HCF REWIND NO.99. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU RAY
RUNNING TIME: 94 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Christine Dubois is a young soprano at the Paris Opera House whom baritone Anatole Garron is in love with. Erique Claudin has been a violinist there for twenty years, but has recently been losing the use of the fingers of his left hand, which affects his violin-playing. He is dismissed and has no money to support himself because he has been anonymously funding Christine’s music lessons, with whom he also had fallen in love. Claudin tries to get a concerto he has written published, but the publisher steals his music and Claudin goes mad and strangles him. Georgette, the publisher’s assistant, throws etching acid at Claudin, who flees to the sewers of the Opera House. Word soon gets around that a ghost is haunting the building…..
Although the last few decades it has primarily been famous because of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical version [ which itself of course was filmed in 2004], Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel about the disfigured composer who haunts the Paris Opera House had already been filmed many times. Some of these films are good, some less so. Dario Argento’s 1998 version, for example, was a disappointment though tolerable and to me nowhere near as bad as many say. Brian De Palma’s 1974 variant The Phantom Of The Paradise is totally bonkers in the very best way. Hammer’s effort from 1962 though, despite coming from Terence Fisher who made many of their classics, always strikes me as a considerable let down and this is coming from someone whose love for Hammer knows no bounds. The best version is probably the very first from 1925, directed by Rupert Julian with Lon Chaney sporting some of the most effective makeup ever in the title role. It has certainly overshadowed Universal’s second go at the story made in 1943 which was a film I hadn’t seen in decades and didn’t remember very fondly. Well, re-watched, it is actually a solid horror/drama with much to recommend it, even if in the end it falls short of what it should have been.
Despite being about a ‘monster’ and sometimes released on DVD with some of those films, The Phantom Of The Opera is rarely considered part of the Universal Horror series alongside the many films about Frankenstein, Dracula et al. Perhaps this is because it was a much more lavish production than usual in colour, and with maybe higher-class pretensions than films like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and The Mummy’s Tomb. Amazingly it was originally conceived as one of Abbot and Costello’s horror spoofs with Lon Chaney’s son Lon Chaney Jr. as the Phantom until it was decided to turn it into a full-blown remake. Money was saved by using the auditorium set from the 1925 movie, a set which continued to be used decades later, and also by having most of the opera music based on classical music that was in the public domain by Chopin and Tchaikovsky, to which they just re-orchestrated and added vocals. Claude Rains, who had done so well in 1933 as The Invisible Man, got the chance to play another famous screen monster. A number of “unacceptable breast shots” of Christine had to be altered before the film was passed for release. It was a big hit for Universal and a sequel was planned with the three main stars returning in their roles.
They changed the story a fair bit from the book, which the previous film followed far closer. Instead of opening the tale with the Phantom already haunting the Opera House and being born with his disfigurement, scriptwriters Erik Taylor [who immediately after this wrote the good screenplay for Son Of Dracula] and Samuel Hoffenstein decided to have the Phantom character begin the film as a person who seems reasonably normal at first. He’s a frustrated composer who has his music stolen and ‘becomes’ the Phantom a third of the way through when he commits murder and acid is thrown on his face. This variant on the tale was later reused, with small changes, in the 1962 [though with the earlier events shown in flashback form] and 1974 versions. It does make the Phantom far more sympathetic and in this particular film really gives Rains a chance to shine as an actor. In the first scene between him and Christine, he somehow manages to convey, with very subtle facial expressions, that something is not quite ‘right’ about him, that there could be a monster lurking deep down inside.
Of course all this also means that the first third of this version moves quite slowly and it’s just over half an hour before the Phantom starts doing the stuff you want him to. In fact a common criticism of this film is that there is too much Opera and not enough Phantom, something that I do agree with, especially when parts of the story get increasingly rushed. The opera scenes are superbly staged with some fine singing especially by Susanna Foster, who really has a great and wide-ranging voice, but they go on for a very long time and if you’re not a fan of opera like me [I respect the art form, but it’s just not for me] you could be tempted to put your finger on the fast-forward button. There’s also a great deal of romantic relief, with lucky Christine having not just the Phantom but two more ‘normal’ rivals for her affections. Some of the Abbot and Costello-style bits involving these two, such as speaking at the same time, do amuse, and they have a wonderful end final scene where they are both left in the lurch by Christine, but at times this really doesn’t seem much like a horror film at all.
Still, the film looks fabulous, the gorgeous colour photography [Universal really seem to have preserved this particular film especially well] being a delight to behold, and while Rains doesn’t get to do quite enough nasty stuff, he does get a decent chase scene and the best of all the filmed Phantom–brings-the chandelier-down sequences, director Arthur Lubin [usually doing Abbot and Costello films] showing almost Hitchcockian skill in this mini masterpiece of suspense-building with increasingly fast cutting between the opera, the audience and the deranged fiend sawing away. Rains’ makeup is actually pretty effective when the Phantom is unmasked, though the story finishes earlier along the way than most versions. Interestingly, the original script had Erik revealed to be Christine’s father who had abandoned her as a child. This would have put quite an interesting spin on things and I’m surprised no other version has done this, though it would of course lose much of the dark romantic aspect.
The original score by Edward Ward, including the rather beautiful Phantom ‘theme’ that Rains learnt how to play on the violin and piano without having actually having played either instrument before, is very good and the film really does look and sound great throughout even if the underground sets could have been a bit more atmospheric. It’s still worth your while as a slightly gentler, more plush adaption than normal. The sequel?…..well, it never really happened [though Foster and Nelson Eddy did do a radio adaptation with Basil Rathbone as the Phantom] and eventually metamorphisised into the unrelated if quite similar The Climax starring Boris Karloff. Considering how abysmal Webber’s musical sequel Love Never Dies turned out to be, that’s probably a good thing.