Sunday, February 06, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Phantom of the Opera (1943)

I hadn't realized until quite recently that the 1943 Claude Rains version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA had been released on DVD -- all the way back in 2005! I'm not sure how that escaped my notice for so long, but it was tonight's movie from Netflix.

I love Andrew Lloyd Webber's version and have seen it on stage many times, but I was quite satisfied with this older take on the PHANTOM legend and thoroughly enjoyed its sumptuous rendition of the classic tale.

Universal must have spent quite a bit on this lavish musical, filmed in stunning Oscar-winning Technicolor by Hal Mohr and W. Howard Greene. The movie was also awarded the Oscar for Best Color Art Direction. It was additionally nominated for Best Score and Best Sound Recording.

Although this telling of the story differs in some respects from both the original novel and the more familiar Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, PHANTOM fans will still recognize the general outline of the well-known story. Claude Rains plays Erique Claudin, a disfigured composer who lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera; as the Phantom of the Opera, he does everything possible to promote the career of Christine (Susanna Foster), up to and including murder.

Christine has two suitors in this version: fellow opera star Anatole (Nelson Eddy) and police inspector Raoul (Edgar Barrier). The two men competing for Christine's favor provide the story with its lighter moments.

The opera sequences sung by Foster and Eddy are the highlights of the movie; it's a great pleasure to listen to them singing for extended periods of time. The Phantom's composition, "Lullaby of the Bells," is particularly memorable and, one might say, haunting. At times the Phantom takes a back seat to the opera sequences, but I enjoyed the music enormously, and the Phantom appears again at length, to excellent effect, in the final third of the story.

This is the first time I've seen Susanna Foster on screen, and I thought she was quite good. I couldn't help wondering from time to time what the movie would have been like if Deanna Durbin, Universal's original choice for the role, had appeared in the movie, but Foster was fine as Christine. She looked lovely, had an appealing innocence, and most especially, she had a beautiful voice.

I found a very interesting interview with Susanna Foster which was posted online at the time of her passing two years ago. She said of PHANTOM: "Everyone got along well on that set, and I think it had a lot to do with Nelson... Claude Rains…was the only really great actor I ever worked with, and I worked with some really fine actors...I think I mentioned to Rains that I was a little shy in this, my first big film, you know, with Nelson Eddy. My God – I didn’t dare even tell Nelson how much I’d loved him – I never did that. What a shame. I wish now I had."

Foster confirms a bit of trivia I first read at IMDb, that the bust of Christine seen in the film was sculpted by none other than Nelson Eddy himself. Another interesting fact is that the Paris Opera House set is the set built for the original Lon Chaney silent version in 1925.

Sharp-eyed musical fans will recognize dancer-actor James Mitchell as a reporter covering a murder at the opera. This was one of Mitchell's earliest film roles. He passed away last year.

Hume Cronyn has a small role as a police guard. J. Edward Bromberg, Leo Carrillo, Fritz Feld, Jane Farrar, and Frank Puglia are also in the cast.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was directed by Arthur Lubin. It runs 92 minutes.

The exquisite gowns were designed by Vera West, who sadly died just four years later, at the age of 49.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has been released on DVD as part of the Universal Studios Classic Monsters Collection. The print was beautiful. Extras include a commentary track and a detailed documentary featuring interviews with Susanna Foster, Claude Rains' daughter Jessica, and historian Rudy Behlmer.

The trailer is available at IMDb.

I'll be looking to pick up the DVD for my own collection when I see it for a good price, as I'm sure I'll want to enjoy this one again in the future.


Blogger Irene said...

The first time I ever saw Susanna Foster was in one of those channel 9 movies that ran the for a whole week. The movie was very much like Phantom and starred Boris Karloff as the crazy man obsessed with Susanna and her voice and was called The Climax. I think I watched it every single night! I really Susanna Foster and her singing voice. Reading her biography on IMDb was rather sad.

7:05 AM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

Ooh, yes, "The Climax" is on my "must watch" list! I have never seen Webber's Phanton and I'm already tired of the music becuse it's played so much. The 1943 Phantom is my favorite film version. Nelson Eddy is under appreciated today, but for those of us who love him, there are many recordings available and lots of nice audio and video clips on youtube. He was a magnificent singer who never stopped learning.
There is a version of Phantom with Burt Lancaster which follows the original book pretty closely.

12:13 PM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

I've been on an extended Nelson Eddy Festival of movies and recordings lately. I bought Phantom for a mere $5. What a great picture to revisit!
Susanna Foster is very charming and talented but awfully young. Another child prodigy who did too much too soon. It's not just the top notch professional cast of Rains, Eddy and Barrier, but the entire ensemble is a gallery of excellent character actors. They pulled out all the stops for a lovely opera picture. An interesting side note is that the only 'real' opera in the film is "Martha" because it was is in the public domain. Due to WW2, it was very difficult to sort out copyrights and public domain on many operas so they wrote operas based Chopin and Tchaikovsky. (And another related side note: "Martha" is also featured in the finale of "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met", where Willie is floating about on little angel wings with a sold out sign on the pearly gates.)
There is also the Castle version with Herbert Lom (one of my favorite character actors). I have not seen that since I saw it on creature features in the 70's but I really liked it back then. It's definitely more gruesome.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Panavia,

Nice to hear from you!

I enjoyed this version so much, especially the singing and the Technicolor, that I just bought the DVD for my collection at a nice low price in the Deep Discount sale. I lent it to my dad and he just saw it for the first time last week and enjoyed it too. :)

Thanks much for all the interesting additional information!!

Best wishes,

3:26 PM  

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