Thursday, October 26, 2017

Phantom of the Opera - 1943

Phantom of the Opera (1943) is a musical, a Technicolor feast for the eyes. There is a horror story in here, too, but it is cloaked in understanding and the eerie hindsight that dreams dashed can be a pervasive kind of horror.

Between the Phantom’s woes, portrayed with much more sensitivity than Lon Chaney’s infamous ghoul in the silent 1925 version, and the young soprano Susanna Foster’s real-life sorrows – there is enough pathos to make this movie a poignant ode to dreams that died.

The movie, more musical than monster, seems an homage to the world of operatic music than to the original nineteenth century penny-dreadful novel, though it was perhaps a smart move not to attempt to re-create the original classic silent story "note-for-note," as it were. We are given something extra, treated to the powerful baritone of Nelson Eddy and the beauty of Marta. Other “operatic” performances are not taken from operas, but are adapted works from Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

The Paris Opera of the late nineteenth century is the familiar setting for the tale, but there are differences in this movie – Nelson Eddy stars as the opera company’s baritone and Edgar Barrier plays Raoul, the local police inspector. Both men are romantic rivals for the hand of Susanna Foster, who plays Christine DuBois, a talented member of the opera chorus. The gents try to woo her, and Susanna enjoys their attention. Another man loves her and works to further her career – Claude Rains.

Mr. Rains is the Phantom of the piece – and there is no mystery about his identity. When we first meet him, he is not hiding in the shadows. He is in the orchestra pit playing the violin, a mild-mannered, middle-aged musician employee of the opera house. His encounters with Susanna are shy and awkward, and she gives him no thought other than he is a polite but odd old man. The Phantom is not a ghoul here, but a sad soul, and he breaks our hearts from the beginning. We discussed the original Phantom and the 2004 movie based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running stage musical in this previous post. We observed that the presentation of the Phantom had changed because of our evolution, not his:

      Perhaps a good deal of this transformation of the Phantom in our popular culture has simply to do with ugliness. Gerard Butler’s Phantom is a man with what looks like a few old burn scars on part of one side of his face. Nothing we can’t live with, even though he vainly keeps it covered. Lon Chaney’s face is a rotting, putrid skull. It gives us nightmares. The original book was written in the days when ugly was synonymous with evil, at least as far as storytelling was concerned. Chaney’s film was made, similarly, when the representation of evil was done mainly through an image of ugliness. We still have film monsters who are ugly to be sure, but they are evil and ugly, not evil because they are ugly. There was not a whole lot of sensitivity towards people with mental or physical handicaps in those days, when desperate parents were still leaving deformed children with carnivals. There wouldn’t be any empathy left over either for folks who were less than beautiful. In the code of old Hollywood, the heroes and heroines were beautiful, and the sidekicks and villains were not.

Today we have a bit different take on evil, on beauty, and on empathizing with those who appear different, and that perhaps is one of the reasons why the Phantom has changed. He needs to be repackaged in order to be sold. It would be difficult to film the same 1925 story and present it to a 21st century audience, with the same simplistic judgments. The Phantom’s evil as represented today is more psychological, and more a problem of society because he has been treated so shamefully. Instead of nightmares, he gives us second thoughts.

Universal was known for monster movies as being its specialty, but it also produced a large number, even more than MGM, of what could be termed teen musicals. It is from their stable of talent they drew Susanna Foster and began to groom her as one of their biggest stars. As such, Susanna had a featured role in Bowery to Broadway (1944), which we discussed here, with another youngster who was to replace Susanna as Universal’s leading songstress – Ann Blyth.

The 1943 Phantom is a kind of missing link between the two incarnations of silent ghoul and Lloyd Webber’s lavish musical.

The camera pans from Claude Rains playing violin with the orchestra in the pit, and pulls back to encompass a grand opera house interior, with every seat occupied by the well-to-do in their gowns, tuxedos, and jewels, in every box and loge. We finally pull back to the very end of the farthest rafters, the cheap seats, to reveal the enormous opulent glass chandelier. This, of course, has a prominent place in the story and the shot is breathtaking for its dual use as eye candy and premonition of things to come. It is more so a premonition because by 1943, though the original Phantom, while it may not have been as familiar to that generation, nevertheless had reached legend such that people knew the story they were about to see, or they thought they did.

