#6 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
This feels like an extension of what Carl Laemmle was trying to do with the early sound versions of the Universal Horror franchise. It’s a handsome, expensive production of an esteemed piece of literature with horror overtones. Of course, it was also one of the premiere silent films that Laemmle Senior produced at Universal in the 1920s, starring the father of Universal’s go-to monster man, Lon Chaney Jr. (who did not get the title role in this despite his lobbying for the part). This goes in a very different direction, though.
Instead of settling into the more familiar conventions of the monster mash that had come to define the Universal horror output through the early 40s, Universal producer George Waggner hired Arthur Labin (after a few start and stop efforts that including the early attempt to include Abbott and Costello into the whole Universal horror thing) to make the legitimate movie version of a monster movie, pulling the focus away from the monster himself and putting it more on Christine and the opera itself. This disappoints a lot of horror fans (one critic said, “too much opera, not enough Phantom”), but it didn’t disappoint me. I was actually pretty enchanted by a lot of it.
One of the major things the film changes from the previous version of the film and the source material is the story of the titular phantom. Instead of being “Eric”, a person deformed with little explanation, he is Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a longtime violinist at the Paris Opera House who spends all of his money being the secret patron to Christine (Susanna Foster) the rising understudy of the prima donna Biancarolli (Jane Farrar). When his left fingers begin to fail to the point that he can’t perform musically at the level required for the opera, he gets fired and decides to submit the concerto that he’s written to a musical publisher, but when the publisher is dismissive of him while his partner plays the music next door, Erique gets enraged, chokes the man to death, and then gets a faceful of acid. It’s a bit sitcomy in the way it’s built on a misunderstanding that could be handled with a single line of dialogue, but as the setup, it works well enough. He disappears into the sewers, and the focus turns completely towards the opera.
And this seems to be where the movie loses a lot of people. There are three opera sequences, staged by Lester Horton, and there’s obviously a lot of pride in the production for them. They are elaborate, and the musical director, Edward Ward, essentially created two of them. The first is a recreation of some of Marta, but the second and third were pieced together from music by Tchaikovsky and Chopin (something about the rights around Faust prevented them from using that, the opera in both book and original film). It’s a lot of bright, colorful costumes with good singing, and I see the appeal. It’s not just the singing, though, the story does advance during these sequences.
The first is our introduction to the characters, done wordlessly as Christine smiles at both the baritone Anatole (Nelson Eddy) and her sweetheart Raoul (Edgar Barrier), a police lieutenant, while Biancarolli looks on in disdain, giving us the sketch of the relationships that will dominate the film. The second happens when the Phantom, now haunting the halls of the opera after having lifted the master key to the entire place, poisons Biancarolli with something mild during her performance, forcing the director to put Christine on stage in her place, giving her time to shine. The third is the finale where the Phantom cuts the great chandelier onto the audience when the opera management doesn’t do what he wants and put Christine on stage.
Apparently one change that had been made but got excised from the final cut is that the Phantom is Christine’s father. It’s more that any explicit mention of the relationship has been excised because the clues all remain, specifically around Erique’s concerto which is derived from a lullaby he knew in his small town in Provence that Christine also remembers. It would also explain his obsession with debasing his own life to support hers beyond just an old man being consumed with desire for a younger woman, especially since his scenes with her never feel romantic in nature. I like how the literal explanation has been pushed aside, leaving just a little bit of ambiguity.
More of the changes are a host of movements around with the structure of the story. The Phantom’s mask comes off at about the halfway point of the original, but it doesn’t come off until the end here. The crash of the chandelier is, again, about halfway through, but happens during the climax here. It all seems designed around putting a heavier focus on the stuff happening on stage rather than the monster himself (the “too much opera” part), but instead of finding it a distraction, I find it rather charming. I was reminded of later films that focused on stage life, such as Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy or even Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute (both far superior films), and I was happy to see this baroque display of opera play out, complete with accusations of poisoning, internal operatic political machinations, and a love triangle that ends in rather cute fashion.
It really pushes the film out of the horror genre almost completely but for the mere presence of the Phantom himself. I was engaged through it all, though. It’s pretty with very good music and a nice sense of character around this grand stage.