Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) may be in the chorus of the Paris Opera, but she is also the understudy to the star, Biancarolli (Jane Farrar), and has the potential for great things with such a powerful voice. Tonight she is onstage, unaware that in the orchestra pit is Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a violinist who has noticed what a talent the girl has and wishes he could do something to nurture it. When she doesn't appear for her curtain call thanks to her boyfriend Inspector Raoul D'Aubert (Edgar Barrier) arriving in the wings and delaying her, Erique seeks her out...
But he cannot admit to her how he truly feels, and how he has desires to make Christine a star, in this, the second most famous film version of the Gaston Leroux novel after the Lon Chaney silent version of 1925. Certainly Chaney had made the role his signature one during his too-short life, perhaps ironically as there was no actual opera heard in it thanks to it being crafted without any sound other than what the musicians in the cinema would have played, but most of that was down to his muscular portrayal and naturally that incredible make-up he wore when the mask was finally torn from his features.
Rains had been The Invisible Man, and his work here was not going to overshadow that, but he did give a good account of himself nevertheless as a haunted, psychologically frail Erique in keeping with the villains of the day, not that he was above bumping people off when it suited him. What triggers his change from a meek musician is that he is let go from his job in the orchestra because he is physically not quite up to it anymore, so heading fast into poverty his last resort is to get his concerto published and performed. He thinks he knows the right company for this, and hopes to hear Christine sing it one day, but when he arrives at the offices it's safe to say things go wrong.
Hearing the concerto played in the next room, strangling the publisher to death and having acid (from the man's etchings!) thrown in his face by the lady friend of the deceased will do that, and soon, as if you didn't know, Erique is living secretly in the bowels of the Paris Opera House, sporting a mask and a cloak for maximum sinister effect. Meanwhile, there are signs the filmmakers were not especially interested in the horror angle, seeing as how Rains was sidelined for much of the time so that Foster could impress us with her trilling. And vocally she was indeed impressive, suggesting the studio's decision to offer her the rising star treatment was a wise one, though unfortunately it was not sustained, as Foster dropped out of the limelight fairly quickly and suffered a rather sad life subsequently.
At least we had Phantom of the Opera to preserve her at her peak, and starring alongside her idol Nelson Eddy as her other suitor Anatole Garron, a leading man on the stage and getting to show off his pipes as much as Foster was. This was really the version to watch if you liked opera better than thrills - The Opera of the Opera might have been a better title - though given Universal didn't have the rights to anything that was celebrated you may be let down by the material even if the vocal performances were very fine. There was also room for a spot of comedy of a slightly buffoonish sort which indicated nobody was very sure what kind of movie they were making here: there were some good sequences, Rains was appropriately phantomlike even before he donned the disguise, Foster was luminously charming, the design was lavish and colourful, but there was a stately air to the movie which let down suspense as for a chiller it was altogether too tastefully conceived.