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.