Saturday, May 06, 2017

Phantom of the Opera (1943) (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Arthur Lubin, US 1943
Print source: David W. Packard
Running time: 92 minutes
The Nitrate Picture Show, George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, 6 May 2017

About the print:
Occasional curling and brittleness throughout the print. Despite the overall stiffness of the base, the copy has an excellent look on the screen, with saturated colors and minimal scratches. Shrinkage: 0.65–0.75%

About the film:
“Phantom of the Opera is far more of a musical than a chiller, though this element is not to be altogether discounted, and holds novelty appeal. Story is about the mad musician who haunts the opera house and kills off all those who are in his protege’s way towards becoming the headliner. Tuneful operatic numbers and the splendor of the scenic settings in these sequences, combined with excellent group and solo vocalists, count heavily. Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster and Jane Farrar (niece of operatic star Geraldine Farrar) score individually in singing roles and provide marquee dressing. Third act from [Friedrich von Flotow’s opera] Martha and two original opera sketches based on themes from Chopin and Tchaikovsky have been skillfully interwoven. Outstanding performance is turned in by Claude Rains as the musician who, from a fixation seeking to establish the heroine as a leading opera star, grows into a homicidal maniac. Eddy, Foster, and Edgar Barrier, as the Parisian detective, are awkward in movement and speech, though much like opera performers restricted by their medium.”
– Variety, December 31, 1942

AA: Revisited a film that I previously knew from home viewing formats only. Universal's remake of one of its greatest films is affected in many ways by the fact that it was made during the war. Internationally the horror film genre had an ebb during WWII. Horror film production was reduced, and the films that got made were of a gentler variety, including spoofs and ghost stories. Wartime remakes were milder than the originals. Great work was still possible under the circumstances (Dead of Night, Val Lewton).

I find it rewarding to think of Universal's original The Phantom of the Opera (1925) in terms of Anton Kaes's "shell shock cinema", and it is fascinating to learn that Universal in the 1930s considered a remake where the Phantom would have been a WWI veteran. But in the 1943 remake the screenwriters returned to the original historical context, although otherwise the story has been completely revised.

Among other fundamental changes are that this film is all colour and of course a sound film, and this 1943 film adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1909-1910 serial is the one that is most pronouncedly a music film, an opera film. A peculiarity of the wartime chaos was that copyright issues were insurmountable for selections such as Charles Gounod's Faust. The very opera at the heart of the original story had to be abandoned.

The film starts with an engrossing interpretation of Friedrich von Flotow's Martha sung by Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster, and Jane Farrar dubbed by Sally Sweetland. The other music selections of the film are not from actual opera repertory but Edward Ward's arrangements from public domain material from Chopin and Tchaikovsky. And there is the Phantom and Christine's theme song, "The Lullaby of the Bells" composed by Ward for this film.

The original film adaptation was a Lon Chaney vehicle, and no attempt is made to reach the macabre fury of his immortal performance in this version. In the original screenplay of the 1943 remake Claude Rains was revealed to be Christine's father which also would have made deeper sense of the theme song being a lullaby. Rains portrays Erique Claudin, a self-effacing violinist who lives for his art until he suffers three profound insults: against Christine, and twice against himself: he is fired from the Opera, and his life's work is being stolen by the Pleyel & Desjardin music publishing agency.

Erique becomes mad, a homicidal lunatic, and when acid from the printing press of the publishing agency is thrown on his face he gets horribly disfigured, descends into the sewers, steals the Opera's master keys and transforms into the Phantom.

There is a "love versus duty" and "love versus art" theme in this film, and there are emphases and passages of dialogue that seem to point directly to the "art worth dying for" philosophy of The Red Shoes.

Although Claude Rains's Phantom is mild in comparison with Lon Chaney, Christine's rivals are even less charismatic. Nelson Eddy is the main rival as the baritone, and Edgar Barrier competes for Christine's attentions as the inspector of the Surêté. They become a comedy duo in the film. After the Phantom's demise Christine is left pondering the mystery of the lullaby: "he called it his song". "I always felt drawn to him". The bumbling duo of rivals, the baritone and the detective, join each other for dinner in the finale without Christine.

Less a horror film than the Lon Chaney version, this adaptation is a brilliant and colourful spectacle.

The print is in glorious Technicolor with some minor patina of time testifying that it has not been sitting idly on a shelf. A very gratifying film experience.


Written by Edward Ward
Lyrics George Waggner
Sung by Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy

MARTHA (Act III, opera excerpt)
Written by Friedrich von Flotow
Lyrics translated by William von Wymetal
Sung by Nelson Eddy, Jane Farrar (dubbed by Sally Sweetland), Susanna Foster & company

(French Opera sequence)
Adapted by Edward Ward from themes by Frédéric Chopin
Lyrics by George Waggner, translated by William von Wymetal
Sung by Nelson Eddy, Jane Farrar (dubbed by Sally Sweetland), Susanna Foster & company

(Russian Opera sequence)
Adapted by Edward Ward (from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "4th Symphony")
Lyrics by George Waggner, translated by William von Wymetal
Sung by Nelson Eddy, Nicki Andre & company 

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