A masked Claude Rains; Lavishly staged opera scenes; Two Oscar wins. The 1943 version of “Phantom of the Opera” certainly has a lot to recommend it. Despite veering wildly from the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel, this film is a brilliant reworking of the story. So lavish that one of the opera scenes featured a horse, yes, an actual horse on the stage, this version made the most of then-new Technicolor filming. But more eye-catching to those who know the various versions is the altering of the roles. Now, it is a mistake to object to reworking of a story per se. “Blade runner” would be a very different film had Ridley Scott stuck closely to the source material. But it is fascinating to see how reinterpretation of the characters has altered the films meaning.
At its heart “Phantom of the Opera” is a fairytale. Specifically it is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast”. A man falls into trouble, is cursed with physical ugliness and becomes bestial as a result. His only hope is redemption in the shape of a woman’s love. But in the Phantom’s case, there is no hope of a transformation. Beauty rejects the Beast, and is rescued by the handsome prince, Raoul. The Phantom may be redeemed by his love of Christine, but is denied a happily ever after.
Gerard Butler as the Phantom
In the 1940s version Claude Rains portrays a different Phantom to Leroux’s original. Rains’s Phantom is a gentle, humane musician, pining for Susanna Foster’s coquettish Christine. He is treated unfairly by everyone, sacked, berated, insulted and finally driven to murder before having acid thrown in his face. Because of his ordeal he becomes the Phantom, and undergoes a complete character change. From passive, gentle and benevolent he becomes menacing, murderous and crazed. His only link to his former life is his love for Christine. It is fairytale imagery, again, wrapped in the conventions of gothic drama. It is the transformation from prince to beast, with only the hope of having the curse lifted. Christine now takes the part of a would-be rescuing princess.
Lon Chaney as the Phantom
The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has a different take on the transformation. Gerard Butler’s Phantom was abused as a child, and kept as an exhibit in a freak show. Like Raine’s Phantom, he is turned into a killer by trauma. Emmy Rossum’s Christine hits the nail on the head with her diagnoses:
Christine: This haunted face/Holds no horror for me now. It’s in your soul/That the true distortion lies.
But while the 1940s film focuses on the contrast between prince and beast, Lloyd Webber’s version is concerned only with the Phantom’s predicament. There is no lingering over the protagonists’ former innocence. As for the 1920s film, there is barely any mention of the Phantom’s past, except to link him to crime and black magic. But what all of the films do is emphasise the redemptive quality of the Phantom’s love.
The 1920s version starring Lon Chaney revolves very tightly around the central relationship. The Phantom and Christine are permanently locked in a power struggle. Christine has to throw off her early illusions, and her quite real love. She makes the decisions which drive the plot, choosing handsome, respectable Raoul over the tortured, murderous Phantom. She later plays the role of damsel in distress, but is still active and central to the plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is similar. In the film of the musical, Christine (Emmy Rossum) even saves the Phantom’s life at one point. Both of these versions stick quite closely to the novel. Here is the deviation of 1940s version: Susanna Foster’s Christine is not in love with the Phantom, nor anyone else. Raoul is replaced by two young men, who she alternately flirts with, and discards at the end (the comic rivalry of her beaux is one of the films highlights). In a way Foster’s Christine is a more feminist portrayal, since she clearly needs none of these men (Christine’s real relationship in this film is with her career). But it does reduce her role in the plot hugely. It also weakens the power of the plot. The gesture of compassion crucial to the Phantom’s redemption comes only after his death-and in a very watered down form:
Christine: He was almost a stranger to me, and yet somehow I always felt drawn to him with…with a kind of pity…understanding…
Very mild indeed compared with this scene from the Lloyd Webber film:
Christine: Pitiful creature of darkness/What kind of life have you known?/God give me courage to show you/You are not alone…(kisses the Phantom passionately).
In Webber’s version, Christine’s act of kindness comes as close to transforming the Phantom as the plot can allow. He lets her go and escapes, his good side having triumphed. The film even allows him a kind of marriage with Christine, when she gives him her engagement ring. Webber’s version comes closest to the formula of Beauty and the Beast; The lifting of the curse and the union of the characters both have a sort of parallel. There is no scene of retribution for the Phantom’s crimes because redeemed, he can be allowed to escape the mob.
Claude Rains as the Phantom, with Christine
The 1940s script gives just enough of a concession to Christine’s role as a rescuer to redeem the Phantom. Otherwise her active role is almost completely cut out. She is the only the object of an obsession. Having changed Christine into a passive figure, the film focuses on Raines’s version of the Phantom. This completely alters the story’s dynamics. Rather than a passionate power struggle between characters, this is a character study. As the successor to Chaney, Raines is tasked with giving an equal performance in a totally different style. It is fair to say he succeeds. In contrast to Chaney’s grand acting, Rains is all nuance and convincing psychology. His version is a sympathetic anti-hero, who is trying to save himself. He pursues Christine, the passive object, a symbol of redemption. Part of this Phantom’s tragedy is his doomed attempt at self-rescue. This partly expresses itself in his crazed speech to Christine where he sublimates his life in the cellars:
“You’ll love it here, when you get used to the dark, and you’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly, and peaceful. It brings rest, and relief from pain. It’s right under the opera. The music comes down and the darkness distils it-cleanses it of the suffering that made it-then it’s all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection.”
Throughout his madness, Rains’s Phantom is always trying to recover something. Christine is clearly essential to his story, but only as a component. Apart from speaking the lines that grant the Phantom redemption, her only really active role is the unmasking. In the 1920 and Lloyd Webber films, the revelation of the Phantom’s hideousness is the catalyst. It causes the previously submissive Christine to disobey her “master” and choose Raoul over the Phantom. But this version serves a different purpose. In her new role as object and agent in the Phantoms story, she reveals to the audience the Phantoms real condition. The sight frightens her, but is not really a catalyst for anything. It is a revelation, and comes just before the Phantom’s tragic end.
Overall, I would say the Lloyd Webber version is the best, though all three films have their merits. The Webber version, somehow, it’s the only film which has properly looked at all of the issues; The fairytale plot of Leroux’s original. The suffering and transformation of the Phantom. The role of a female rescuer. The 1920s version is slightly truncated, in that it ignores or at least does not linger on the transformation. As for the 1940s version, it seems that female power just could not be acknowledged, even in a film. Why is open to speculation. Instead the film focuses on the male story, almost excessively so, in a depth the other two do not go into. Perhaps now, in a more equal society, all of the issues can be addressed. Lloyd Webber can and does address the story properly, with no need to alter the plot.
Unless you are in love with the original novel, it is possible to enjoy all of these versions for their own merits. And all of them are worth seeking out. Lloyd Webber may have conquered the west end with the musical, but as takes on a gothic fairytale none of these are to be missed. The 1940s take is a character study, not a love triangle, but there is nothing wrong with that. A fine story bears more than one interpretation. And it is nice to see a fairytale in which a woman rescues a man for a change. Just saying.