Having explored numerous aspects of Gothic Literature for Universal’s cannon of horror features, it was time to turn their attention once more back to Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera; a tale of a deformed phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, murdering people to aid the woman he loves, Christine, to become a star.
It was a bold choice as nearly twenty years prior, the production house had successfully released a version starring “The Man With A Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney as the titular Phantom back in 1925.
It was deemed however, that ample time had passed despite Chaney’s son, Lon Chaney Jr now a contracted player for Universal, which meant that the ‘25 version was still fresh in the minds of some people. Chaney Jr allegedly expected the part to fall to him in order to reprise his father’s role, but the studio elected instead to cast Claude Rains (The Invisible Man). This did not go down well with Chaney Jr. and apparently some bitterness ensued between him and his The Wolf Man co-star.
It has to be said that I have always enjoyed Rains’ performances on screen and this was no exception as he brought a certain level of heart and empathy to his role as Enrique Claudin. Claudin is the doomed romantic, whose heart belongs to Christine Dubois, a soprano that he has been privately funding her singing lessons.
We certainly feel for Claudin, who is a violinist for the Paris Opera House and is let go due to the ailing use of his fingers. Looking to make ends meet, he then ventures to his music publisher in the hopes of getting money from a piano concerto that he has written. Tragedy has struck however, when he learns that the publisher is attempting to steal his work. In a fit of rage Claudin strangles and kills the publisher, only to have the publisher’s assistant throw etching acid in his face, deforming him.
From here on in, Claudin withdraws to the shadows with his new moniker of the phantom, and then goes to extreme measures in order to propel Christine to stardom.
The film plays out well enough and Rains more than holds his own, but it never feels dark or sinister enough to scare or thrill the audience. It doesn’t help that it is peppered with operatics with an upbeat jovial manner, potentially to juxtapose the dark energy that surrounds it. And it is the setting after all, but if that was the aim, then the darker elements needed to be amplified much more.
As it stands, it’s a solid film, but is no match for its predecessor. There were plans for a sequel called The Climax, but a combination of not being able to cast Rains again due to other commitments and problems working through a decent storyline that would work, it failed to materialise and instead would be reworked as a completely different movie starring Boris Karloff.
With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical aside, the story would not be revisited again until 1962 Hammer Films starring Herbet Lom, then another twenty year abstinence until Robert Englund would don the mask in 1989 for 21st Century Film, and a Dario Argento feature in 1998.
- Saul Muerte