A while back, Lost in Translation looked at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux’ Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Webber had gone back to the original novel while composing the Broadway hit, but this wasn’t the first adaptation. The Phantom of the Opera had been adapted twice before in film, and combined with Faust in a third. Today, a look at the second adaptation, 1943’s Phantom of the Opera with Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, and Claude Rains as the Phantom.
The Leroux novel featured a man torn apart by obsessive love, a woman torn between her passion for singing and her love for fiancé, and a young man devoted to his fiancée’s well being. Erik, the Phantom, sees Christine Daaé as a brilliant diva and stops at nothing to put her up on centre stage. Christine sees the Phantom as her Angel of Music, the one mentoring her and giving her the ability to become a lead singer. Raoul is worried about Christine’s health, as she pours all of herself into becoming the best diva in Paris. The end is tragic, with Erik dead and Raoul and Christine lost after a flood in the Parisien sewers.
With the World War II still going on and the US now joining in on two fronts, the War in Europe and the War in the Pacific, audiences States-side were looking for entertainment to distract themselves from what was happening overseas. Film had become the special event out, replacing theatre. Radio gave people something to listen to nightly, but the movies didn’t have real life interrupting with breaking news. Movie stars were larger than life, with gossip pages tracking their comings and goings. Spectacles became popular, a way to see something beyond the mundane.
Phantom of the Opera strove to do that. The movie opens with an opera, with barotone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) as the leading man and Biancarolli (Jane Farrar) as the leading woman. Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) is part of the chorus, though she dreams of being more. Off in the wings, Inspector Raoul Dubert (Edgar Barrier), keeps watch, mostly on Christine. In the orchestra pit, violinist Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), is having problems as decades of playing the violin have resulted in a carpal tunnel injury. Erique, though, has his own dreams. He has a concerto that he wants published, and he sees Christine as the leading lady in it.
Erique’s personal life is in a similar shape as his hand. He has no money for rent, having used it to anonymously pay for singing lessons for Christine. The conductor has noticed that Erique can’t play as well as he used to and releases him from the orchestra with a small pension. And the concerto he wrote and submitted for publication has gone missing at the publisher’s office.
Seeing his life and dreams sinking, he starts tearing apart the publisher’s office to try to find his presumably rejected concerto. As he does so, Erique hears Franz Liszt (Fritz Lieber, not the science fiction writer but his father) playing the concerto. Without the context – that Liszt believes that the concerto is worth publishing – Erique snaps. He attacks the publisher, choking him to death. The publisher’s assistant has no choice but to toss a pan of acid at Erique, burning his face. Erique flees into the sewers.
Meanwhile, Christine has to deal with two would-be suitors, Anatole and Raoul. The two are both smitten with her and try to compete for her attention. Christine, though, is more interested in her singing career. Duty calls Raoul away; the opera house has noticed that some items have been stolen, including a cloak and some prop masks. The mask lets Erique hide his disfigurement away as he skulks through the opera house, taking advantage of superstition. Anything that goes wrong is blamed on the Phantom.
The next show, Biancarolli is again the leading lady, but the wine she drinks on stage has been drugged. She falls unconscious backstage, giving Christine her big break. Taking over Biancarolli’s role, Christine wows the audience. Biancarolli recovers near the end and hears Christine. Afterwards, she accuses Christine and Anatole of drugging her and demands Raoul arrest them both. Raoul refuses due to lack of evidence. Biancarolli insists then that the critics not mention Christine in their reivews. That earns her a visit from the Phantom the next night, leaving her and her maid dead.
The opera house shuts down as the police investigate. After the owners of the opera receive a note demanding Christine replace Biancarolli, Raoul comes up with an idea to trap the Phantom. An opera will be performed, but not with Christine in the lead. As well, since the opera requires the performers to wear masks until the end, Raoul will have his men, also masked, among the singers. Once the opera is done, Liszt will play Erique’s concerto to draw the man out.
Erique, though, is a few steps ahead. He kills one of police officers, taking his mask and robe. Erique then heads up to the dome and, under the cover of the opera, cuts through the chains holding the chandelier up. Once the chandelier crashes down, the Phantom joins the throng and pulls Christine away. He leads her through the sewers, past a lake, to a chamber under the opera house. It’s dark, but he can hear the music coming from above, away from everyone else.
On the surface, Raoul and Anatole realize that Christine has disappeared. As they race off to find her, Liszt continues with the plan to play the concerto. Erique hears it and starts to play along on his piano. He encourages Christine to sing, as he based the music off a folk song she loves. The music from the sewers helps Raoul and Anatole find Christine. They arrive to find that she has unmasked the Phantom. A stray shot brings down the sewers on top of Erique. Raoul, Anatole, and Christine escape with their lives.
There were many changes to Leroux’s novel in the film. The addition of Anatole, the changing of some names, such as Christine’s last name and Carlotta to Biancarolli, and Raoul’s profession and demeanor. However, the biggest change was in the focus. While /Phantom of the Opera/ is considered to be one of Universal’s horror films, the movie is more focused on Christine, not the Phantom.
The movie is definitely a spectacle, with lavish costumes, especially for the operas performed. Having Nelson Eddy as a lead means giving him time to sing, so some focus is spent on that. Where the novel has the focus on the Phantom to the point where even if he’s not in a scene, his shadow hangs over it, the movie separates the Phantom from the rest of the cast. He’s not so much a figure of horror as a mystery to be solved. There is as much time spent on Christine and her love triangle as there is on Erique. The operas also take up time from the film, turning it into a musical. Unlike Webber’s musical, the operas aren’t necessarily plot-related. They’d be background if less time was spent on them.
The movie still pulls beats from the novel. The Phantom does take refuge in the Parisien sewers, there is a chandelier that drops, there is a lake that the Phantom takes Christine near. The diva is still jealous and protective of her position. But the feel is off. While Erique does kill several people, there is no feeling of horror. While Erique has slipped past the threshold of madness, with the focus off him, he’s just a danger to Christine, not a figure to pity.
Phantom of the Opera is almost an in-name-only adaptation. It takes the plot and the trappings, but changes the focus away from the title character. The movie spends far more time on the opera and on Christine without showing that Erique’s love for her is obsessive and possessive. The story gets watered down and Claude Rains is wasted in the role of the Phantom.