The Phantom of the Opera has a long and storied history of adaptations. Despite having so much going for it, Claude Rains’ turn as the masked maestro struggles to overcome certain fatal flaws.
Director: Arthur Lubin
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Eric Taylor
Runtime: 92 minutes
US Release: August 12, 1943; Universal Pictures
Eighteen years after the 1925 silent adaptation starring Lon Chaney, Universal Studios decided to capitalize. Chaney’s Phantom was a massive success and endures today as a cinematic classic. How could the studio top it? The use of sound was ostensibly an advantage, along with technicolor; 1943’s Phantom of the Opera remains the only classic Universal horror film shot in color. Claude Rains himself lends pedigree to the film, having starred in 1931’s The Invisible Man, another horror hit for Universal. The story itself would even remain close to that of 1925’s.
An aging violinist, Erique Claudin (Rains) with the Paris Opera is fired. Despite losing his income, Claudin makes certain that young soprano Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) maintains her singing lessons and future with the opera (he has been secretly paying for her singing lessons). Unfortunately for Claudin, Christine is blissfully unaware of the fact and totally ignorant of his very existence; she is the center of a love triangle between baritone Garron (Nelson Eddy) and Inspector Dubert (Edgar Barrier).
Meanwhile, Claudin is trying to survive. He fails to sell his concerto, being dismissed as a hack. While arguing with the music publisher, Claudin strangles the man to death; but not before having an acidic printing solution thrown in his face. Horribly scarred and wanted for murder, Claudin retreats to the sewers underneath the Paris Opera. Here he can keep tabs on Christine, who is now the understudy for the Prima Donna (Jane Farrar). Seizing an opportunity, Claudin sneaks into her dressing room; she refuses to step aside for Christine and he kills her.
From here the film continues with grandiose musical numbers while Claudin murders anyone who crosses him. The climax features the Phantom ascending the catwalks and severing the links holding a massive chandelier, swaying above the audience. The chandelier falls, presumably killing scores of people. In the ensuing chaos, Claudin kidnaps Christine. He takes her into his underground lair, explaining that she will live with him now, singing whenever he likes. Scared but brave, Christine pulls off Claudin’s mask, revealing the grotesque injury underneath. At this moment, Garron and Dubert arrive and save the day as the sewer crumbles around them, killing Claudin.
On paper this movie should work, boasting all the technical resources of the day. The film stands out among Universal’s horror films for winning Academy Awards (Art Direction and Cinematography). Ironically, however, it is the lack of horror that hinders the movie. Every scene featuring the Phantom is woefully predictable, void of suspense and surprises. As a character, Claudin’s troubles remain surface-level; the film never deeply explores his insecurities, leaving the job to Rains. Without insightful direction or precision screenwriting, however, the usually profound Rains is left blustering and bumbling through the material.
Rather than attempting to craft a thrilling horror film, all efforts seem to have been poured into the spectacle of the opera. Lavish sets, costumes, and extended solo-ing are on full display. After a while, however, it gradually seems more like filler than essential storytelling; the filmmakers attempting to distract from the abysmal portrayal of the Phantom we’re all here to see (and adding in some cringe-worthy “antics” from our rival lovers).
Ultimately Phantom of the Opera (1943) fails to live up to the hype. While technically solid, the film cannot overcome deficiencies in script, direction, and performances.
by Vincent S. Hannam