Halloween is approaching, and it seems as good a time as any to re-explore the world of the Universal Monsters. However, while Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy have become synonymous with that term, it’s not one that many will associate with the Phantom of the Opera. More commonly known as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the Phantom was part of Universal’s pantheon with them releasing both a silent version in 1925 and this version in 1943, the only Universal Monster picture to win an Oscar.
And yet, despite being billed as a remake of the ’25 version, this film deviates from the original plot. In this telling, the Phantom is Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a violinist who is let go by the Paris Opera House after twenty years because he is losing the use of his left hand. Unfortunately, he has spent all his money secretly paying for the musical education of Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) whom he pines after. In an attempt to raise some money he tries to sell his concerto but after a mix-up believes that someone has stolen it. Infuriated, he attacks and kills the man and is fought off only when a bowl of acid is thrown in his face, disfiguring him and forcing him to take refuge in the sewers of the city.
From there the story goes much as you would expect it as our tragic villain does everything in his power to make Dubois the star he believes she is. Unfortunately, Claude Rains’ Phantom never quite gets across the villainy of that role. You feel for him as he blunders around trying to raise money to help a woman who doesn’t know he exists but when he becomes the Phantom you never fear him. When you look back at the 1925 version played by Lon Chaney, you can see the horror. His skull-like visage sending a shiver down your spine. In comparison, Rains almost feels a bit pantomime.
A problem which isn’t aided by the changes to his origin story. By having the Phantom be disfigured by incident rather than birth you remove an element of that tragedy. He is in this position because of his actions rather than because of a life of agony. His unrequited love is never enough to outweigh the lunacy he displays later, and it makes him less of a complex character. When you combine that with a love triangle (involving Dubois, Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) a baritone in the orchestra and Raoul Daubert (Edgar Barrier) the officer investigating the case) that absolutely no one is buying, it leaves the film’s grasping for a hook.
A hook which it finds in the presenation. The opera scenes are lavish spectacles bursting with colour and while I’m no fan or expert on opera they manage to make it not completely unwatchable. The one scene that does manage to capture an element of tension comes at the now iconic chandelier drop as the Phantom saws high above the crowd as the show continues below.
However, while the opera sets are spectacular they also feel like they are used to fill for a hell of a lot of time. This is a 70-minute movie masquerading as a 90-minute one because the other 20 minutes are filled with opera. Now, obviously going into Phantom of Opera you have to expect a degree of that but this film takes it to excess. As impressive as those shots may be, when you go in expecting monsters and you get singing, you are always going to be a bit disappointed.
It leaves The Phantom of the Opera as an impressive but ultimately shallow watch. Lovely production is all well and good, but it fails to make up for a plot that lacks in the complexity that this story is known for. This is not a bad film, but it is one that ultimately doesn’t live up to the expectations you may well have for it.
Verdict: Hall of Alright