Retro Review: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (1943)

In the 1940’s Universal Studios was now in the hands of new owners who had inherited the studio’s legacy in horror. Like studio execs, even to this day, often are they liked the money scary movies brought in but thought these types of movies lacked prestige. As such Dracula, Frankenstein’s creation, the Mummy and other screen terrors were relegated to Universal’s B-unit. One property though seemed prime for an A-budget adaptation, Phantom of the Opera. In 1925, Universal made the definitive cinematic version of Gaston Leroux’s classic novel and was their first dip into the horror movie stream. Since becoming the main studio for the genre during the era of the talkies the idea of doing a sound remake of the story had been floating around for years. After years of development, 1943 finally saw a new version of the Phantom of the Opera unleashed on the big screen.

An aging and troubled musician at the Paris Opera, Claudin is obsessed with aspiring singer Christine to the point that he has secretly been funding her music lessons. When he grows jealous at the possibility of his concerto being stolen, the violinist is disfigured by acid and forced to flee from society and take up lurking around the opera house. As he watches Christine from the shadows she is put in the middle of a love triangle. Soon the Opera Ghost begins a campaign of terror which inevitably turns deadly.

Unlike the other films in the Universal Monsters franchise, Phantom of the Opera eschews the gothic Expressionistic artistic direction in favor of a colorful and lavish style complete with sweeping music. With the Second World War tearing through Europe at the time, obtaining the rights to operas to perform so the musical talents at the studio created their own operatic takes on public domain classic music tunes. In a way this made this element of the movie more easily digestible to average moviegoers whose knowledge of the medium begins and end with Bugs Bunny’s “What’s Opera Doc”. What they composed fit perfectly to the grandiose scope and scale of Phantom. It was not only the production element of the picture which was given the big A-level treatment the story itself was broken into a classic three act arc wherein lies the movie’s biggest flaw.

Despite a brisk 93 minute runtime, the screenplay tries to cram as much as it can into the narrative. The first act of the film is an exploration of the Phantom’s origin, something which had been glossed over in both the novel and the original Chaney film. We see a fascinating character arc of a troubled violinist turned into a monster due to his jealousy. But it is the second act where things take a downturn as Phantom of the Opera devolves into a cheery romantic comedy built on the love triangle between Christine, fellow singer Anatole, and gendarmerie Raoul. The Phantom of Phantom of the Opera is relegated to merely a background player in his own movie. This leaves little time for the real meat of the movie which takes place from the iconic fall of the chandelier onwards.

When it comes to the cast Universal Studios loaded up with talent including Nelson Eddy as the male protagonist. The biggest star of course went into the title role of the Opera Ghost, Claude Rains who was fresh off the success of Casablanca. In the build-up to production a number of big names were tossed around to don the mask from Boris Karloff to Charles Laughton, and Lon Chaney Jr. (who lobbied hard to take on his father’s most iconic role) before it went to Rains. The legendary character actor was sure to use his clout to avoid having heavy make-up applied. With the Second World War currently raging, toning down the gruesome appearance of the Phantom was more than acceptable to studio heads. This makes the 1943 incarnation of the character one of the least memorable from a visual standpoint as he lacks the iconic ghoulishness of Lon Chaney or the deformities of Herbert Lom in the Hammer version of the tale. That being Claud Rains is incapable of giving a bad performance and he is incredible here. In particular the scene where Claudin believes his concerto is being stolen we see him go from a timid musician to a murderous fiend in seconds and the actor pulls the switch off to perfection. His Phantom truly plays up the obsessive nature when it comes to his relationship to Christine as we see shades of various twisted forms of affection and it is rather haunting.

While not the best version of Phantom of the Opera, the 1943 film left a massive imprint of the Phantom mythology influencing further incarnations of the story like the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s successful musical. The grand artistic scope earned the film two Oscars and a good chunk of change at the box office. A sequel was planned which never materialized, but it still stands as an important film in the overall Universal Monsters franchise.