There are flickering candles in every desk candelabra and overhead ceiling chandelier in every office, in every parlor and boudoir, casting shadows, and reflecting a warm glow. The film moves at a leisurely pace and we sink ourselves into its environment, from cold, gray streets, to actors adjusting costumes behind the flats backstage, to the grand but artificial sets on stage.

Claude rains plays Erique. He is a longtime employee of the opera house orchestra, but is fired because his playing has become slack, to which he attributes his hands and fingers becoming stiff. He may be one of the first people in classic films to be fired for a repetitive motion injury. But poor Erique has no workers’ compensation to fall back on. He is, worse still to any employer, getting old.

He is crushed by being dismissed, and wanders in a daze back to his one-room garret. We see he is living a poverty-stricken life, though his employer and others assume he must have a lot of money in savings from his 20-year career. However, we next see that he has spent his savings on a very expensive endeavor that is both a kindness and a fantasy. He has been anonymously paying for singing lessons for Susanna Foster, who does not know her benefactor. She has been studying with the Maestro – that’s our old friend Leo Carrillo, for three years.

Claude Rains also writes music, and he has an ace in the hole, a manuscript of a concerto he has been writing for years. He intends to have it published, thereby solving his money problem. However, the publishing house stalls him, treats him badly, and when he perceives that they are going to steal his work, in an angry rage he confronts the publisher, who is in conference with his lady friend. They are amusing themselves with his hobby of etching photos on steel plates with acid.  Nothing says love in the afternoon like etching photos on steel plates with acid. Rains attacks the publisher and strangles him to death, and the lady friend grabs the acid and tosses it in Rains’ face.

Whimpering in pain, Rains staggers out of the office and through a maze of rain-washed streets. He is hunted by the police. He takes refuge, of course, in the city sewers that lead to the bowels of the opera house – and we have our Phantom.

He steals his trademark mask and cape from the opera house costume department. It is a rather stylish sea-green mask with eerily arched brows painted on it. He steals supplies from the opera house and lives there and continues to support Susanna Foster’s career, mainly by trying to oust the pompous Diva with threats of violence. Something in his gentle, befuddled personality has slipped askew – he is more cunning, more sinister, and will do anything to get what he wants – and now he wants Susanna, no longer content to love her from afar.

Claude Rains has become strangely athletic and acrobatic in his rope climbing and rafter leaping, and that rakish forelock that drapes over his mask adds a cavalier touch.

Look for Hume Cronyn as one of the police inspector’s men who chase the Phantom through the opera house and try to lay traps for him.

Susanna Foster, at the center of the piece, is a delicate figure, but despite being the focus of the film—even more than the Phantom in this version—she seems not to have a strong screen presence here, though perhaps the role of Christine is too passive to appreciate Foster's abilities as an actress. She was known for having the ability to reach the note B above high C in her vocal range; and the film presents her beautifully, exhibiting this tremendous gift.  Perhaps this information was difficult for audiences who were not opera fans to appreciate, despite the Universal publicity department’s attempt to market it.  Phantom of the Opera was her most important film, her fifth film. She began in Hollywood in 1939 at the age of 12 years old in The Victor Herbert Story, and her path went from MGM, which never used her, to Paramount; to Universal, where they had a robust youth unit whose most famous star at the time was Deanna Durbin.

Reportedly, Susanna was brought on to keep Durbin “in her place,” giving the studio the ability to threaten to replace Durbin with another soprano if she did not conform to their demands of her. Durbin turned down the Phantom script and Susanna inherited the role. She only did a handful of films in her career. In 1945, Universal granted her wish to study opera and tour overseas, which she did, but then she decided to quit the movies.

She confessed to never being very ambitious and felt overwhelmed by the Hollywood machine, but she must really have been made of stronger stuff, for Susanna coped with more than her share of burdens. She grew up with alcoholic, abusive parents, but supported them and two younger sisters while she was still a child herself. When she returned from Europe and her movie contract was over, she reportedly gathered her resources, including selling her fur coat, to rescue and raise her two younger sisters and make a home for them. She eventually married baritone Wilbur Evans, but that union was unhappy. They did some stage work together, but when they divorced, though he was an absent father, he apparently demanded as part of the divorce decree that she not take their two sons more than 100 miles away from New York, thereby ending her attempts to have a comeback in film. She took work in New York City as a receptionist and did what she could with office jobs to support her two sons, with no help from her controlling ex-husband. Years later, she returned to the West Coast, and for a time, was homeless and living in her car.

