Sunday, October 7, 2012

It's Over, and This Fat Guy is Happily Singing: "Phantom of the Opera" (1943)

While the word "phantom" is in the film's title, the film makers here must have decided mere horror film was beneath them. Suspense and tension were jettisoned in favor of weak romantic comedy and backstage politics.

Christine (Susanna Foster) is the new singer at the opera, her classes being paid for anonymously by Erik (Claude Rains). She is also being wooed by Raoul (Edgar Barrier)- a police inspector, and Anatole (Nelson Eddy)- the opera's baritone. The two make like Abbott and Costello, goofballs when around the beautiful Christine...oh, yeah, the Phantom plot.

Erik has been with the Paris Opera House for twenty years. He is broke, paying for Christine's lessons. The orchestra's maestro lets him go because his playing is no longer up to snuff. Erik is threatened with eviction, and takes his original concerto to a music publisher. He hears it being played, and adored, but mistakes this as meaning it was stolen, and kills a publisher before an assistant throws acid in his face. Scarred and screaming, he runs into the sewers of Paris, and the catacombs under the Opera House. He steals the master pass key, and can let himself in to any section of the massive venue.

Erik is now insane, making sure nothing will stop Christine from singing onstage. He resorts to poisoning the show's bitchy diva Biancarolli (Jane Farrar), who promptly has Christine removed from the production all together. Soon, Erik murders again, and Anatole and Raoul team up to save the woman they have fallen in love with.

This version of the well known story may be the most suspenseless. That may not be a bad thing, I have never read Gaston Leroux's source novel, but the film makers make things worse by padding the running time. The film is a mere ninety three minutes, yet the opera sequences go on FOREVER. Eddy was a screen idol back then, and he is obviously the main character here. In addition to all the opera scenes, the goofy romantic subplot never rises above embarrassing. There are no laughs, and the lightness of the romances sucks any tension out of the Phantom plot, now reduced to a secondary story.

Director Lubin comes up with no suspense, but the art direction is superb, especially the cavernous underground Phantom dwellings. There are a few too many insert shots of the Phantom twirling his cape and running off camera, and the famous chandelier scene is unbearably long, not suspenseful.

Rains is wonderful, until he puts the mask on and is reduced to bit supporting player. The rest of the cast, including a young Hume Cronyn, is relegated to the dorky romantic comedy plot, all the murders occur offscreen.

"Phantom of the Opera" does nothing for the horror genre. It actually does nothing for the romantic comedy or opera genres, either. I was very disappointed, the creaky silent version is still a better film. (* *) out of five stars.