Universal Monster Movies Season – The Phantom Of The Opera (1943)
When you think of the Phantom of the Opera, I’m guessing most people would conjure up a vision of Andrew Lloyd Webbers lavish West End musical, a truly terrifying visage from years gone by. The silver screen however has been kinder to the Gaston Leroux novel, indeed in this season alone we’ve already plundered the crypt by exorcising the 1925 original movie version.This Second World War era iteration of the vengeance and lust fuelled musician is quite a different beast – photographed in lavish Technicolor, abundant with opulent production design, with a distinct emphasis on the musical rather than the macabre. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone passingly versed with War era Hollywood product that although there were some dark edges to certain fare the studio’s emphasis was clearly on sheer escapism and entertainment to distract from the conflict in Europe, the mogul’s diktat that they should be raising and preserving morale at home, with the odd propaganda piece thrown in for good measure to remind us why we were fighting*. In that light I’m quite surprised to see this film included in the Blu-Ray Box-Set we have been incanting as part of this series that is finally limping into the final stretch, although technically this is a Universal picture and features a monster I wouldn’t necessarily have lumped this picture in with the rest of the ghoulish pack, and frankly it feels like something of a quota raising inclusion to up the numbers. We’ll get into that shortly but this was nevertheless a fun and brisk 90 minute viewing, the only film in the box-set I hadn’t seen before and its unfamiliarity has actually prompted me to conduct a little research for a change, so let’s tread the boards one more time…..
Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) has been a violinist at the Paris Opera House for twenty years, slightly meek and unambitious he fatally assumes that his comfortably quiet and slightly lonely life with continue to meander along. Recently, however, he has been slowly losing the use of the fingers of his left hand, a condition which is beginning to seriously affect his performances, an early harbinger of the fracture to come . He is coldly dismissed from his post due to his withering performances, the director of the musical troop incorrectly assuming that he has enough money to support himself given two decades pay and Claudin’s modest lifestyle. This is not the case however, for the furtive Erique has anonymously been funding the music lessons of Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), a young soprano with whom he has secretly fallen in love. Facing a bankrupt future Claudin desperately tries to get a concerto he has written published, submitting the piece to the leading publishing house Maurice Pleyel & Georgette Desjardins. Calling on their offices and demanding a response our antihero discovers that have sold the piece and pocketed the funds, a melee ensues and Claudin is terrifically scarred by the cruel deployment of a conveniently placed beaker of acid. Driven insane by lust and jealousy the disfigured wretch retreats to the Parisian sewers and plots a terrible vengeance on all those who have wronged him, and to spirit away the only pure and holy creature to have touched his shattered life….
Whilst I have a smattering of interest in the Phantom ’cause, y’know, monsters n’everything, from a horror genre perspective it doesn’t quite stack-up, the illegitimate bastard child of the Universal Monster cycle. It’s a musical which happens to have a few horrific flourishes , the scene of Claudin’s disfigurement for example is a little shocking for the period but the film is much more concerned with the operatic musical pieces of Dubois than it is lashing at the tortured soul of a man scorned, physically and socially outcast. It does enjoy some lavish Technicolor photography and graceful sweeping camera moves around the auditorium, indeed it opens on a five-minute musical piece before the first snatch of dialogue is uttered. It is a glowing transfer of the original decaying print which sizzles on the screen, the crimson costumes and ivory tinted finery of the Parisian aristoratic class shimmering in almost hallucinatory brilliance. It’s pure escapism, purposely evading the unfolding horror in the Europe and the Pacific theatres, rather than looking closer at a psychological case of a man wrecked and ravished by injustice seeking an arguably justified vengeance. The film pivots on the love triangle between the leading soprano and two warring suitors, banishing the lurking id of the Phantom or any fidelity to a disfigured romance, the only film in the entire Universal movie cycle to win Academy Awards for Color Art Direction (John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman & Ira S. Webb) and Cinematography (Hal Mohr & W. Howard Greene).
In terms of the film’s plot or storytelling design I really don’t have anything else to report, it’s very much a standard period movie in terms of flow and cause and effect which happens to be blessed with higher production values that normal, maybe it was also seen as an attempt of the Universal Executives to break out of their inferior industry position and obtain a little prestige for change, challenging studio behemoths for the crown of the most glamorous and opulent production factory of the ‘big five‘. The quotas and demand for product were so high back in the Golden period that a resourceful director or producer could loosen purse-strings by appealing to an Executives vanity, bewildering them with promises of award allocation for productions that were not necessarily seen as ‘commercial’ at a script stage. As I said have conducted a little research on this picture for a change, leading me to unearth this fascinating chart from Standford on Hollywood’s curiously slow adaption to colour which took three decades to finalize (as opposed to sound which took three years to become the prevalent format), it even has a ‘Correlation Matrix Of Residuals’ table – hmm, sexy. As well as film stock chromosome another facet that my analytical mind detected was the so-called classical framework of cinema of that time, the close-up deployment the prevalent story punctuation tool of character introduction and emitter of emotional turbulence, illuminated by the traditional schemata of back, key and fill lights, and in Phantom the orchestration of heavy aperture filters to enunciate a warm glow pulsing throughout the candle festooned crypts. Those looming and obscuring shadows of the earlier entries in the cycle, the angular expressionist designs have been almost obliterated and exfiltrated by this turn in the franchise circle, although the sewers that serve as the Phantoms realm are foreshadowed in the constrictive design of Claudin’s l’intérieur de l’appartement glimpsed earlier in the picture. As this ghoulish series oscillates within the wider technological and aesthetic evolution within Hollywood cinema its instructive to see how the films wax and wane with the audience, as the horror movie is exiled into the primordial B movie swamp in the next and final installment of this eighteen month season – let’s go fishing….
* This has been doing the movie website rounds as it’s just been published, sounds fascinating….