According to author Bernard F. Dick in City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures (The University Press of Kentucky, 1997, p. 125), he notes that in 1989, Jane Withers and Margaret O’Brien learned that Susanna Foster was living in her car and “they came to her aid.”

Most poignantly, The Phantom of the Opera had begun an amazing new incarnation through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster stage musical. At that time that Jane Withers and Margaret O’Brien were financially helping Susanna, Lloyd Webber’s Phantom was playing in Los Angeles. According to Mr. Dick, the two ladies “made it possible for her to see it.”

She had been the first singing Christine in a time when the Phantom began to appear less ghoulish to us and more troubled, more sad. For the first time, we saw his side of the story.

Susanna had a story, too. In her final years, her son (one had predeceased her) moved her back to the East Coast and was able to place her in nursing home care. She died in 2009 at the age of 84 at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey.

No horror story for the blog for this Halloween. At least, not the kind you were expecting.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima - 1952

Tomorrow, Friday, October 13th, marks the 100th anniversary of the “Miracle of the Sun,” the final apparition in Fátima, Portugal, of the Virgin Mary after several successive months of appearing to three children.  We turn our attention today to The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), which dramatizes these events.

The story is inherently dramatic, involving the supernatural, as well as historical fact, but the obvious third leg of the stool—our human capacity for faith and what we choose to do about it—is not as strong an element in this movie as it might be.  Much of the unquestioning faith of the children, and the doubtful faith of their elders, seem conveyed as a lesson learned by rote.

One is tempted to regard this movie as an attempt by Warner Bros. to cash in on the tremendous critical and financial success of The Song of Bernadette (1943), made nine years earlier at 20th Century-Fox, and which garnered several Academy Awards.  That movie addressed the visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France, in 1858 to Bernadette Soubrious. We discussed that movie here in this previous post.  Here, from that post:

The Song of Bernadette (1943) pits man against miracle in a many-layered universe. The first layer of this complicated universe is the historical 19th century event on which the story is based.  Then, there is the book by Franz Werfel and the World War II climate under which that book was written and published.  Finally, there is Hollywood, that tries diplomatically to be both pious and frank, spiritual and temporal, to present a money-making story, and yet present it under the auspices of a religious experience…
Man is by nature a creature which believes. We have religions and sometimes complicated protocols of faith. We have superstitions, and we have good luck and bad luck, and we have worries and fears and paranoia, and that is all part of what we willingly believe without proof. On the opposite side of man’s nature is an innate skepticism.

Someone who believes in the efficacy of the prayers of his own faith, may disbelieve the efficacy of prayers of another faith.  An atheist may disbelieve the efficacy of any prayer at all, and yet wholeheartedly believe in luck, or horoscopes, or that a co-worker who gives him a dirty look is out to get him.  It may be the co-worker is just in a bad mood, but that does not shake the belief of the paranoid.  A lot of logical, sensible people knock on wood.  Even people who believe in nothing believe in something, even if it is only the superiority of their own opinions.

So, we believe, regularly, commonly, without proof.  It may be part of our DNA.  But at the same time we are skeptical over someone else’s experiences. 
The Song of Bernadette shows these disparate sides of human nature and the clinging onto of human dignity more than it puts forward of one belief over another, or promotes miracles.

