Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

05 July 2016

Heavy on the Opera, Light on the Phantom

It's very very odd, but it is important to note that although Phantom of the Opera is frequently classified as a horror film, and although the eponymous phantom is played by the invisible man himself, Claude Rains, this is not a horror movie at all.

People are murdered, sure, and that chandelier drops from the ceiling. Phantom is occasionally thrilling, but not a bit of it is horrifying, in fact much of it is quite whimsical.  

Phantom of the Opera is, to my distinct surprise, actually a musical, just as Andrew Lloyd Webber would make it. To be clearer about it, Phantom is actually one of the last in a craze of opera films that were all the rage in the early 1930s through to the end of the decade when Maurice Chevalier, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald were big box-office draws. (I'm thinking of Victor Schertzinger's movies The Mikado and One Night of Love, as well as the Eddy–MacDonald pictures in which they were always paired, Maytime, Naughty Marietta, The Merry Widow, One Hour with You, Sweethearts, etc.)

Fake opera Amour et Gloire invented for the film
But it isn't just that it is filled with musical numbers – all of them operatic, incidentally, and part of the shows at the opera – this film is also filled with light comedy. Nelson Eddy plays Anatole, a tenor in love with Christine, the diva at the film's center, but Edgar Barrier plays Raoul, another of her lovers. Christine cannot decide between them, and we are not supposed to be able to do so either (although Eddy was a big star and Barrier was not, so you do the math). The film has these two men walking into doors at the same time and trying various acts of one-upsmanship with Christine. They team up in the end to attempt her rescue, and the film takes neither of these men seriously as they try to win her heart.

Phantom does take murder seriously enough, I suppose, but the whole thing is filmed in bright, bright technicolor, and there is hardly any darkness in the movie. The dark content of this movie all happens before the phantom becomes the phantom and begins terrorizing the Opéra Garnier in Paris. In fact, once the Phantom does start killing people, a minor character (the stage manager) has a running gag where he jokes about the phantom having a long nose and a red beard.

In any case, the whole thing is very strange, and (what's more) did not help me understand what happens in the Webber musical. I was secretly hoping that those characters' motivations would somehow become clear to me after watching this Arthur Lubin movie, but I am afraid I learned nothing.