FANTASIA OBSCURA: Revisiting a Horror Classic (Before Andrew Lloyd Webber Got Ahold of It)

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, if you have the chance to do it again for a song, you should take it seriously first…

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Directed by: Arthur Lubin

Please note: There is some small potential for spoilers, although with the number of versions of this tale that have been made and are floating around, that seems highly unlikely.

As noted, this is a well-worn tale, having started life in serialized form written by Gaston Leroux between 1909 and 1910. The story of Christine the ingénue, who has a benefactor that is willing to destroy everything if she isn’t given props, has been a staple for most of the 20th century. To date, it received five faithful (more or less) theatrical film adaptations, two faithful (more or less) TV film versions, one major West End/Broadway musical, and served as inspiration for such works as the film  The Phantom of the Paradise, and the Genesis album Duke.

Most people when asked about the classic story, will bring up the 1925 version, mainly based on their remembrance of the classic unmasking scene:

As far as the second version of the film, not so much:

For this go-round, we open in the opera house as a production of von Flotow’s Martha goes into the third act. The violinist Enrique (Claude Rains) draws the attention of the maestro, Lecours (Fritz Feld). On stage the lead tenor, Anatole (Nelson Eddy), gives a grand performance, while casting an eye at the chorus girl Christine (Susanna Foster). While she appreciates his notice, she has her eye on police inspector Raoul (Edgar Barrier), who she misses a curtain call for when the opera ends. This gets her a stern talking to by the company manager Amiot (J. Edgar Bromberg) before she’s sent to Lecours’ office for a lecture.

On her way out from what turns into more of a fatherly suggestion, Christine meets Enrique, who is tongue-tied around her. He goes in to see Lecours, by contrast, and confirms what the maestro suspects: His playing has suffered due to stiff fingers, which forces the maestro to let the violin player go after 20 years’ service with only a season ticket as his severance.

This is a problem, as we discover that in all this time, Enrique has spent most of his fortune on Christine, paying for voice lessons and other off-screen star development costs. Desperate to help her out, he takes a concerto he’s written to a music publisher, Desjardines (Paul Marion), whom he catches while sharing his etchings with his secretary.

…and yes, it kinda is what it sounds like…

Having aggravated Desjardines, at that moment Enrique hears his score being performed for Franz Liszt (Fritz Lieber), who is assessing its merits for publication. Not realizing he’s about to have things get better for him, Enrique makes things worse by killing Desjardines with his bare hands. The secretary, in a panic throws the etching acid at his face, and faster than you can say “Harvey Dent,” Enrique heads for the sewers of Paris, and his date with the inner workings of the Paris Opera House.

So yes, for the first half hour of the film, we get an origin story…

The story, for the most part, hits the same plot stops you find in all other versions of the story, with some changes here and there. The biggest change is playing up the rivalry between Enrique and Raoul for Christine’s affections; as Lubin’s main work for Universal before this production were Abbot and Costello’s early films at the studio, turning their jealousy into a comedy of snide pique was working with his strengths. Throwing in Liszt as a minor character adds little in terms of cachet; the best you can say is, at least the composer comes across better than he does when Roger Daltrey gets to play him 32 years later…

While the plot pretty well is what you find in other versions, there are serious tonal and atmospheric changes you wouldn’t expect in what is considered a horror classic. The film is more “Opera” than “Phantom,” even though we only get one real opera in the movie. (Universal could not get rights to use many popular opera scores, so they added words to themes by Chopin and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4” and faked it from there.) Excluding Raines, there’s not a real sense of darkness from which the rest of the cast finds their character, from the leads down to Hume Cronyn, in his second-ever credited role after Shadow of a Doubt, which can be distracting if the audience feels that the cast is not taking this seriously enough.

Which may be by design. The film went into production and was released in the middle of World War II, and took full advantage of being in Technicolor and having a robust soundtrack assembled by Edward Ward. Having been in pre-production since 1935 and having undergone a lot of re-writes in turnaround, by the time the film could be distributed it may have been felt like having just one more Universal Monsters pic atop everything else. Only five months before, with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man having been released, leading to two jampacked sequels, it is possible that the studio could have felt overwhelmed and wanted a much lighter work.

The end result is a horror film that’s not really trying to be a horror film. Much the same way that too many horror pictures come out today with a PG-13 rating, so too here did the studio pull its punches. One could note that there were plenty of good reasons to take that tact, both business-related as noted above, and feeling that the audience in the midst of war wanted something lighter to take their mind off the horror overseas. That said, the end result was a film that acts like an actor that took a spot onstage and then promptly forgot the lines.

Or, worse, started singing in the wrong key…

NEXT TIME: Even if you’re undead, you still have to keep up with the times, baby, dig…?

About James Ryan 116 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…