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.



News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
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
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
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

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain