Monday, November 5, 2012

Jason goes to the Stanford for COBRA WOMAN and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

After seeing the silent, Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) on Friday night, I just had to go back to Stanford for the 1943 Claude Rains version. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. It was the second half of the double feature I saw.

COBRA WOMAN (1944): First up was this fun little flick that I had never heard of before. Maria Montez stars as Tollea, a Pacific Island girl who is about to marry her boyfriend Ramu (Jon Hall) but instead she is kidnapped (by a mute Lon Chaney, Jr., in a role that made me realize what a large, physically imposing man he was.) Turns out she was the secret heir to the throne of Cobra Island, a mysterious volcanic island where the natives worship a king cobra and trespassing by a stranger is punishable by death. And in her absence, her evil twin sister Naja (also played by Maria Montez) has been an incredibly cruel high priestess who routinely sacrifices her own people to the volcano. So Ramu has to go and rescue her, along with his native pal Kado and a monkey. Yup, there's a monkey involved, and it's all a lot of fun. And in beautiful Technicolor.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943): And then for the main event. In this version of Phantom, Claude Rains is a violinist in the Paris Opera's orchestra. He's a gifted musician and has been there 20 years. But his hands aren't as fast as they used to be, and so he is dismissed. Of course, he should have a fortune saved up from all his years in the opera, but he's been secretly paying for Christine Dubois' (I guess they didn't want to have to pronounce Daae?) music lessons. So his livelihood now rests on his ability to sell his concerto.

Anyway, that's just the setup and it already feels too spoiler-y. Rest assured Claude Rains gets horribly burnt by acid and becomes the Phantom. And he terrorizes the opera while advancing Christine's career. And a combination of her policeman friend and her leading man (both of whom are trying to woo her) try to track the Phantom down. That's one of the things that really struck me, compared to 1925 Lon Chaney version--it's almost more of a love-triangle comedy than a horror film. The other thing that struck me was how little was done in the Phantom's underground lair. So much more of the action takes place in the rafters and rigging above the opera instead of underground. And, of course, I was struck by the brilliant bright Technicolor (a possible reason for so little of it to be underground--why hide the beautiful Technicolor in the dark underground shadows?)

But that brings me to the real importance of last Saturday's show. It was shown on silver nitrate film instead of acetate. To emphasize the significance of that, there are only a handful of theaters in the world that play (or even that legally are allowed to play) silver nitrate films. That's because silver nitrate films are flammable nearly to the point of being explosive (watch INGLORIOUS BASTERDS for a demonstration of this.)

But silver nitrate film does produce a better image. So the colors were supposedly brighter, more vivid, crisper, and shimmered more than regular film (or digital.) And the image was certainly exceptional, but I'm not sure I would've noticed anything if nobody had told me in advance that it was silver nitrate. Now I'm told that actually by 1943 the silver content in the film was so low that the difference between it and acetate is marginal. Also I'm told that the difference is greater in black and white film. So I have officially lost my silver nitrate virginity, but now I want to see even older films--and black and white ones--on silver nitrate.

Total Running Time: 163
My Total Minutes: 302,523

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