The Phantom of the Opera (1943) w/ Claude Rains

My young nephews are studying The Phantom of the Opera in music class. One of them asked if Aunt Java has the film at home. I do. Yours truly grew up watching various film versions of Gaston Leroux's novel. It is the tale of a man gone mad who lives beneath a Paris opera house and secretly obsesses over a singer named Christine. He will do anything to make her a star, even murder.

At one point it time, there was Phantom-mania everywhere. Andrew Lloyd Webber was slaying Broadway; the soundtrack for Phantom with Michael Crawford and company was a commercial success; people wore sweatshirts and t-shirts with a phantom mask printed on them; every popular singer covered that haunting song, "The Music of the Night." I hadn't picked up any version of this movie since then.

It was a thrill to share with the nephews my favorite of the remakes - the Claude Rains version. 

This is a dark tale of insanity and obsession, but Universal Studios chose to keep it light and family-friendly. The 1925 Lon Cheney version is sinister and dark, lots of close-ups of the Phantom, slow turns, they really want you to drink him in; it's geared towards fans of horror films. More recent versions target adults who enjoy romance novels and desperately wish to be enveloped by the music of the night with Christine. 

On the other hand, once Claude Rains becomes the Phantom, the 1943 film keeps the title character at arms length. He's the mask in the crowd over here; he's the shadow on the wall over there. We spend more time above ground watching people react to his maneuvers. We dip only briefly into the subterranean lair of the mysterious murderer. Other versions keep you in the Phantom's world a little more.

Further, with bright and festive 19th century costumes credited to Vera West and delicious Technicolor,  this film is candy for the eye. There are also silly, comic bits as a singer (Nelson Eddy) and a police detective (Edgar Barrier) vie for Christine's (Susanna Foster) attention. All of this creates a tone that is different from that of most other versions. The tone might be annoying to many who are accustomed to the more frightening versions, but any children watching are not likely to have bad dreams after this light and frothy film.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943) with Claude Rains is recommended, especially for children.


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