The auditorium set, a replica of the Opéra Garnier interior, created for the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera was reused. Other than the sets, this remake had little in common with the earlier film. The original storyline was completely revised and there was no attempt to film the masked ball sequence, although the famous falling of the chandelier was re-enacted on an epic scale, using elaborate camera set-ups. The cinematographers were Hal Mohr and W. Howard Greene. It is also the only horror film from Universal to win an Oscar. Though it is not generally considered the classic version of Universal's Phantom of the Opera it is still sometimes listed with classic Universal horror movies due to the 1925 version with Lon Chaney falling into public domain.
Violinist Erique Claudin is dismissed from the Paris Opera House after revealing that he is losing the use of the fingers of his left hand. Unbeknownst to the conductor, who assumes Claudin is able to support himself, the musician has used all his money to help anonymously fund the voice lessons for Christine Dubois, a young soprano with whom he has fallen in love. In a desperate attempt to earn money, Claudin submits a piano concerto he has written for publication.
After submitting it and not hearing a response, he becomes worried and returns to the publishers, Pleyel & Desjardins, to ask about it. No one there knows what happened to it, and do not seem to care. Claudin persists, but Maurice Pleyel rudely tells him to leave and goes back to the etchings he was working on. Finally giving up, Claudin stands there for a moment and hangs his head sadly. Someone begins to play music in the next room, and he looks up in shock when he hears it. It is his concerto that is merely being endorsed and praised by Franz Liszt. Convinced that Pleyel is trying to steal his concerto, Claudin leaps up and begins to strangle him. Just as he tosses the body of Pleyel to the floor, Georgette, the publisher's assistant, throws etching acid at Claudin. Screaming and wailing, he dashes out the door clutching his face. Now being hunted down by the police for murder, he flees to the sewers of the Opera. Claudin steals a prop mask from the costume department to cover his now-disfigured face.
Meanwhile, Inspector Raoul Dubert (Edgar Barrier) wants Christine to quit the Opera and marry him. But famed opera baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) hopes to win Christine's heart. Christine considers them both good friends but doesn't openly express if she loves them.
During a performance of the opera Amore et Gloire, Claudin drugs a glass of wine which Biancarolli drinks and makes her collapse and unable to perform. The director puts Christine in her place and she dazzles both the audience and everyone else with her singing.
However Mme. Biancarolli, who suspects that Garron and Christine are responsible for drugging her, orders Raoul to arrest them but he says he can't because there is no evidence to prove her statement true. So Biancarolli sets a condition that she will forget the whole affair only if Christine's performance is not mentioned in the papers. Her conditions are reluctantly accepted, much to Christine and Anatole's dismay. The next night Claudin enters Biancarolli's dressing room and kills her and her maid. The opera is subsequently closed.
After some time, the opera's owners receive a note demanding that Christine replace Biancarolli. To catch Claudin, Raoul comes up with a plan: not let Christine sing during a performance of the (fictive) Russian opera Le prince masqué du Caucase (“The Masked Prince of the Caucasus”) so as to lure Claudin out into the open, while Garron plans to have Liszt play the concerto after the performance. But Claudin strangles one of Dubert's men and heads to the domed ceiling of the auditorium. He then brings down the large chandelier on the audience causing chaos. As the audience and the crew flee, Claudin takes Christine down underground. He tells Christine that he loves her and that she will now sing all she wants, but only for him. But Christine doesn't recognize Claudin and is afraid of him.
Raoul, Anatole and the police begin pursuing them underground. Just as Claudin and Christine arrive in his lair they hear Liszt and the orchestra playing Claudin's concerto. Claudin plays along with it on his Piano as Christine watches, realizing the concerto was written around the melody of a lullaby she had known since childhood. Raoul and Anatole hear Claudin playing and follow the sound. Overjoyed, Claudin urges Christine to sing, which she does. While Claudin is distracted by the music, Christine sneaks up and pulls off his mask and sees his burnt disfigured face caused by the acid. At that same moment Raoul and Anatole break in. Claudin grabs a sword to fight them with. Raoul fires his gun at Claudin, but Anatole knocks Raoul's arm and the shot hits the ceiling causing a cave in. Anatole and Raoul escape with Christine but Claudin gets crushed to death by the falling rocks.
