Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Phantoms of the Opera

Claude Rains as the Phantom.
Just eleven years after Lon Chaney thrilled audiences in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal was planning a remake. However, it wasn’t until 1941 that the production got the green light for a Technicolor extravaganza. Studio executives wanted Deanna Durbin as the female star and considered Charles Laughton as the Phantom. In the end, those parts went to 18-year-old Susanna Foster (a virtual unknown) and the inimitable Claude Rains.

The screenwriters jettisoned the plots of both Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel and Chaney’s classic. The new plot cast Rains as Erique Claudin, a violinist in the Paris Opera’s orchestra. When a health condition with his left hand impairs his playing, he is dismissed from the orchestra after 20 years. He has no savings, for he has used all his money to secretly pay for voice lessons for a promising soprano named Christine (Foster). He hopes to improve his finances through the publication of a concerto.

Susanna Foster as Christine.
However, due to a most unfortunate misunderstanding, he believes the publication house has stolen his work and, in a fit of rage, he murders one of its employees. In the process, another worker flings a pan of acid in his face. Screaming in agony, Claudin runs into the dark streets and finds refuge in the catacombs underneath the opera house. He eventually adopts the persona of the Phantom and dedicates himself to ensuring that Christine becomes the opera house’s newest star.

For a studio known for its thriftiness, Universal went all in on Phantom of the Opera and the visual treats are plentiful. It's no wonder that Phantom won Oscars for its color cinematography and set decoration. The elaborate opera house set used in Chaney's film was refurbished and still looks impressive. The famous chandelier, though, is not the same one from the earlier film (that one was destroyed). This time around, the chandelier was dropped with a wire to prevent it from crashing onto the floor. Then, it was painstakingly disassembled to look like it was smashed.
The Paris Opera House set and chandelier.
Claude Rains insisted that his face not be totally scarred and that the mask only partially cover his feature. The latter decision works well, since it allows Rains to at least act with his mouth when playing the Phantom. (And yes, Rains was good enough an actor to convey emotion with his mouth alone.)

Yet, while Rains gives his usual first-rate performance and Phantom impresses from a technical standpoint, it lacks verve. It's more of a musical than a horror film and the opera set pieces drag down the pace even at 93 minutes. The other problem is that the Phantom is really a nice guy that becomes an outcast through unusual circumstances. The audience sympathizes with Claudin--we're never afraid of him.

Nevertheless, The Phantom of the Opera was a big boxoffice hit and Universal announced a sequel within weeks of its release. It was to reteam Susanna Foster, Claude Rains, and Nelson Eddy. Unfortunately, the stars' schedules couldn't be aligned and so Universal paired Foster with Boris Karloff in The Climax (1944), another horror picture with an opera setting.

Herbert Lom as the Phantom.
In 1962, Hammer Films, having successfully revived Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, and the Mummy, decided to mount its own version of The Phantom of the Opera. According to producer-writer Anthony Hinds, Cary Grant was briefly interested in starring it (though there are various stories about which role). In lieu of Hammer favorites Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, the studio settled on Herbert Lom as the title character.

The Hammer version follows the same basic plot as the 1943 film, but with some notable differences. The Phantom's origin is revealed in flashback late in the movie so the story unfolds like a mystery. The Phantom has a silent assistant who does his bidding, which includes murdering an innocent stagehand and a rat catcher. And, best of all, there is also a true villain in the guise of a lecherous, greedy opera impresario played with gusto by Michael Gough.

Michael Gough and Heather Sears.
The Hammer remake also dispenses with the famous scene in which Christine snatches the Phantom's mask. Instead, with the chandelier about to fall and crush Christine, the Phantom rips off his mask and swings on a rope from a balcony to push his protege out of the way.

Speaking of the mask, it completely covers Lom's face, except for one eye. It's a credit to the actor that he's able to create a memorable character essentially with his voice. Indeed, Lom is quite effective and gets strong support from Heather Sears as Christine (her singing voice was dubbed).

Although not as opulent as Universal's 1943 version, this Phantom may be the better of the two movies. At least, it strives to be a horror film and does not let the music take over the proceedings. It was nonetheless a boxoffice disappointment. When it appeared on U.S. television several years later, Universal (not Hammer) shot additional footage so it was long enough to run in a two-hour time slot.


  1. The Rains version was my introduction to the Phantom and I felt for the character, loved the music and the Technicolor.

    I saw the Lom one later in my teen years and boy, was I scared!

    By the time I got to Lon, I was pretty much phantomed out!

    1. I have Universal's PHANTOM in a boxed set and was surprised by how vibrant the color still is.

  2. Thing is, the Rains version was never designed as a horror. Rather, a lavish MGM-styled musical - they even borrowed MGM's Eddy. Deanna Durbin turned it sown. That's why The Phantom isn't scary - and gets third billing in his own movie.

  3. I haven’t seen the Hammer version in a very long time but I absolutely loved the color and sets in the Universal take. This was a great post for Halloween, Rick!

  4. I haven't seen any of these versions, not even – sadly – the Lon Chaney version. But it would make for a fascinating marathon during a snowed-in weekend.

  5. I've seen only the Lon Chaney classic...and The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), the Brian De Palma rock version with William Finley,Paul Williams & Jessica Harper. Loved it. Though I've heard it didn't do well at the time, seems it became a cult classic.

    However, as a big Claude Rains fan, the 1941 version sounds, at the very least, interesting.