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Non-Review Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

The Phantom of the Opera is something of an outlier in the Universal monster movie blu ray collection. It’s the only film in the collection available in colour but, more than that, it’s really the only film in the collection that doesn’t have a serious claim to being the definitive big screen adaptation of its source material. I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed that they didn’t include the 1925 adaptation starring Lon Chaney in the title role, as it’s certainly one of the forerunners to the subgenre that would be launched by Dracula in 1931. The 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera is easily the weakest film in the set. Although not without its charms, it feels just a little bit too mangled and messy to try be a classic horror film.

In the gutter, looking at the stars…

Of course, the production history of Phantom of the Opera suggests that there are a lot of reasons why the finished product ends up so mangled. Apparently Claude Rains was afraid of being typecast as a “freak”, and so the eponymous character’s scars are significantly downplayed. I wonder if that’s also the reason that he’s never really portrayed as that much of a monster, even in the depths of his insanity. The Phantom’s brutality is retained – he’s still a repeated murderer and the story keeps the most iconic of the set-pieces – but the Phantom feels more like an ineffectual loser than a true movie monster.

However, the biggest problem is the fact that the central relationship is very poorly defined. Erique Claudin is mysteriously (and anonymously) sponsoring young opera starlet Christine Dubois, but we never really find out why. In fact, in the finished cut of the film, a lot of inexplicable things happen – towards the climax, Garron deflects Raoul’s gun in order to save the phantom, despite the fact that the man is a mass-murderer. Watching the movie, it’s quite clear that the story itself underwent quite a bit of revision both during and after shooting, and there’s a sense of absence at the heart of the film.

The world’s a stage…

It turns out that Erique was to be revealed as Christine’s father, who had abandoned her mother and felt guilty about it. He was a father trying to look out for his daughter. However, the studio figured that there’d be a none-too-subtle incest theme there when the Phantom abducts Christine and takes her into the sewers with him, so they hastily deleted the subplot – including scenes that had already been filmed between the two leads. It is vaguely reassuring to know that studios have been hacking up movies for quite some time, and finished cuts of movies that don’t make any sense are by no means a modern invention.

It seems strange that the studio would baulk at the theme. There’s no denying that it’s there, but it’s certainly no less explicit than the creepy necrophiliac subtext that runs through The Mummy. To be entirely fair, the rest of the movie plays down the brutality of the story, and Phantom of the Operafocuses more on the technicolour glory of the opera and the costumes than it does on any of the characters or the monster. With World War II going on at the same time, I wonder if there was a conscious attempt to play down the horror aspect of the production, and just play it as a gaudy spectacle.

Existing in harmony…

However, the fact is that the removal of any reference to the relationship actually makes the dynamic between the two more creepy. It has been argued that incest is a none-too-subtle undertone of the story itself. Removing the confirmation from the script does not prevent it from being the most obvious explanation of the dynamic between Enrique and Christine, as Jerrold E. Hogle explains in The Undergrounds of Phantom of the Opera:

Far more than the Chaney film, the 1943 version does raise the issue in Leroux of a deep erotic attraction of a father for a daughter, just as James Twitchell has shown (283-85). Though the released film does not affirm a biological connection between the phantom and his protégé, the Hollywood Reporter felt compelled to say that “the performance by Rains leaves no other conclusion possible” than Claudin, the broken-down violinist, is Christine’s father.”

The problem is that the movie itself now completely ignores that rather obvious reading and instead puts forward a romantic dimension to their relationship almost exclusively. (And the paternal subtext is still there – kidnapping her and dragging her through the tunnels, he still calls her “child” and “little one.”)

Face-to-face at last…

Discussing his possible motivations for his patronage, Raoul reflects, “Can you imagine so diffident a lover, monsieur? Claudin was barely 50.” Garron retorts, “Well, no doubt he lacked… assurance.” The pair even construct a romantic history for his obsession. “But as a man, Mr Daubert, you can understand that sitting there in the orchestra pit night after night and looking at Christine, Claudin probably fell in love with her.” The music teacher even advises Erique, “A man of your age might win a girl like Christine DuBois if he happened to be the director of an opera company, but a poor violinist…” Erique’s response – without the explicit confirmation he is her father – feels a little too much like deflection. “We agreed never to discuss my motives.”

Certainly, he actions towards Christine are presented as a jealous suitor. He steals the bust from Garron’s dressing room. It might allow him to see a bit of his daughter every day, but it also handicaps Garron’s romantic ambitions. “I intended to make you a present of it,” he explains as part of his courtship. Later on, the Phantom tries to kill two birds with one stone, killing Christine’s rival and almost framing Garron for the crime, neatly getting rid of a character who – at that point – is present as a romantic obstacle for him.

I hope he doesn’t choke on the night…

The movie never presents the possibility that Erique is Christine’s father, so it’s never an alternative to the possibility of romantic attraction. Instead, the movie encourages the viewer to read between the lines to find it out. “Well, you see, Monsieur Inspector, a song is capable of many interpretations,” Garron tells Raoul. We’re presented with the idea that, like Erique at Pleyel’s house, Garron and Raoul don’t know the full story.

As such, the suggestion that Erique is Christine’s father isn’t some alternative to the possibility he’s romantically obsessed with her. The two ideas are not presented as conflicting. Instead, the film suggests that his identity is a secondary implicit idea, one that doesn’t conflict with the explicit primary idea. The crux of the matter isn’t: “Erique is EITHER a would-be suitor OR her father”; it is: “Erique is a would-be suitor AND HE MIGHT BE her father.”

I have you know my pretty!

Towards the end of the film, Raoul and Garron try to persuade Christine that Erique is not her father, despite the fact his entire composition is based around a lullaby she remembers from her childhood. She asks, “He called that his concerto, and yet it’s written around the melody of my song. Who was he?” She’s told, “He came from your district, in Provence. Everybody there must have known that old folk song.”

It’s no doubt intended to dismiss any hint of a father-daughter relationship from the audience’s mind, but it almost does the opposite. It sounds too much like a tenuous denial, an attempt to justify the answer they want to give her. After all, who wants to deal with the revelation that her father might have been romantically drawn to her? Or event he fact he was most likely dead, after she’d only just found him, after living as a mass-murderer? It seems like an attempt to spare Christine the horror implicit in such a revelation.

The music of the night!

It’s quite telling that the underground begins to collapse when the Phantom’s music starts playing, and Christine slowly realises who this masked murderer and kidnapper might be. “The whole place is ready to crumble!” Just like Christine’s world seems to collapse around her with the possibility of Erique’s relationship to her becoming increasingly obvious. It feels somewhat ironic that the attempts to destroy an incest subtext only served to enhance it.

Indeed, Christine is surrounded throughout the film by older men, who seem to act in a paternalistic fashion towards her. Her two potential romantic leads – Raoul and Garron – are both considerably older than most would-be romantic leads in similar monster movies. Nelson Eddy, playing Garron, was forty-two at time of filming. Edgar Barrier, as Raoul, was thirty-six years of age. In fact, the romantic subplot at the end of the film goes completely unresolved, as Christine refuses to identify either man as her lover.

Bringing down the house…

Everybody treats her like a child throughout the film, not just the Phantom. Her music teacher advises her, “If a man is upsetting you, pitch him out of your life. Music is first.” He condescendingly laments, “You don’t understand. Women never understand. But they are docile. Perhaps you’re not getting enough sleep. Come later tomorrow, say midday.” There’s a sense that the men around Christine don’t trust her to manage herself.

(Although, to be fair, it apparently isn’t just Christine who is treated this way. When her rival, Biancarolli, faints, the nurse rather patronisingly dismisses the notion that she has been drugged, instead suggesting, “I’m sure she overate.”It says quite a bit that the women in this film aren’t even trusted to know how much to properly eat – and it’s telling that she doesn’t suspect that the singer might be malnourished from an excessively rigorous diet, as that might arguably make it the fault of the opera for imposing its own standards upon her.)

Staying on top of things…

Claude Rains is grand as Erique, but he never seems an especially compelling character. The movie tries to convince the audience to pity him, and he initially seems relatively sympathetic. It’s implied that he gave up his family to become the violinist that he is today. As Christine is told, there’s a lot of sacrifice involved. “You have promise, Mademoiselle DuBois. But you must choose between an operatic career and what is usually called “a normal life.” Though why it is so-called is beyond me. You can’t do justice to both. The artist has a special temperament, and he must live his life exclusively with those who understand it.”

It’s easy to imagine that Erique was confronted with a similar choice at the start of his career. And, so, being fired, it makes the sequence especially touching. He expresses just how much the Opera is his life. He tells Christine, “Oh, forgive me, but I’ve been here so long that you…  Everybody, everything connected with the Opera is so much a part of my life.” While Christine is obviously a larger part of his life, it’s a strong sentiment. So to be fired (and only receive a season pass in compensation) is particularly devastating.

A masked menace…

However, Erique gets the crazy train a little bit too quickly, especially when we’re introduced to him as a sympathetic and grounded character. His devastation at losing his job is understandable, but the movie never really convinces us that he goes from that point to a mass-murdering lunatic with relative ease. His sanity seems to collapse not because it makes sense, but because the movie is winding down and the ending is close. Rains does the best he can with the material, but the character never feels as well drawn as any of the other monsters here.

That said, the production design is beautiful and looks stunning in colour, particularly the hyper-saturated technicolour. John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman and Ira S. Webb all deservedly picked up Oscar statuettes for their work here, and the film lookslovely. The make-up looks great at well, even if it is relatively understated. And there’s some nice camp humour to be found in the interactions between Garron and Raoul as the compete for Christine’s affections.

His Rains of terror is only beginning…

Still, Phantom of the Opera is the weakest film in the set, and it’s sad that it marks the last of the films to feature many of the iconic creators. Creature From The Black Lagoon wouldn’t use familiar directors or actors, so Phantom of the Opera feels like the last go-round for many of these. It’s the last in the set to feature Claude Rains, the last to use Jack Pierce’s make-up, and the last to involve George Waggner, director of The Wolf Man. It’s a shame that their involvement doesn’t end with a bang, but with a relative whimper.

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2 Responses

  1. I assumed the ’25 Chaney Phantom was in the set and was let down that it wasn’t. I wasn’t a fan of this one as a kid, but haven’t quite gotten to it in the set for another go-around. Nice write-up!

    • Glad to hear I’m not the only one disappointed by the choice. It seems rather strange. My only guess is that they wanted Dracula to be the “first.”

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