Anatole Garron – Nelson Eddy
Christine DuBois – Susanna Foster
Erique Claudin – Basil Rathbone
Raoul Daubert – Edgar Barrier
Host – Cecil B. DeMille
From the beginning, radio adapted dramatic content from print literature and the stage. In 1934, American radio network NBC inaugurated a programme that would become the epitome of both glamour and domesticity, sponsored by Lux Toilet Soap: Lux Radio Theater (NBC/CBS 1934-55). Although it originally prioritized adaptations from Broadway, Lux quickly carved itself a niche in adapting popular Hollywood films. For many rural listeners too far away to attend cinemas in urban centres, this was the social and cultural core of their listening experience.
It is not surprising, then, that in September 1943, when Universal was promoting its film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera (Lubin, 1943), Lux Radio Theater should present its own version, compressing the action of the ninety-minute film into less than half that length, generously bookended by commercial messages from the sponsor as well as a welcoming address from Cecil B. DeMille and even gossip from the film’s stars at the end of the show. Lux was much more about the stars themselves than the weekly stories.
In terms of plot, the Lux version of Phantom differed little from its cinematic version, although it introduced the important radio device of the narrator, in this case Nelson Eddy as Anatole, recounting the events of the film as if they were in the distant past. The lush musical numbers from the Universal film were retained in part, including excerpts from Martha and Amour et gloire, and the film’s specially composed ‘Lullaby of the Bells’. Unsurprisingly, Eddy’s voice found a natural home on radio, where he had already appeared frequently (indeed, he was performing on the Charlie McCarthy programme on NBC on 30 October 1938, at the very moment when many listeners switched the dial to CBS, famously to be panicked by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds).
One of the hallmarks of Lux Radio Theater was that most of the stars of the original films would reprise their roles. This often afforded a more intimate experience to radio listeners due to the nature of broadcasting, bringing the stars into their homes and seemingly speaking directly to the listeners (Cecil B. DeMille’s overtly theatre-like asides notwithstanding). In this case, Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, and Edgar Barrier reappeared as Christine, Anatole, and Raoul respectively. The only main cast member not reprising his role was the Phantom himself, Claude Rains. Why he did not is something of a mystery. Rains was no stranger to radio, appearing in more than 40 productions, including previous episodes of Lux, and had even promoted the Universal film on the Fred Allen Show prior to filming. Indeed, Rains’s distinctively throaty voice—in part the result of a gas attack in the First World War—was an integral part of his performance on film. Given that Rains had filled in for fellow British-trained actor Basil Rathbone—most famous on radio for playing Sherlock Holmes in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—in a 1938 Lux version of Confession (film released May, 1937), it could have been just the paying back of a favour. Or perhaps there was a rights issue, as Rains was only on loan to Universal from a long-term contract with Warner Brothers. In any case, Rathbone’s voice-only performance as Erique Claudin hits all the dramatic marks. Indeed, South-African-born Rathbone’s ‘British’ accent was deemed particularly understandable to Americans!
One of the main difficulties in adapting Phantom of the Opera for audio is, of course, the unmasking scene. The listening audience had to imagine Claudin’s etching-acid burns during the following exchange:
CHRISTINE: Take off that mask—take it off, or I’ll take it off for you!
CLAUDIN: You’ll hate me. . . . I wanted you to love me.
After Claudin’s accidental demise (rendered rather confusingly on radio), Eddy’s Anatole eulogizes, ‘His suffering and his madness will be forgotten, but his music will remain’.