A disfigured violinist stalks a young operetta.
This was surprisingly one of my favorites of the Universal Monster movies. I say surprisingly because I was slightly disappointed when I opened my box set to see that the version of the Phantom of the Opera I had received was not the Lon Chaney 1925 version, but the Claude Rains 1943 version, which I’d heard nothing about. Still, I decided to give it a go, and am I glad I did. First of all, the transfer for this film has to be one of the best Technicolor transfers from the early forties that I’ve seen. Everything is incredibly saturated and light with soft, diffused light. The sets on the Opera are all beautifully and lavishly constructed and wonderfully shot. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film, and there are plenty of moments in the movie that are quite impressive from a technical standpoint. It’s not only one of the more exciting Universal Monster movies I’ve seen, but it’s also one of the most epic.
“My music! You’ve stolen my music!”
Perhaps the thing I like most about this film is that it isn’t exactly the same story we’ve seen played out a thousand times. Many elements are still the same, of course. We still have our lead, Christine (Susanna Foster, “The Climax”), and she’s still caught in a love triangle between two people; Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy,” Song of the Plains”) and Raoul Daubert (Edgar Barrier, “Macbeth (1948)”). And of course, there is still our phantom, Erique Claudin (Calude Rains, “The Wolf Man”). The biggest difference between this version and the 2004 version of “Phantom of the Opera” (the one closest to the Broadway production), is that this version spends a decent amount of time letting us get to know Claudin, and turning him into a sympathetic villain. Probably the first half hour of this film is primarily focused on him, and the other characters are only backdrop, coming forward after Claudin’s face is disfigured and he flees to the opera house to hide. His character was not only sympathetic, but he was incredibly intriguing as well.
There’s a lot of visual storytelling in this film as well, which is something I really appreciate. Character relationships are established without overwritten lines of dialogue. The opening scene is actually an opera number, and during that scene we watch as a policeman wanders behind set to get a look at Christine; as this happens, the complicate three-pronged relationship between Raoul, Christine, and Anatole is established without a single spoken phrase. There are other really great scenes of visual storytelling too- there are a few ‘chase’ scenes where one of the characters believes he’s seen the phantom, and takes off into the rafters. In one scene in particular, there’s no spoken words or even music, as the phantom runs between ropes and over stage lights, only to disappear and leave one of the actors dangling high above the stage. The scene is incredibly dramatic, and it’s made even more intense by the sound design and cinematography.
And the cinematography was another thing that I wanted to bring up. There are dozens of wonderfully dynamic shots in this film, and all of them are dripping with beautifully oversaturated Technicolor, making the sets and costumes just jump off the celluloid. This movie actually won best color cinematography in 1944, and it’s easy to see why. There are lots of shots where dollys are used to roll from one end of the room to another, while at the same time, adjusting framing and focus. Lubin knew what he was doing as far as creating a larger world with the blocking of his characters. There are times when we’ll be watching the Phantom as he’s prowling from above, and we’re able to see characters going on about their business below him, barely in frame, barely in focus, but it makes the opera house feel more alive.
I also really liked the music, which was not something I was really expecting in this film. There are a few songs that feel a bit lengthy (most of the songs are opera songs after all), but a lot of them are beautifully sung, and the way that Lubin works them into the film doesn’t at all make the songs feel unnatural. This is, in one way, a phantom musical that predates Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version.
As far as acting goes, I was pretty impressed with almost everyone. There are of course a few melodramatic moments of theatricality, but that’s more or less to be expected when you’re watching movies from the 40’s and 50’s. Claude Rains was absolutely hypnotizing as the phantom, and the other two male leads were quite good as well. Susanna was good, but she played the character so innocently that at times it came off as if she was a bit airheaded. I think a lot of that has to do with the time period, and it wasn’t ever so distracting that I was taken out of the film.
This is a wonderful film (though I’m still a little miffed my box set didn’t come with the 1925 Lon Chaney version- I may go out of my way to watch that one soon). It’s a fast paced, beautifully cinematic film that tells an ageless story of romance and horror. There’s enough old Hollywood charm to delight anyone with interest in that sort of thing, and the film is tame enough that kids or middle school children could probably enjoy it as a fun Halloween flick. I absolutely enjoyed this film and I wholeheartedly recommend it
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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