We’re here now to finish off our month-long celebration of Screen Team Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy by looking at one more of Nelson’s solo outings: the classic 1943 film Phantom Of The Opera, which also stars Susanna Foster and Claude Rains!
Coming Up Shorts! with… The Screwball (1943)
(available on Blu-ray as part of The Woody Woodpecker Screwball Collection from Universal Studios)
(Length: 6 minutes, 53 seconds)
Woody Woodpecker tries to watch a baseball game without paying, but has to deal with a policeman trying to stop him. While the idea of a cartoon character watching a baseball game and getting involved isn’t exactly an original idea, this short was indeed fun! There was a lot of hilarity here, from the policeman dealing with all the people watching through holes in the fence, to Woody dealing with other people in the stand so that he could see the game, to him going out on the diamond! This may not be the best baseball cartoon, but it provided quite a few good laughs, and I certainly want to come back and see this one again!
And Now For The Main Feature…
At the Paris Opera, chorus girl and understudy Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) finds herself torn between two suitors: Inspector Raoul Daubert (Edgar Barrier) of the French police (who wants her to abandon a career in the opera) and the opera lead Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy). Unbeknownst to her, she has another admirer: violinist Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), who has been anonymously helping to pay for her expensive singing lessons. However, that is about to come to an end, as he is losing the use of some of his fingers on his left hand, which has affected his playing enough that the orchestra leader Villeneuve (Frank Puglia) has let him go. Besides no longer being able to pay for Christine’s singing lessons, he also faces eviction, so he makes a desperate attempt to sell a concerto that he has written to a music publisher. When the publisher tries to throw Claudin out (while somebody in the other room is playing his music to attempt to help get it published), Claudin assumes that his music is being stolen, and strangles the publisher. The publisher’s assistant throws some etching acid in Claudin’s face to get him to stop, and he runs out of there. With nowhere else to go, Claudin makes his way into the sewers under the Paris Opera. He soon steals some costume pieces (including a mask), some food and the master key of the Paris Opera, an act of thievery that the superstitious stage manager Vercheres (Steven Geray) attributes to a ghost/phantom. At the next opera performance, Christine hears a voice promising to help her advance in her career. During the show, the Phantom drugs opera diva Biancarolli (Jane Farrar) and, as her understudy, Christine goes on in her place. Christine turns out to be a sensation, but afterwards, Biancarolli threatens to charge her and Anatole with attempted murder. She has no evidence to support her charge, but she relents when she blackmails everyone into trying to forget that anything happened that night (particularly where Christine is concerned). At the next show, the Phantom tells Biancarolli to leave Paris, but, when she refuses, he kills her and her maid. Anatole sees the Phantom and tries to give chase, but the Phantom escapes. As a result, the Paris Opera is closed by the orders of Inspector Daubert. When the Phantom sends a note demanding that the opera reopen and Christine be made the lead, the Inspector decides to allow the opera to reopen (but with someone else in the lead to lure the Phantom out of hiding). Meanwhile, Anatole has a plan of his own to get the Phantom out into the open. But will either of their plans succeed, or will more death and destruction occur until or unless the Phantom gets his way?
In 1925, Universal Pictures released a silent film version of the Gaston Leroux novel featuring Lon Chaney as the Phantom. The film was successful enough that Universal started producing a series of horror films, including the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, amongst others. A remake of Phantom was considered in the mid-30s, but it was shelved when the studio’s financial woes resulted in the ousting of Carl Laemmle (Universal’s owner and co-founder) and his son from the studio. Plans were revisited in the early 1940s, with the likes of Deanna Durbin, Boris Karloff and Allan Jones being cast. However, several of those stars became unavailable (Deanna Durbin mostly because of a suspension for several months), and the movie was briefly considered as a vehicle for new comedy team Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. After Deanna’s suspension was over, she was again considered for the role of Christine DuBois, only for her to finally turn it down when Nelson Eddy was cast in the role of Anatole (mostly because she respected his regular screen partner Jeanette MacDonald and didn’t want to be compared to her). With Claude Rains cast as the Phantom, work was begun in earnest, with part of the film’s budget going towards soundproofing the opera stage (which had been used in the 1925 silent film). The film received mixed reviews, but still did well at the box office (well enough that a sequel bringing back Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster and Claude Rains was considered, but story issues and Claude Rains being unavailable resulted in the film, eventually called The Climax, being changed so that it was not related to Phantom at all, with only Susanna Foster returning, albeit in a different role).
One thing I should say about this movie, now that I’ve seen it, is that it is one that will leave a lot of people divided. For the most part, this movie tends to get lumped in with some of the other Universal horror films, and it really isn’t one. Realistically, you can simplify what most seem to think of it with one quick statement: too much opera, and not enough Phantom. So, due to it being counted as a horror film (a genre that I’m really NOT fond of), I had a lot of hesitation going into this movie. Doing this Screen Team blogathon is what finally pushed me into trying it, and quite simply stated, I really liked this Phantom! The lack of horror worked better for me, as did the almost-musical nature of the film (for the most part, it’s mainly confined to them singing onstage). Nelson Eddy is still in good voice, and he manages to keep his comedic abilities going (which really got their start in The Chocolate Soldier two years earlier). Most of the comedy bits have to do with Eddy’s Anatole and Edgar Barrier’s Inspector Daubert competing for the affections of Susanna Foster’s Christine DuBois, with the two of them frequently trying to come through a doorway at the same time.
Now, is this movie perfect? Certainly not. While I like the lack of horror, I still think it needed to be a bit more present than it was (now, to be fair, I’ve never read the original story, and the only other way I’ve seen this story is a half-hour episode of the TV series Wishbone, so I’m certainly not the best judge on how well the story was actually done). I don’t feel like Claude Rains’ Phantom is as threatening as he should be, and the final sequence where his character kidnaps Christine just doesn’t leave me feeling like she’s really in that much danger. Given that that feels like an overall weaker spot in the film to me, I blame it on the direction (as I feel that none of the actors make you feel the urgency of trying to catch up to the Phantom like they should). I also think that the Phantom’s makeup and costume aren’t as effective as they should be, since what we can see of his face around the mask doesn’t look the same as when we finally see the mask taken off at the end of the film. In spite of these issues, though, I did have a good time with this one, and I look forward to revisiting it periodically (particularly around Halloween, but anytime of the year will work for me). As long as you can live with the opera music/lack of horror, then I think this film is worth recommending!
This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios
Film Length: 1 hour, 33 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
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