Late last year, Universal Home Video premiered their "Classic Monster Collection" on DVD. Following the success of the initial group of titles, Universal is bringing us a new group of terror titans on DVD. One of the most highly anticipated titles is the 1943 version of "Phantom of the Opera," featuring Claude Rains as the Phantom. While there have been many versions of the Phantomís tale brought to the screen over the years, this particular version stands out due to its lavish production design and the great performance by Rains.
"Phantom of the Opera" is based on the now classic tale by French author Gaston Leroux. The 1943 version of "Phantom" does a fairly good job of sticking to the particulars of Lerouxís source story. The story is of course set in the Paris Opera House, where the film opens with an impressive performance by the opera company. In this scene, we are introduced to our main characters. Thereís baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy), a masterful singer, with an ego to match.
Also singing is Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), a member of the chorus. In the orchestra is violinist Eric Claudin (Claude Rains), who appears to be intensely serious about the music. Watching from the audience is Raoul DíAubert (Edgar Barrier), a police inspector and Christineís boyfriend. The opening opera number goes on for about 10 minutes without any dialogue -- it simply shows us the main characters and gives us impressions of their personalities.
As the story progresses, Eric displays very intense behavior towards Christine, as she greets Raoul and receives praise from Anatole (the two will soon be clashing for Christineís affection!). Meanwhile, Eric has been summoned by the Maestro to discuss Ericís recent performances. Eric explains that his left hand has been hurting and this interferes with his playing the violin. The Maestro is sympathetic, but nonetheless fires Eric from the orchestra. Eric wanders home, alone and dejected.
Despite the fact that he has been with the opera for twenty years, Eric is penniless, for he has been spending his money on something secret. (Which I wonít reveal, as itís one of the storyís best twists of fate.) In order to raise some capital, Eric summits a concerto to a publishing house. When his work is rebuffed by the director Eric finally snaps. He accuses the man of stealing his concerto and strangles him. The directorís assistant throws acid in Ericís face, burning him. Now a horribly disfigured murderer, Eric retreats to the place that he knows best, the Paris Opera House. He steals a master key, some costumes and masks, and begins to prowl the opera. He uses his stealth to help advance Christineís career, letting nothing stand in the way of this goal. As panic grips the opera company, Raoul and Anatole work together to stop this madman before he kills again.
Thereís only one word that can described this production of "Phantom of the Opera" and thatís HUGE! This film contains some great production design and costuming. This version of "Phantom" was shot using the three-strip Technicolor process and the deep colors add to the ceremony of the film. The film won the 1943 Oscar for cinematography and art direction, and viewing it on this DVD will make it easy to see why. The film was shot on a life-size re-creation of the actual Paris Opera House that lends even more scope to the film. And letís not forget the hundreds of extras who were involved in the opera productions and the audience!
Director Arthur Lubin (who also directed "The Incredible Mr. Limpet", so heís cool in my book) uses this colorful background to tell the familiar tale of the "Phantom". While the film falls more on the thriller side as opposed to horror, Lubin does give the "Phantom" a sinister and creepy edge. Once Eric becomes the "Phantom", we typically see him only in shadow, lending an heir of mystery to the character. Also, there is a healthy dose of comic relief provided by the Anatole - Raoul conflict. However, "Phantom of the Opera" is still a tragic love story. We feel genuine pity for Eric, despite the fact that he appears to be a crazed killer. Itís his loyalty and devotion to his passions that keeps his character from becoming completely revolting.
Claude Rains does an impeccable job as Eric and the Phantom. He is able to convey sadness and misery as Eric, the unlucky musician and rage as the "Phantom". Susanna Foster is good as the young Christine. Nelson Eddy practically steals the show as Anatole. While I didnít like this blowhard at first, by the end I found myself smiling every time he was on screen. Also, Hume Cronyn is listed in the credits, but doesnít show up until the last third of the film. Trust me, youíll recognize him!
My only real complaint about the film may seem like an odd one. Thereís just too much opera in the film. I know, what was I expecting, right? Still, the opera scenes make up almost half of the filmís ninety minute running time. In 1943, Iím sure that most audience members had never seen a real opera, and thus this was thrilling to them. However, in this day and age, when there are operas on PBS all the time, I found these scenes to be quite boring. For the most part, these scenes donít do much to advance the plot, and when they do, we still have to see an entire performance. This movie needed less singing, and more "Phantom".
As with the past releases in the "Classic Monster Collection", Universal has given the deluxe treatment to "Phantom of the Opera". The film is presented in its original full-frame format. The transfer does show some defects in the source print, mainly scratches and white spots, but they certainly donít detract from the beautiful viewing experience. Considering the fact that the film is almost sixty years old, the transfer looks quite good. The source print has obviously been cleaned, and the other defects were probably unavoidable. The digital transfer brings us a very crisp picture, where the Technicolor images have a great deal of depth. As usual with Technicolor, the reds stand out the most, coming across as very deep. There is also a nice look to the sewer scenes, where the darkness is a deep black that adds depth to the picture. "Phantom of the Opera" is a dual-layer disc, but despite the amount of material included on the DVD, shows only minor problems with artifacting.
The audio on "Phantom of the Opera" is presented as a Dolby Digital Mono track. This mix offers adequate sound with no audible hiss. The dialogue is always understandable and never appears muffled, however the music is often much louder than the dialogue, requiring some volume adjustment.
As with all of Universalís special editions, "Phantom of the Opera" is loaded with extras. There is a 50-minute documentary entitled "The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked". This feature was co-written and directed by David J. Skal, who has contributed the documentaries to all of Universalís "Classic Monster Collections." "The Opera Ghost" is hosted and narrated by film historian Scott MacQueen and doesnít focus solely on the 1943 version of "Phantom". Instead, it traces the history of the story and documents the making of the 1925 Lon Chaney version, the 1943 film, and the 1962 version, which was a Universal co-production with Hammer, featuring Herbert Lom as the Phantom. "The Opera Ghost" illustrates how much effort Universal put into these productions, the most interesting part being the re-creation of the Paris Opera House. "The Opera Ghost" was very informative and made me want to watch the other two versions of "Phantom of the Opera".
The DVD also features film historian Scott MacQueen in an audio commentary. This is a great example of taking the good with the bad. MacQueen obviously came to this commentary prepared, as he talks throughout the film, giving us insight into the production, the actors, and the story. The problem is that his commentary offers no spontaneity and comes across sounding like a college lecture. MacQueenís commentary is incredibly informative and itís very obvious that he knows what heís talking about, but itís also as dry as autumn leaves and can only be tolerated in small doses.
The original theatrical trailer for "Phantom of the Opera" is included on the DVD and it is presented full-frame. The trailer shows defects similar to the main film, but it also includes some headache inducing effects as the titles shift mysteriously from side to side. The DVD has talent files featuring information on the main cast and crew. There is a still gallery, showing many photos from the filmís production. There is a brief production note section, which covers most of the material, which is discussed in "The Opera Ghost."
Considering the success of a certain Broadway "Phantom", audiences should be clamoring to see an earlier version of the famous story. Universal Home Videoís DVD of "Phantom of the Opera" brings us a transfer of the film which does a great job of re-creating the Technicolor splendor of the film. Fans of the classic Universal horror films will definitely want to pick up this DVD. Casual viewers will be treated to a lavish film that shows what Hollywood could do in its heyday. Wait a minute... did you just see that shadowy figure?