constructed for the Lon Chaney original to house the set of the Paris Opera House, one of the largest and most elaborate indoor sets built in the silent era. So elaborate was the set that it was kept in place in Stage 28 and used numerous times in countless features for its beautiful theater architecture, and once again the Phantom would haunt its halls.

To star in the titular role was Claude Rains, one of the more respected character actors of Universal’s history, and veteran actor of Universal horror features as seen (or not seen) in The Invisible Man. Despite suffering from a speech impediment and harsh cockney accent in real life, Rains had great discipline over his diction that always seemed to give him a dignified performance, especially when portraying evil characters. However, Rains was no Lon Chaney, as Rains refused to wear too much in the sense of prosthetics for the Phantom’s disfigured face, denying the thought that his performance to be overshadowed by make-up. This couple with sensitivity to the wounded soldiers coming home with real life disfigurements the make-up was toned down on Rains to a partial facial scar rather than the total skull-like appearance that the source material originally described. Despite heavily minimizing of the Phantom overall, it is Rains’ figure in the black wide-brimmed hat and matching cape look that would become a rather normal feature of the Phantom in future portrayals of the character in various mediums.

The film’s leading lady was nineteen year-old Susanna Foster in her first starring role. Skilled with a powerful soprano voice Foster was given an opportunity of a lifetime as she starred in the studio’s most significant musical female role, which at the time usually went to Universal favorite Deanna Durbin. With great range, this vocally talented young lady was given minimal chances earlier in her career at the much larger Paramount picture before she signed with Universal and landed this opportunistic role. Despite the notoriety of the performance Foster would abruptly quit the business the following year.

With Rains more accustomed to supporting roles and Foster being a relative unknown the headliner of the feature was actually Nelson Eddy who portrayed a baritone love interest to Christine named Anatole Garron. In the original story of Phantom of the Opera Christine’s love interest is Raoul, who is portrayed as a police investigator played by Edgar Barrier. With both figures fighting for the attention of the lovely Christine, this added triangle of attempted affection provides a silly sense of comic relief as the two men literally stubble into each other in effort to gain the affection of Christine. As Anatole, Nelson Eddy provides us with moments of musical interlude aside from his romantic advances towards Christine. The role of Raoul comes off as far less important as he is portrayed as a simplified masculine “I’ll protect you” type of man that comes off more senseless. In any case Eddy was a the best known star of the cast, a renowned vocalist, and added to the box office appeal for those not looking fully for a horror feature.

As a large feature for Universal The Phantom of the Opera was not without its challenges. To direct the feature was trusted studio director Arthur Lubin who found his favor with studio heads for delivering highly profitable Abbot and Costello features in the early 1940s. Lubin was never a master of the camera by any means. With more of a point-and-shoot mentality the feature is rather plain and far too bright and colorful for such a dark story. His uninspired camera use takes away any mystery and intrigue to the Phantom character. His best shots come with the use of the vast stage sets utilized in the feature. It was from the help of the massive opera house set and the contrasting underground liar of the Phantom that provide the most inspirational single shots in all the feature.

Universal had great struggles with the script as well in attempting to reinvent the story of The Phantom of the Opera. Initially the script had Claudin to be the estranged father to Christine, explaining  why he did everything for the young lady, as well as their vast difference in age. But once filmed and the picture reaches in climactic ending Claudin as the Phantom comes off as being in love with Christine therefore delivering an intestinal vibe to their relationship. To distance this negative undertone the notion of Claudin as her father was edited out in post-production with the best of their ability.

Initial previews showings of the feature delivered awful responses from audiences. Universal was nervous that they had a dud on their hands, but went with the release as planned. The Phantom of the Opera surprised their hopes as it went on to great success, becoming Universal’s top grossing feature of the year. Many critics panned the feature as containing merely a fraction of the greatness of the Lon Chaney silent feature, but audiences would arrive in great numbers anyways.

The Phantom had found success once again in Hollywood and Universal Pictures rejoiced in its accomplishment, nearly producing a sequel.  It was planned to contain complete return of the entire cast which revealed the Phantom lived at the conclusion of this feature. This sequel idea was passed on and repackaged ultimately becoming the feature The Climax featuring Susanna Foster and Boris Karloff. At the Academy Awards The Phantom of the Opera saw adulation as well as the feature garnered four nominations, winning two, for Best Art Direction and Best Color Cinematography.

This would be far form the last time that the Phantom would grace the public eye as more and more adaptations continue to spring up including the wildly popular Broadway musical and other film adaptations.  This version would leave its mark on the franchise, but sadly also be considered more faded into the background of memory when it comes to Phantom films. Claudin as a character perhaps humanizes the Phantom too much and overall the legend of this character seems to be lacking in this feature. In any respect this 1943 version does leave its mark on the history of the character who remains one of the most beloved horror characters of classic Hollywood.

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