It’s the week before Halloween, and yet it still doesn’t feel like fall. Let’s spend the week catapulting ourselves into the spooky mood by watching holiday-adjacent old movies. I’m sorry, but we’ve all seen Hocus Pocus too damn many times.
There have been many adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. But two versions have won out—Lon Chaney’s 1925 silent film and version and Andrew Lloyd Webber 1986 musical. We’re really leaving some incredible takes on the table, however, like the 1943 Universal Pictures clunker starring Claude Rains, which is basically Adam West’s Batman, but specifically for teenage girls. You can rent it on YouTube.
The basic story always stays the same—a masked man becomes obsessed with a talented young opera singer named Christine. But every version makes its own, unique efforts to turn a really weird turn-of-the-century suspense novel into a workable modern romance, and this one’s quirks are really something to behold.
For one thing, they’ve introduced comedy. Beyond the creepy attentions of the Phantom, Christine has two, competing suitors—Raoul, who has been turned into a police inspector who thinks she’s played around in the theater enough and it’s time to quit and marry him, and Anatole, a baritone who wants to help her advance her career. Their rivalry is often played for laughs—for instance, they are constantly trying to walk through doors at the same time and getting stuck. Here they are competing to give Christine a bust of her likeness, found in the Phantom’s possessions, which Anatole says he made as a gift for her but was stolen.
It also takes almost thirty minutes to even get a Phantom in the first place. You see, Claude Rains—Major Renault from Casablanca—plays a violinist in the opera’s orchestra, who has been supporting Christine’s career financially, anonymously. But he gets fired, which leaves him desperate for cash to continue paying her voice coach. So he takes the only copy of his concerto—two years’ worth of work—to a music publisher, who is busy showing a young woman how to make etchings. That’s not a dirty joke; he’s literally showing her how to do etchings, which is why there’s acid lying around. This publisher, annoyed at having his etching lesson interrupted, tells the desperate Rains to get lost. Only—this is where it really gets nutty—Franz Liszt is in the next room. He’s picked up the concerto and, very impressed with it, starts to play and insist they should publish this masterpiece. But Rains doesn’t know it’s Liszt. He snaps, decides the publisher has stolen his work, and chokes the publisher to death. At which point, the publisher’s lady friend grabs the tray of acid and throws it in Rains’ face. Bam—the Phantom of the Opera.
Can you even believe it?
And while I love Claude Rains, best of all for his performance in the greatest weepy of all time, Now, Voyager, as Bette Davis’s cardigan-wearing psychiatrist, he is really not very talented as a menacing lurker. It’s fine—we all have our strengths.
Anyway, the rest of the movie proceeds basically like you’d expect from any version of The Phantom of the Opera. It is notable mostly for the cinematography, which uses the color palate of 19th century china bowls and also lewd Fragonard paintings.
Except there’s all this weird face-pulling humor between Raoul and Anatole and at the end, they decide to lure the Phantom out using a fake opera called The Masked Prince of the Caucuses (sure) which is a racist nightmare, and also they bring back Franz Liszt to play the Phantom’s concerto. Well, if you are going to randomly inject Franz Liszt into your version of Phantom of the Opera, you might as well use him twice and include him in the climax of the film.
This movie won not one, but two Oscars. Happy Halloween!