Once they're safe, Anatole tells Christine that she and Claudin had come from the same town district, which explains why they both knew the lullaby. She responds by saying while Claudin had seemed a bit like a stranger to her she had somehow "always felt drawn to him" (an earlier version of the script had Claudin be Christine's biological father, who abandoned mother and daughter--this explains his devotion and knowledge of the lullaby). Anatole finishes by saying that Claudin's concerto will live on.
Later, Anatole and Raoul demand that Christine finally chooses between the two men. She surprises them by choosing to marry neither one of them and pursue her singing career, because she now understands how much Claudin loved her and how much he was devoted to her singing career. She leaves the room and joins her adoring fans outside. The film ends with Anatole and Raoul go off to commiserate together.Claude Rains as Erique Claudin/The Phantom of the Opera. Former violinist of the Opera House who becomes The Phantom. Secretly devoted to Christine.
Nelson Eddy as Anatole Garron. A baritone of the Opera who loves Christine and helps her with her career.
Susanna Foster as Christine DuBois. A young soprano of the Opera House. She is unaware that Erique Claudin loves her and was the one who funded all her singing lessons.
Edgar Barrier as Raoul Dubert. A policeman who wants Christine to quit the Opera and marry him.
Jane Farrar as Biancarolli. An arrogant, spoiled diva who dislikes being upstaged.
J. Edward Bromberg as Amiot
Fritz Feld as Lecours
Frank Puglia as Villeneuve
Fritz Leiber, Sr. as Franz Liszt
Steven Geray as Vercheres
Miles Mander as Maurice Pleyel
Hans Herbert as Marcel
Hume Cronyn as Gerard
Tudor Williams as 'Marta' Singer (uncredited)
Universal first announced a remake of The Phantom of the Opera in 1935. This version would have been set in contemporary Paris, and would have portrayed the Phantom as a psychologically wounded World War I veteran who was physically unharmed, but imagined that he was disfigured. The screenplay lingered in development until 1941, when Henry Koster was brought on board to direct. Koster discarded the previous screenplay, and envisioned a new version of the story in which the Phantom was Christine's father. Producer George Waggner ultimately fired Koster from the project and replaced him with Arthur Lubin.
Cesar Romero, Boris Karloff, Feodor Chaliapin, Charles Laughton and Broderick Crawford were all considered for the role of the Phantom at various points during production, before the role was given to Rains. Koster's subplot about the Phantom being Christine's father was jettisoned because it gave the romantic elements of their relationship incestuous overtones. During the same year that the film was released, Phantom of the Opera was adapted into an audio presentation for the Lux Radio Theater. Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster and Edgar Barrier reprised their roles, but instead of Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone played Erique Claudin. This presentation was produced and hosted by Cecil B. DeMille.
Edward Ward wrote the score. The film has many elements of a musical, with lengthy opera sequences, and has been criticized for being more musical than horrific. For the opera sequences, Ward adapted music from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 as well as using themes by Chopin. He also composed an original theme, Lullaby of the Bells, which was heard in the film as the Phantom's piano concerto.
Contemporary reviews were mixed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times panned the film for being "watered down" from the original, calling the opening sequence "the only one in the film in which the potential excitement of the story is realized," while otherwise the "richness of décor and music is precisely what gets in the way of the tale." Variety called it "a vivid, elaborate, and, within its original story limitations, an effective production geared for substantial grosses." Harrison's Reports called it "a good entertainment, the sort that will direct an appeal to all types of audiences." David Lardner's review in The New Yorker dismissed the film, calling it "by no means a sample of the march of progress in the film world. The old version had Lon Chaney, who scared you plenty, and the new one has Claude Rains, who somehow doesn't."
Rotten Tomatoes gave this version of Phantom of the Opera an average score of 75%, based on 20 reviews from critics.
Following the success of Phantom of the Opera, Universal announced that a sequel would be made, titled The Climax. Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster were to return, along with Claude Rains as the Phantom, most likely meaning that his character did indeed survive the cave in at the finale of the first film; indeed, in the final shot of the mask and violin atop the rubble, there is a sound of moving rock. The sequel, however, was later cancelled due to story troubles and problems concerning the availability of Claude Rains. The Climax was indeed released the year after Phantom of the Opera, but it was not a continuation of the previous film and featured completely new characters.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning in two categories:Art Direction (Color) (John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman, Ira S. Webb) (Won)
Cinematography (Color) (Hal Mohr, W. Howard Greene) (Won)
Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture) (Edward Ward) (Nominated)
Sound Recording (Bernard B. Brown) (Nominated)