Phantom of the Opera (1943) Review

Noel Megahey has reviewed the Region 1 release of the 1943 Universal horror classic Phantom Of The Opera starring Claude Rains as the opera violinist turned ‘homicidal maniac’. A stunning Technicolor presentation of this excellent film.

Based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, the story of a mild, gentle violinist and composer who turns into a “homicidal maniac”, haunting the catacombs of the Paris Opera House and exacting his revenge on a music industry that has betrayed him, has held large audiences spellbound for years in its numerous screen versions, not to mention the still hugely successful Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.

First put on the screen in 1925, a silent version of Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney immediately showed the potential of this terrifying but romantic Beauty and The Beast story and was a great success. With the advent of sound movies in 1927, Universal immediately wanted to re-make the film as a talkie, but ‘Return Of The Phantom’ was never made and instead the original silent film was dubbed and 40% of the film was re-shot with sound and Technicolor sequences and re-released again in 1930 to still greater success.

After several other failed attempts to bring the film to the screen, Arthur Lubin, who had directed ‘Black Friday’ and several Abbott & Costello features was signed up by Universal for the 1943 remake of the film. The film starred Claude Rains as the Phantom, Susanna Foster as Christine, a singer/actress with a range to suit the role of an opera singer, and Nelson Eddy, a baritone who worked on a number of cinema musicals. It’s an elaborate production, using an exact replica of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris that was constructed for the 1925 version of the film and has been used for many other film productions (including Torn Curtain and The Glenn Miller Story) in the last 75 years.

Claude Rains is Enrique Claudin, a poor violinist for the Paris Opera. Any money he earns he uses to secretly pay for lessons for Christine Dubois, a young singer who he feels has great talent and wants to help develop. He hopes to have one of his compositions published, securing his fame and fortune, and wants Christine to be ready for the lead role in the piece. However, he mistakenly believes that the publishing company have stolen his work and gets into an argument where he kills a man and has acid thrown on his face, disfiguring him horribly. Seeking refuge in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, the caped, shadowy figure plots revenge and warns of terrible consequences if Christine is not given the chance to develop and star in opera productions.

In the original script, Claudin is really Christine’s father, who abandoned his wife and child to pursue his career and racked by guilt is trying to make amends for his failure as a father. The studio, unsure whether to play the film as a romance or a family tragedy, eventually cut the scenes where the family ties are revealed. This leaves the film a little muddled and Claude Rains looking a little old to be romantically interested in Christine. The Phantom is a difficult role that requires the actor to strike a balance between romantic lead and dangerous lunatic and still retain the sympathy of the audience. Rains, although wonderfully sympathetic with his sophisticated, elegant demeanour and distinguished voice, never seems convincingly menacing enough to be a “homicidal maniac”, as he is laughably described by one of the characters in the film. The murders are quite cold-blooded and grisly and are effectively handled, especially the famous chandelier sequence, but for the most part the deaths occur off-screen.

The film also seems to be confused whether to be a musical, a comedy, a romance or a tragedy. It could have been more effective and menacing if the story of the Phantom had been told in flashback, terrifying the audience and then gradually revealing his history and painting a more sympathetic portrait of the character of Enrique Claudin. The straightforward linear structure of the film leaves little mystery – certainly not with the removal of the family connection sub-plot.

PictureThe Phantom Of the Opera was only the second Technicolor film made by Universal and the print on this DVD is simply unbelievable. For a film that is 54 years old the quality is remarkable. Colours are so rich and warm they almost glow – shots of candles for example have a wonderful warm orange halo. The image is a touch soft, but still incredibly clear. Marks on the print are negligible and there is no noticeable grain whatsoever. The print is almost perfect and absolutely astounding.

SoundThere is a lot of music in the film – perhaps too much for some – but even when we are subjected to long opera numbers, the action of the plot continues and the story is developed. The music score was composed by Edward Ward, creating new opera pieces using existing copyright-free symphonic scores by Tchaikovsky and Chopin, and a superb original concerto that is the Phantom’s composition. The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and bears up pretty well considering the age of the film. There is little hiss or distracting noise and music and dialogue are clear and audible.

ExtrasThe extras include a 51 minute documentary – The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked, where film historian Scott MacQueen traces the history of The Phantom Of The Opera in its various incarnations at Universal Studios, including interviews with original cast members. The documentary, like others put together for the Universal Monster Collection, are well put together, informative and interesting and show many tantalising clips of other Universal horror classics.

Scott MacQueen also presents the feature commentary. MacQueen is a mine of information and his work is well researched. He has interviewed many of the members of the cast and refers to conversations he has had with Arthur Lubin about the film. It’s a rather dry commentary that lists off facts and figures, detailed histories and numerous anecdotes connected with the film almost without a pause, rather than being a critical examination of the film – but it is interesting and informative.

The production photographs are presented with musical accompaniment and show a wide range of original film posters, production stills and publicity shots. It is very worthwhile to have archive material for a classic film presented on the DVD like this.

OverallThis is an excellent DVD of a classic film. The film is well-crafted and displays excellent production values, good camera work, beautiful crane shots, elaborate sets, beautiful costumes and is bursting with colour. It was Universal’s most successful film up to that point and won 2 Oscars for colour cinematography and art direction. The high quality of this DVD means that the film holds up very well today, more than 50 years after it was made.


Updated: Oct 30, 2001

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