Susanna Foster: Singer and actress who starred in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ opposite Claude Rains

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.

Tom Vallance

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.



PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride