In Sleep He Sang to Me… || The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

It was summer in Cheyenne, and I was bored. There was nothing on TV; I was too old for Sesame Street, and too young for Maury. My focus wandered from the black-screen to the glass-fronted case containing my parents’ vinyl records. I had enjoyed looking at their cover art in the past, so I army-crawled across the living room and started flipping through the cardboard sleeves; Michael Jackson in a glowing white suit, the rock-and-roll-fueled-fantasies of Meat Loaf, and then a title rendered in letters of shattered glass: The Phantom of the Opera. I had heard (although I couldn’t tell you where or from whom) that this was supposed to be “a good musical.” I put the first record on the turntable and listened. I put on the second record and listened. Then I listened to both of them again.

My mother smiled, and said Dad would enjoy hearing, when he got home from work, how I had done something “so cultural.” What she had yet to realize, however, was that I was past the Point of No Return. Like Christine Daaé, I was on the other side of the looking glass, spellbound by this strange masked-man. During our next visit to the public library, I rifled through the card-catalogue in search of everything they had, including a VHS of Universal Studios’ 1943 film. As summarized on the movie’s IMDb page: “a disfigured violinist haunts the Paris Opera House.”

When I first watched the 1943 Phantom, I was unaware that it wasn’t Universal’s original outing with the Opera Ghost. And although I would later come to cherish Lon Chaney’s iconic performance as the disfigured composer, this technicolor feature still holds a special place in my heart. Utilizing the same steel sets constructed for the silent film, this version of Gaston Leroux’s drama is more lavish (and divergent) than its predecessor (as most reboots tend to be). The art department transforms Chaney’s black and white auditorium into one of crimson curtains and glittering gold accents, while backstage, the Phantom’s domain, is awash with shades of deep blue and purple. This film makes good use of its gaslight-era setting; one of my favorite sequences features only the Phantom’s shadow, cast upon the wall as he eavesdrops on a hushed conversation between the skittish managers. Furthermore, although the 1943 film does not include Red Death’s masquerade, it does boast several operatic sequences. In each of these moments, scored by a full orchestra, the auditorium is packed with orantely-costumed extras. As Universal was unable to obtain the rights to operas like Gounod’s Faust, the film’s musical director, Edward Ward, had to create new works using music available in the public domain. These include pieces like Brahms’ “Lullaby of the Bells,” which serves as the central melody of the Phantom’s climatic concerto.

In Universal’s original silent film, Lon Chaney’s emotional pantomime made the Phantom of the Opera a sympathetic figure. However, as Erique Claudin, the violinist who suffers a tragic accident that turns him into another version of the masked-menace, Claude Rains was the first film actor I ever heard as the Phantom. And, as Christine’s Angel of Music, Rains’ voice is very good; gentle, urbane, and with a softness that echoes well throughout the labyrinthine corridors of the Paris Opera House. It wasn’t until high school, however, that I learned hows Rains’ unmistakable voice was both a carefully constructed instrument and the product of misfortune; the actor had struggled for years against speech impediments that exacerbated his cockney accent, and its slight raspiness was the result of Rains having inhaled mustard gas while serving as a soldier in WWI. Still, as I said, it is unmistakable, and has proven to be one of the actor’s most enduring legacies. As for singing, this Phantom is strictly an instrumentalist, which allows his romantic rival (Anatole, not Raoul), played by Nelson Eddy, and dearest Christine (DuBuois, not Daaé), played by the lovely Susanna Foster, to really shine. Foster is one of my favorite screen Christines; her cherubic innocence and sweet nature matches her crystalline singing, and she has wonderful chemistry with Eddy (whom I admit to first knowing as “Willie, the Operatic Whale”).

Having read, watched, and listened to dozens of incarnations of the Phantom story, I now realize that this film was the first iteration in which the titular character’s disfigurement is the result of some industrial accident, rather than an accident of birth. In fact, this particular trope can be found in most “pop” retellings of the story: something happens to the protagonist’s face (burned by acid [1943 and 1983], scarred in a fire [1962], a bad case of acne [1991]; he puts on a mask; haunts a given location (including an 80s strip mall), and keeps pining for the object of his (typically obsessive) desires. In these versions of the story, the Phantom’s tragedy is less about who he is, and more about what he has lost, often as a result of his own hubris and an unjust world. However, regardless of who wears the mask, it seems unlikely that Hollywood will ever give up the [Opera] Ghost.

In closing, here is what The Phantom of the Opera has to offer:

  • The best of a classic Hollywood technicolor production; detailed sets that radiate a kaleidoscope of colors, as well as scenes drenched in darkness and shadowplay
  • A velvet-voiced Phantom, and two fine operatic leads, including classic Hollywood’s most famous baritone
  • A fine cinematic “reboot” of the Phantom story that reflects the strengths, and limitations, of the era in which it was made

Head’s Up: Phantom, although a romantic tale, is also part of Universal Studios’ horror lineup, which means viewers can expect some spooky imagery. The Phantom kills people: three by strangulation, and numerous others (it is implied) when he famously sends a chandelier crashing down on the audience during a performance. However, as I mentioned at the start of my review, this was the first version of Phantom I ever saw. At the tender age of nine, I was still a notorious scaredy-cat, but I loved this movie. In fact, my experience with this film led me to seek out other tales of the macabre, including those written by Poe, Shelley, and Stoker. Maybe it will do the same for your little monster…

Where to Watch

What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!

As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

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