The soprano Susanna Foster played Christine, the young singer who bewitches the masked figure who lives in the bowels of the Paris Opera House, in the first sound version of Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera (1943). The opulent production was the biggest money-maker of the year for Universal studio, and Foster, with her porcelain looks and sweetly soaring voice, became an instant favourite of film-goers. But less than two years later, her career as a major film-star was over. She acknowledged later that itwas partly her own fault – she was an outspoken lady, and she rejected several promising roles, but was also unfortunate in being at Universal at the same time as Deanna Durbin, also a soprano and the studio’s most popular female star.
Born Suzanne DeLee Flanders in 1924 in Chicago, she was raised in Minneapolis, where she started doing impersonations of vaudeville performers when she was three years old, and by five was helping support her family through the Depression. “Eventually, the conductor at the local vaudeville house had me record a couple of songs I’d learned listening to Jeannette Mac- Donald … They mailed the record to MGM, and the studio sent for me. My mother and I arrived in Hollywood in 1937, when I was 12 years old.”
MGMexecutives welcomed the new soprano, but Foster was unhappy with thework they offered her. “MGM wantedmeto act, but I wanted to sing. They wanted me to do National Velvet. But I was very determined, and I told them.
‘I don’twant to be in anything where I don’t sing’. I could have been more malleable, but I was just a little girl.”
Let go by MGM, she was signed by Paramount for The Great Victor Herbert (1939), which gave her the chance to display her high-ranging voice. Two “B” movies followed: There’s Magic in Music and Glamour Boy (both 1941), but Foster became disgruntled: “I was due a raise. I said, ‘I don’t like the movie business. You just keep me hanging around and don’t give me anything to do. I’m leaving’. I departed Paramount with the reputation of being more than a little outspoken.”
Butsoonafterwards, at a dinner party given by a Hollywood Reporter writer, her singing impressed another of the guests, Arthur Lubin, who was preparing to direct ThePhantom of the Opera. He arranged for Foster to sing for producer George Waggner and composer Edward Ward, who were thrilled when she produced an A-flat above high C, and she was given a seven- year contract. With Claude Rains as the Phantom, and Nelson Eddy as one of Christine’s beaux, Phantom of the Opera successfully blended romance, horror and classical music.
Foster described the film, which was made during the Second World War, as a joy to make: “Claude Rains was a great gentleman. He always had a twinkle in his eye and was very flirtatious – no wonder he had six wives!” The war itself had one important effect on the film: “Because so many servicemen had been maimed or disfigured in the war, the studio was worried about the make-up for the grotesquely scarred Phantom. They were afraid it might be not only frightening but, in view of current conditions, offensive to the public. So Jack Pierce, the great Universal makeup manwho had created the make-up for Frankenstein’s monster, made the Phantom’s scars just frightening enough but not really repulsive. Whenever they say Hollywood has no taste, I always think of this occasion when the studio went out of its way to be sensitive.”
When the picture was finished Nelson Eddy wanted Foster to go on a concert tour with him, and she regretted later that she did not accept, but she was dealing with personal problems at home, where her two younger sisters were suffering abuse from their alcoholic mother.
After two minor but lively musicals with Donald O’Connor, TopMan(1943) and This is the Life (1944), Foster was given The Climax (1944), a blatant attempt by Universal to recapture the flavour of Phantom of the Opera, utilising the same period sets. This time Foster was menaced by Boris Karloff, as a mad doctor who murdered the diva he loved in a fit of jealous rage, then kept her embalmed in a homemade shrine. Foster was unimpressed by Karloff: “He was so cold. Except for our dialogue, I never had a conversation with that man.”
Bowery to Broadway (1945), the story of feuding vaudevillians, did not show Foster to advantage, and a more promising vehicle, Frisco Sal (1945), originally intended for Durbin as a musical western in colour, was made in black-and-white with a reduced budget when Foster took over. After a fanciful musical, That Night with You (1945) Universal paid for her to tour Europe for six months, and on her return she sang at a White House gala with President Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance, but afterwards she refused to return to the studio. She called the offer of The Countess of Monte Cristo “the last straw”, adding, “Sonja Henie was one of my favourite stars, but in this film they wanted me to play her maid!”
In 1948 she appeared in a stage revival of Naughty Marietta, and later the same year she married her leading man, Wilbur Evans, with whom she had two sons.
She divorced Evans in 1956, saying that she was not in love with him, and then struggled to raise her sons alone, taking low-paying jobs, sometimes living on welfare, and at one time homeless and living in her car. Described by her friend the music historian Miles Kreuger, as “bright but emotionally fragile”, she battled both alcohol and mental illness, as did her mother, her sisters, and her son Philip, who was also a drug addict.
In 1985, while she was living in an apartment loaned to her by a fan, Philip lapsed into a coma on her livingroom floor and died three days later in hospital. Foster occasionally appeared at conventions and screenings of her films, and hoped for a comeback, but played only one more role, a small part in Detour (1992), and in 2000 she talked on a documentary that accompanied the DVD of Phantom of the Opera. Shewas aided in later years by her surviving son Michael, and for several years prior to her death she lived in nursing homes.
Susanna DeLee Flanders (‘Susanna Foster’), actress: born Chicago, Illinois 6 December 1924; married 1948 Wilbur Evans (marriage dissolved 1956, one son and one son deceased); died Englewood, New Jersey 17 January 2009.