That The Song of Bernadette dramatizes the struggle of faith as something normal and yet at the same time, monumental, is one of its most intriguing elements.  There are many other factors which, added together, simply make Bernadette a much better movie, including a strong cast of familiar character actors, and a strong script.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima relies on a cast largely unknown to us, though there are numerous uncredited extras that may make you play the old game “spot the villager”: Mae Clark, Jack Kruschen, J. Carroll Nash, and Anne Whitfield (our Susan Waverly from White Christmas).  Jay Novello has a role as the father of two of the children, but the only featured adult role in this film belongs to Gilbert Roland, a favorite of mine whom we saw here in The French Line (1954) and We Were Strangers (1949).  Mr. Roland’s role is a fictional character, a lovable rogue who does not believe, but who attempts to protect the kids when townspeople and officials go after them from spreading tales about being visited by the Virgin Mary.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it centers on the three kids.  Susan Whitney is Lucia, the eldest of the three who is the leader, and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco, who are brother and sister, played by Sherry Jackson and Sammy Ogg.  All three child actors went on to do television in the 1950s, but Susan Whitney had the briefest career.  Sherry Jackson had an uncredited role as an extra in The Great Caruso (1951), which we discussed here.

 Unfortunately, there is no depth to the children’s roles as written or as played, so they come across as something of cardboard cutouts.  It might have been better if this had intentionally been made as a children’s film, giving them a stronger screen presence and focusing on their world rather than the angry grownups, who disbelieve them, try to silence them, imprison them, and ultimately relent in a burst of dancing sunlight.

Conversely, it might have also been a better film had it addressed that wider world in which these awesome, and harrowing, adventures take place.  That is the chief difference that would have stood apart from The Song of Bernadette, which had its roots in a novel about an event from the middle of the nineteenth century.  The Fátima apparitions occurred in one of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century, and set the foreboding prologue for what was to come in decades hence.  It is the modern aspects of the story of Fátima that makes it so compelling, even eerie, and would have made a stronger film.

The historical setting begins before the 1917 start of the film story and extends beyond its epilogue of the modern basilica in 1951 at the site of the former apparitions.  In October 1910 Portugal endured a violent political revolution, one consequence of which was the closing of many churches and imprisonment of many clergy.  The three children of the story are poor, living a secluded rural life as shepherds, pastorinhos, and are unaware of most of the politics of their own country, let alone the enormous events taking place in the rest of Europe.  We are in the thick of World War I, begun with an assassin’s bullet and toppling the governments of several nations, leaving millions of dead strewn across muddy battlefields, and millions of refugees starving.

One government in peril is czarist Russia.  The coming communist regime will have consequences for the rest of the world, for the rest of the century.  When the Virgin Mary appears to the three children, she brings messages of future chastisement of the world if people do not repent and pray, including the daily praying of the Rosary, and the coming of a worse war if her warnings are not heeded.  She also tells the children, who are illiterate, they must learn to read and write, so that they may tell others of her messages to them.  The two younger children will die in the impending Spanish Influenza pandemic, which killed possibly as many as 100 million people worldwide.  These are only some of the modern events that serve as backdrop to the Marian apparitions of Fátima that made it a quite different tale to dramatize than the backdrop to the events at Lourdes, and which should have induced Warner Bros. to intentionally make Fatima a movie with a different slant and not lazily follow a template of how simple villagers take to miracles.

Interestingly, the real-life Lucia, who, as the Virgin Mary instructed her, did learn to read and write and carefully documented her experiences, recalled that when they were first told to pray that Russia might be converted, she had never heard of Russia.  The kids thought Russia was probably another little girl who needed prayers.  At the time of these apparitions from May to October 1917, Russia had not yet even become communist.  The request for prayers for Russia’s conversion was a prediction.

So too was the prediction of a second, more brutal war.  Though the Soviet Union eventually collapsed and the Cold War ended without nuclear war, still it does not take too much of a stretch of the imagination to concede the warning about the future spreading of Russia’s “errors” to the world include the current threat to overthrow our own government and democracy at the direction of the soulless Vladimir Putin, with the help of his acolyte Bannon and his puppet, Trump.  The political background of the story about three kids entrusted with heavenly messages, dire warnings, and even well-publicized three “secrets” is enough material to make a movie that is not only entertaining, but even astounding.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima remains today as a simple primer to show at Catholic school assemblies, but is little more than that, and I can’t imagine that was what the execs at Warner Bros. really wanted to create.  Perhaps miracles, in any form, are really too uncomfortable for us to tackle.  We want miracles, nice miracles, like winning the lottery, but when faced with miracles that carry so much weight and consequence, perhaps we really just don’t have the “courage of our convictions.”

