10/7/2018 – 1940s: Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Directed by Arthur Lubin
After the 1930s ushered in the era of sound and set the template for what we know as horror, the 1940s had every chance to build on it. Technology had been improving and the early limitations of it had faded away. Yet for horror, the ’40s weren’t a decade of innovation. For one, the early films of the ’30s were made before the Hayes Code had been put into practice and as became clear from the latter part of the decade (although even before then as the situation surrounding Freaks proved) and into this one, a censorship bureau is going to have its eyes out for horror. Instead, most of the films of the era followed on stylistically from the ’30s Gothic horror movies.
Like that decade, we’ll start over at Universal. Their output would slip in the ’40s with much of it devoted to creating sequels to their franchises. 1940 alone saw The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy’s Hand, and The Invisible Woman. After crafting a new franchise in The Wolf Man, giving Lon Chaney Jr. a defining role to go along with some characteristically great atmosphere (even if the rest of the film is a bit uneven), the classic lineup was set (save possibly one which will come next decade). The Invisible Man would show up twice more in the comedic propaganda film Invisible Agent and The Invisible Man’s Revenge, while the Mummy would get appearances in The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse.
The big three of the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster, and Dracula would receive more novel treatment however. The Ghost of Frankenstein would be the last classic style Frankenstein film and the weakest to date, but for the follow-up, Universal had the novel approach to face the monster off against the Wolf Man. It gave the series a new bit of juice which would then be sucked dry with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Those two (which after the solo outing of Son of Dracula), added Dracula to the fray, but in 1945, it was clear the classic Universal Monster series was over.
They were revived however in 1948 for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, another big crossover film that was essentially a remake of those but with comedic duo Abbott and Costello added in, acting as comic relief while everyone else played the film straight. It launched series of films that continued into the ’50s with Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff the other release this decade. Aside from their big-name monsters, the studio churned out quite a few other films, but nothing all that special. Black Friday (starring Boris Karloff) and the werewolf film She-Wolf of London are alright, but after that, it’s a lot of uninspired and poor titles including MST3K fare (The Mad Monster and The Brute Man), the six movies starring Lon Chaney Jr. based on the Inner Sanctum Mysteries radio show, and a couple Poe adaptations (The Black Cat and The Mystery of Marie Roget).
After Universal, probably the most prolific producer of horror was producer Val Lewton at RKO. Not only was the quality of the horror films he produced more consistent than those at Universal during the decade, his films also hit higher highs. Of the eleven films he produced there, nine were horror. Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People are my two least favorites of the lot (and the only two I don’t care for), but they’ve achieved a reputation for the use of shadows and horror by mere power of suggestion in the former and for Robert Wise’s debut work in the latter. The Body Snatcher, Robert Wise’s third film for the studio, is the clear highlight starring Boris Karloff as a graverobber (as well as Bela Legosi). I Walked with a Zombie and Isle of the Dead are other ones to watch though his other four movies (The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, and Bedlam) are all solid.
The only other great American horror film to come out during 1940s was the Peter Lorre starring The Face Behind the Mask as a badly scarred man who has to turn to crime to survive. Some decent titles to look at though are the Karloff starring The Devil Commands, the star-studded remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner, the third take on The Lodger (first filmed by Hitchcock), the Oscar nominated for cinematography The Uninvited, the quick and cheap The Phantom Speaks, the Robert Alda (father of Alan) and Peter Lorre starring The Beast with Five Fingers, the short The Tell-Tale Heart, and if you want to get a bit loose, half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is horror adjacent. Lights Out would be the first TV show, making the transition from long-running radio show to the telly in 1946 and running until 1952.
Overseas, the Brits delivered the much loved anthology title (though it’s not a favorite of mine) Dead of Night and the acclaimed supernatural horror film The Queen of Spades, while the French gave us Maurice Tourneur compelling and weird Carnival of Sinners. If you are looking for other foreign language horror cinema, it gets obscure real quick after that. The Criterion Collection vouching for Yotsuya Kaidan (The Phantom of Yotsuya) (based on a story which is better known for being adapted as Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan) speaks well of it, while the Spanish film The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks, French film The Bellman, and Indian film Mahal, all arrive with high marks.
Today’s film is one of the remaining Universal titles I hadn’t seen, but it’s not as if I haven’t seen this story before. The 1943 version was the fourth version filmed after the now lost silent Das Phantom der Oper, the also silent Lon Chaney starring 1925 version, and the Chinese Song at Midnight. I even covered the story twice last year between Song at Midnight and the 1962 version. The 1943 version would go so far as to reuse the sets from the 1925 version.
Phantom of the Opera opens on an opera performance and there are quite a few of them in this movie that feel interminable. With the exception of the climactic one which manages to weave in quite a bit of suspense to keep it gripping, they mostly feel extraneous, pushing the film closer to a musical. A promising opera singer is being romanced by an inspector and a baritone (Nelson Eddy), not knowing that all along, there is a third party who had also fallen in love with her. The romance aspect of the plot as the two men compete in almost identical way is foregrounded a good deal, mostly for laughs that don’t come.
Claude Raines is Erique Claudin, a violinist who has an issue with the fingers in his right hand and is forced to leave the Paris orchestra. Broke after having secretly spent all his money funding the training of the young opera singer, he takes a concerto he has written to a music publisher. Given ill treatment by one of the publishers, he demands to have his only copy back, only to be given the runaround. When he hears someone playing it and commenting about how good it is (by Franz Liszt) and that it will certainly be published, he becomes enraged, convinced that the publisher is trying to steal from him, murdering him and in a silly moment has acid splashed on his face by an assistant who just seems to stand there and watch it all happen. He flees and hides from the police, stealing a costume and mask from the opera house.
All this backstory is a change from the typical Phantom of the Opera narrative which generally keeps the Phantom’s story ambiguous. I’m even fine in principle with the legend of the ghost with the long nose and the big red beard that haunts the opera house predating the incident. It’s just that the movie does nothing with Claudin becoming the myth and Rains feels like he disappears once he becomes the Phantom as a character. It’s one thing to slow build the Phantom and increase his presence over time, but when you flesh him out and then have him become a blank slate until the final moments, the progression of the movie goes out of balance. The Phantom devotes himself to making her a great and famous singer, except devoid of money, he must resort to other means to achieve these ends while the police seek to stop him.
The area the film excels is in its cinematography. Shot in color, it earned Hal Mohr and W. Howard Greene an Oscar as well as a win in Art Direction. At a time where so many others were moody black and white films shot in shadows and fog, the vivid colors add make it pop. It also earned nominations for music and sound recording, which perhaps ties to the larger point about its status as a horror movie. While I’d still classify it as such, those elements constantly seem to be downplayed in favor of a production which was making a big musical drama. He isn’t even scarred that horrifically by Phantom of the Opera standards. The Climax, starring Boris Karloff, was intended to be a sequel but was completely unrelated (also not a good movie) besides using the same sets.
Next up: Amy Holden Jones’s The Slumber Party Massacre for some good old-fashioned slasher goodness.