Phantom Histories: The 1943 Film

What do Claude Rains, Lon Chaney, and Michael Crawford all have in common? They each starred as the titular antagonist in adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera which, while excellent on their own, missed key pieces of the puzzle that keep me from considering them to be on the same level as the original novel.

The 1943 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera goes one step further in that, while solid on its own, I believe that it actually did some long-term damage to the franchise that carried over into subsequent adaptations. Yet, at the same time, it gave the story some interesting twists that you can’t find anywhere else.

Stupid Sexy Claude Rains

Even if you haven’t read or seen a version of Gaston Leroux’s classic novel, you probably know the general story because it has seeped into popular culture: a young singer named Christine attracts the attention of a deranged man who lives within the Paris Opera House, and horror ensues. By 1943, the familiar trappings from the novel still remained: there’s a falling chandelier scene (albeit moved to the movie’s climax), there’s a would-be lover to Christine named Raoul, and there’s a final unmasking of the Phantom. However, this film also takes some liberties with the original work, adding in a number of unique aspects. The Phantom, here known as Erique Claudin, has a drastically changed backstory. Instead of being disfigured from birth, he was once a violin player who became badly scarred when acid is thrown into his face. Erique doesn’t show a desire to marry Christine, but rather cares for her in a more fatherly light. Finally, and much to my delight, there is an additional romantic rival thrown into the mix: a singer named Anatole who, like Raoul, seeks Christine’s hand in marriage.

I don’t think that any of these items ruin the adaptation. Quite to the contrary, they help the movie stand very well on its own, separate from the 1925 piece. (Though it is worth noting that the set from the silent film is reused in this movie, so that classic film has not been entirely forgotten here.) The problem I have with the 1943 Phantom is that the changes introduced here became pervasive enough to become a part of the public perception of what The Phantom of the Opera is. After this film, the public generally saw the Phantom as a charismatic man whose scars had driven him to madness, rather than as a man who happened to be born as a monster.

Why did this version of the story become so pervasive? You probably could point to film’s growing influence on society. By the 40s, films had color and sound, and the Hollywood studio system was well on its way to becoming the juggernaut that it is today. What people saw in movies replaced what they had seen in books. Oh, you could say that film had become such an influence on our society, but I prefer to sum up the reason that the 1943 film forever altered the perception of Gaston Leroux’s story in four simple words: Stupid sexy Claude Rains.

Claude Rains is one of the greatest actors of his generation. From the smarmy French cop in Casablanca to the dangerously insane Invisible Man, the guy just oozed charisma. That is a good thing; you want to make the Phantom a likeable character despite his major flaws. But in addition to his natural charisma, he was a pretty damned sexy man as well.

But is a Sexy Phantom Really That Bad?

Why do I think a sexy phantom is detrimental to the overall story? Because, as I have said before, I don’t think that The Phantom of the Opera works as well as a story if the titular Phantom is attractive underneath his mask. In my opinion, the character should frighten viewers, not turn them on. The sexier the Phantom gets, the less horrifying he becomes, and the less the audience sees him as a true danger to Christine. We as audience members should understand why Christine is so frightened and repulsed, rather than admonishing her for turning down a man who is obviously very attractive despite his scars. The crux of the story is Christine’s ability to see the poor, pitiful man underneath the monstrous visage. In the original story and, to an extent, the 1925 silent film, the audience makes that journey with Christine, seeing the Phantom first as a ghost, then as an insane monster, and finally as a man who is desperate to be loved.

Even without his mask, he oozes charisma.

In the 1943 version, not only is the Phantom less grotesque, but we see him as a normal, unscarred man at first. In this version, he wasn’t born a monster, but rather was a successful musician. This tale is less about a man who has never known love and more about a genius’ fall from grace. That works fine for the movie as a singular entity. It just misses a certain something that the original story hit upon very well.

Highlights of the 1943 Film

Despite my objections to Claude Rains’ animal magnetism, this 1943 version does have a lot going for it. Rains is brilliant in his role as the Phantom, presenting a man who is both charming and utterly insane. By the end, when he really starts to rave, he raves, and his acting almost makes up for the relative lack of disfigurement when his mask gets pulled off. The film also has a terrific twist at the end where it turns out that the Phantom does beat Raoul and Anatole in a way: rather than marry one of them, Christine remains single and chooses to continue her career as a singer, essentially picking the Phantom over the two of them even though Erique is now dead. Remember that this is 1943 – the idea of a woman pursuing a professional career instead of settling down and getting married is earth-shakingly progressive for the era.

Christine and the two men who don’t win her heart.

As good as the 1943 film is, it could have been even better had a couple of things gone differently. First, rather than pursue Christine out of romantic desire, Erique was originally intended to be her father. The studio ultimately nixed this twist due to fears of incestuous overtones from those who knew the Phantom as a tragic lover rather than a dutiful but dangerous father. Even with the details erased, though, this bit is still very clearly part of the story. Erique spends his entire fortune paying for Christine’s music lessons, even though they have never personally met. Later on, he does act in a more fatherly manner toward her instead of seeking her out as a bride.

Secondly, this movie was successful enough to warrant a sequel, which would have been a major departure from Leroux’s work and established The Phantom of the Opera not just as a single story but as something with franchise potential. Sadly, conflicts with Rains’ schedule made the sequel an impossibility, although the material did get recycled to some degree in the 1944 film The Climax, which won an Academy Award for its art direction.

I really need to stress that the 1943 Phantom is a good movie, and in many ways is better than the 1925 silent film. Unfortunately, it leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth due to the fact that certain elements of the film, namely an artificially disfigured Phantom and a sexy lead actor under the mask, seeped into later adaptations, few of which matched this one in terms of quality. Stupid sexy Claude Rains.

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