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The Phantom Goes Hollywood Musical
on 22 August 2003
Gaston Leroux's penny-dreadful novel was hardly the stuff of great literature, but it did manage to tap into the public consciousness with its gas-light-gothic tale of a beautiful singer menaced by a horrific yet seductive serial killer lurking in the forgotten basement labyrinths of the Paris Opera. Lon Chaney's silent classic kept the basic elements of the novel intact--and proved one of the great box office hits of its day, a fact that prompted Universal Studios to contemplate a remake throughout most of the 1930s. Although several proposals were considered (including one intended to feature Deanna Durbin, who despised the idea and derailed the project with a flat refusal), it wasn't until 1943 that a remake reached the screen. And when it did, it was an eye-popping Technicolor extravaganza, all talking, all singing, and dancing. The Phantom had gone Hollywood musical.
In many respects this version of PHANTOM anticipates the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical, for whereas the Chaney version presented the Phantom as a truly sinister entity, this adaptation presents the character as one more sinned against than sinning--an idea that would color almost every later adaptation, and Webber's most particularly so. But it also shifts the focus of the story away from the title character, who is here really more of a supporting character than anything else. The focus here is on Paris Opera star Christine Dae, here played by Susanna Foster. In this version Christine is not only adored by the Phantom; she is also romantically pursued by two suitors who put aside their differences to protect her.
Directed by Universal workhorse Arthur Lubin, this version is truly eye-popping in the way that only a 1940s Technicolor spectacular could be: the color is intensely brilliant, and Lubin makes the most of it by focusing most of his camera-time on the stage of the Paris Opera itself and splashing one operatic performance after another throughout the film. But in terms of actual story interest, the film is only so-so. Susanna Foster had a great singing voice, but she did not have an equally memorable screen presence, and while the supporting cast (which includes Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, and Jane Farrar) is solid enough they lack excitement. And the pace of the film often seems a bit slow, sometimes to the point of clunkiness.
The saving grace of the film--in addition to the aforementioned photography, which won an Oscar--is Claude Rains. A great artist, Rains did not make the mistake of copying Chaney, and although the script robs the Phantom of his most fearsome aspects, Rains fills the role with subtle menace that is wonderful to behold, completely transcending the film's slow pace, the lackluster script, and "sanitized for your protection" tone so typical of Universal Studios in the 1940s.
Like most "Universal Horror" DVD packages, this one is superior. The centerpiece of the bonus material is a very nice documentary, "The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked," which details the origins of the novel and the numerous film adaptations of it--and which is actually quite a bit more interesting than the 1943 film itself. There is also a nice, if somewhat perfunctory, audio commentary track by historian Scott McQueen, trailers, stills, and the like. But when everything is said and done, it's the film that counts. And unless you're a diehard Phantom fan you're likely to be unimpressed.
--GFT (Amazon Reviewer)--