Since the silent era, The Phantom of the Opera has been one of film and entertainment’s most interesting characters.
The novel was first written as a serialized story between 1909 and 1910 by Gaston Leroux. In the hundred years since the initial story’s release, the tale of a man haunting the Paris Opera has spawned dozens of adaptations, including movies, the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, and even comics.
Universal brought the character to life with the 1925 silent film, featuring Lon Chaney as a ghoulish creature. It was so popular, they chose to revisit the character again in 1943, both using sound and Technicolor to craft a lavish production.
As part of our Universal Monsters series, let’s look back at the two Universal productions of the beloved story.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in Universal’s Phantom of the Opera (1925). Image courtesy of IMDb.
Hot off his incredible performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney jumped into the makeup of another Parisian monster. However, this time there are no redeemable qualities in Chaney’s portrayal of the monster. Rather than a morally gray, or even sympathetic character, this version of the phantom is hideous and dangerous.
This version of “Phantom” was tumultuous, to say the least. The entire crew turned on the director, Rupert Julian, and rumors suggest Chaney directed all of his own scenes. The original film was such a disaster, Universal actually reshot the majority the film after premiering it in January. A second version was then booed off the screen, forcing Universal to cut the film for a third time. A combination of the two cuts was released in September and continues to be the iconic version seen today.Still of the Paris Opera House from Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Image courtesy of IMDb.
The film brings the world of the Paris Opera to life through spectacular set pieces. Ben Carré, a former backstage worker at the actual Paris Opera, designed the backstage and dungeon areas of the set. The ballroom and opera were meticulous, with Universal preserving the set despite tearing down the famous Sound Stage 28 on Universal property in 2014.
However, again the standout piece of the film remains to be Chaney. He appears maniacal from the word go, even as we’re introduced to him as a silhouette. However, the true reveal, which was held secret from audiences, was the intensive makeup work that Chaney put himself through again.
A colorized version of Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925) featuring Lon Chaney. Image courtesy of IMDb.
Chaney again designed his makeup, putting himself through an intense process. Through black paint, false teeth, and wiring he created a ghoulish and skull-like monster. Chaney inserted wires into his nose, pinning it up to further contort his face.
Chaney again brings a dynamite performance, that forces all eyes on him. This again cements his iconic status, showcasing his charisma and versatility. Despite all the makeup effects, wires, and prosthetics, he hams it up for the camera with exaggerated gesturing. This performance sets a tone for future Universal Monsters. Had he not passed away in 1930, he may have returned to Universal for more monster pictures.
The Phantom of the Opera (1943)Susanna Foster and Claude Rains in Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1943). Image courtesy of Universal.
One of the first things that jumps to mind when watching the 1943 version of Phantom is the visual difference from the rest of the classic Universal Monsters films. It could be because of the use of Technicolor, but even that would be surface level. The project was projected to be a huge hit after the original film, so the production values were very high.
What stands out the most, however, is that it is not horrific. There are moments throughout the film where scary and grotesque images flash across the screen. However, most of the story focuses on the Phantom before he becomes the titular villain. While it informs background on the character, it also leaves many segments of the film feeling bland or boring.Claude Rains in Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1943). Image courtesy of Universal Studios.
This time, the Phantom was played by Claude Rains, another veteran of the Universal Monster Universe. Rains portrayed The Invisible Man in 1933, a technical and directorial marvel from James Whale. The role was meant to be a prestige player, as Rains had just received his 2nd Academy Award nomination for Casablanca just one year earlier. While responses to Rains remain strong today, the reception of the film was muted.
Part of the reason for this was again the tumultuous production of the film. Originally, this version of Phantom was announced in 1935. Yet it could not secure a star or director for another six years, despite the fact it would have released at the near pinnacle of the Universal Monster series. Many of the stars of those films, including Boris Karloff and even Lon Chaney Jr. were approached for the role. Yet it couldn’t get made because the script did not work.Claude Rains in Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1943). Images Courtesy of Universal Studios.
That’s perhaps what holds back this version of Phantom the most. Despite the story’s prevalence in pop culture, original director Henry Koster sought to revise the tale. After he was fired, Arthur Lubin took the job. Lubin could not get what he wanted out of the script or cast, but the Oscars came calling in the technical categories, winning two prizes.
This is where the film does shine. The cinematography remains gorgeous to this day, and the sets are pretty. It is a picture of opulence. On that front, the film remains a success, but that’s about the only reason to watch it in 2018.
At the end of the day, the 1943 Phantom remains an extremely skippable and forgotten film from the Universal Monsters franchise. Many do not even acknowledge its creation, especially compared to the superior Chaney version. That version remains deeply haunting, and with restorations and colorized versions available via YouTube, choose the 1925 Phantom of the Opera as your Phantom of choice.
What do you think of each version of The Phantom of the Opera? Do you prefer these films or the 2004 musical adaptation? Let us know which one is your favorite in the comments below!