The Miracle of the Sun was an event well documented by the press, as tens of thousands gathered to the spot where the three kids observed their last encounter together with the Holy Mother.  They had requested from her a sign that the grownups would believe them.  They were getting a little sick of being told to shut up, and put in jail.  The Blessed Mother came through big time.  While the multitudes stood in the rain, the sun came out and wobbled around, zigzagged a bit, changed colors, seemed to pulsate, and then the sun starting growing bigger, as if it was hurtling toward the earth.  The people panic.  This part in the movie where the sun comes at us is pretty scary, even despite the simple technical craft of the day.  You may find yourself running for the exits.

Then the show stops, and all the people, though having been standing in the rain for some hours, are completely dry, and the ground is all dry, and the newspaper men have quite a story to tell in their next edition.

In the movie, the rascal Gilbert Roland becomes a true believer when he sees the Miracle of the Sun, and we see him in the epilogue talking to Lucia, now a nun, many years after the event.  Oddly, the director chose to use the same child actress, Susan Whitney, to play the adult Lucia, but who speaks lip-synching to the voice of an adult actress.  It has a weird effect and seems a very poor compromise at establishing the continuity between the child and the adult visionary.

Lucia lived to be 97 years old, and died in 2005.  This past May 13th, on the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fátima, Pope Francis canonized the two younger children, Jacinta and Francisco.  World-wide prayer services will commemorate the October 13th “Miracle of the Sun” and pilgrims to Fátima will likely add a great number to those who regularly flock to that site.  Fátima, unlike the well-intentioned movie, is indeed a modern tale with political and social threads; that is it’s compelling “hook” and is still with us.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A few thoughts on Ken Burns documentaries

The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick  that was shown on PBS the previous two weeks is a triumph of historical reportage, the kind we've come to expect from the meticulous and thoughtful Ken Burns and his production team.  Some columnists made note that this presentation would not likely achieve the kind of immediate and powerful reception by the American public as did his marvelous The Civil War, produced in 1990.  The reasons stated for this is not only the obvious division that still remains over the Vietnam Conflict, but mainly because we have become a society that no longer seems to rally over a single television event.  We are scattered to our own interests, and with a wide array of cable TV options and Internet offerings -- which did not exist in 1990 -- we are not compelled to bridge the gap and sit around the TV like a national campfire and listen to old ghost stories.

This is, coincidently, the same reason there are fewer classic film fans and will be in the future: without common exposure in pop culture, i.e., more TV channels showing them, they cease to be part of our common experience and memory.

The Vietnam War is an often difficult program to watch, at least for those who remember those years, but it is also remarkably cathartic and brings an unexpected sense of closure.  It also leaves a taste of foreboding, as many of the issues of the government wanting in candor, and sometimes unashamedly corrupt, continues eerily today.  What I found most interesting was the use of a single narrator, the actor Peter Coyote, in the series.  In a way, it reminded me of another one of my favorite documentary series, World War I, which was produced by CBS in the 1964-65 season, and narrated by the wonderful Robert Ryan.  Both series have their moments of starkness and bleakness, and yet gentleness in powerful moments, and these two actors lend so much in their delivery of the narration.

Conversely, what made The Civil War unexpectedly delightful was the use of many actors and actresses voicing the comments of historical figures.  Burns used this tactic as well in his excellent The War (2007) documentary series on World War II.  We discussed this series in this previous post, about how interesting and effective was his refraining from using classic film footage, or popular music of the day to embroider the story of World War II.  It was a good choice for that series, for reasons stated in that previous post.  However, The Civil War heavily relied on music from that period to flavor the piece, and Burns returns to this in The Vietnam War with a deliberate and effective use of music from that era.

As far as exploring our common experience and memory as classic film fans and as students of this most important media explosion of the twentieth century, I'd love for Ken Burns and his team to make a documentary series about the Hollywood studio system.  To be sure, there are fewer left to interview for their personal experiences, but there must be a great deal of interviews and anecdotes already recorded, and archives rich with information on the cultural phenomenon of the studio era.  Presented in a long and leisurely many-episode series, with current actors and actresses to do voiceovers where it applied -- that would be something.

I understand Mr. Burns is tackling the subject of country music next.  Now if he could only mosey on over to Gower Gulch.

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