Arthur Lubin, 1943
Starring: Claude Rains, Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster
While I absolutely love the 1925 Lon Chaney version of Phantom of the Opera, I’m not sure what Universal was thinking when they decided to remake the film in 1943 with a completely revamped plot (other than, of course, profit). Produced by The Wolf Man director George Waggner and directed by Arthur Lubin, who helmed a number of the Abbott & Costello films, this version of Phantom of the Opera is unfortunately not really a horror movie and certainly lacks the tragic weight of the original film.
The new plot, which bears little in common with its predecessor or Gaston Leroux’s source novel, focuses on a violinist, Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), who is fired from the Paris Opera House after his left hand stops functioning properly. Unfortunately for Claudin, he is totally broke, because he has been secretly funding voice lessons for the young Christine, an understudy at the Opera. Claudin tries to sell a concerto he has written, but kills the publisher when he believes the man is trying to steal his work. The publisher’s assistant interrupts this and, horrified, throws acid in Claudin’s face, permanently scarring him. The police are on his trail and he is forced to hide in the catacombs under the Opera and wear a mask to hide his gruesome scars.
Claudin has now completely lost his mind and throws all of his focus into his obsession with Christine. She is already in the middle of a love triangle with Raoul, an inspector, and Anatole, a singer at the Opera house. Claudin manipulates things so that Christine replaces the leading lady for a major performance and she steals the show. He soon kills the woman so that Christine can permanently take her place. During a performance, Claudin causes chaos in the Opera and kidnaps Christine. She is soon found by Raoul and Anatole and the three of them escape as Claudin’s lair collapses on top of him.
It is hard to deny that the visuals are lovely and may be the film’s strongest point. Many of the sets are borrowed from the original film, particularly the auditorium, which was a replica of the Opéra Garnier, built in France in the mid 1800s. Though the original Phantom of the Opera included some color sequences, this version was totally filmed in Technicolor. Though it looks great, it's upsetting that the masked ball sequence that was so incredible in the first Phantom is missing here. Weirdly, this is the only Universal classic monster film to be nominated for an Academy Award. It was nominated for Music and Sound Recording and won two awards for Art Direction and Cinematography.
After his many appearances in Universal horror films, it is amazing that Claude Rains was never type cast and essentially went on to be remembered for Casablanca. In addition to his role as Larry Talbot’s father in The Wolf Man, Rains was also the titular character in The Invisible Man. His role as Erique, the Phantom, in this remake helps solidify his status as two of the seven Universal classic monsters (including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon), a feat only mirrored by Boris Karloff. It’s a shame Rains, one of my favorite actors from this period, was basically wasted here as the raving, unsympathetic Phantom. The script strips his character of all the sympathy we feel for Chaney’s Phantom and it’s difficult to see him as anything other than an unhinged stalker.
In addition to misusing Rains, the film’s biggest fault is that it abandons most of the horror elements and is essentially a musical, or at least some kind of musical-drama hybrid. Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s incredibly famous musical or its film adaptation in 2004 will likely find the 1943 version of Phantom dated, less spectacular, and with far less memorable music. Anyone who regularly worships at the altar of Lon Chaney, such as myself, will find this remake a bland, confused mess compared to the wonderful, iconic original. And let me tell you, the love triangle that takes up much of the plot is just tremendously boring. In the movie's oddest move, Christine winds up ditching them both to focus on her career. A plot point like that just goes to show you that no one, not even the heroine, cares about either of the male protagonists.
If you’re a huge Claude Rains fan or simply curious about this remake, it is available on DVD and on Blu-ray. I can’t really recommend this version, but it isn’t completely terrible. If you enjoy musicals, you will probably be less annoyed than I was. Though I sometimes do enjoy them, I generally have to be in a specific mode to endure 90 minutes of people singing about their feelings, and I was really expecting this to be a classic Universal horror film.