Carmen the tempestuous gypsy made her first appearance in an 1845 novella by Prosper Merimée, and this tale of the treacherous cigarette factory girl who discards her lover for a bullfighter has inspired countless operas, plays, ballets, musicals, and more than 30 films. Georges Bizet’s 1875 adaptation, a failure when it premiered, has since become one of the most-performed operas of all time. One of the greatest stars to embody the role, on stage and in the movies, was the American diva Geraldine Farrar.
Born in Massachusetts in 1882, Geraldine Farrar was the daughter of a first baseman for a team that later became the Philadelphia Phillies. Legend has it that as a child, she would run around the bleachers singing while Dad fielded baseballs during practice. She studied in Boston, New York, Paris, and Berlin, where she made her debut in 1901 as Marguerite in Faust. Young, slender, and beautiful, Farrar was the antithesis of the prima donnas of the era, and she developed quite a following. It was whispered that the Crown Prince of Germany, Frederick Wilhelm, was her lover. Farrar only admitted that he was a good friend, but she kept a large portrait of him in her New York apartment.
She joined New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1906 and remained with the company until 1922. Carmen became one of her signature roles, and she often performed it with the Met’s leading tenor Enrico Caruso as her Don José. During this period, the charismatic Farrar enjoyed the level of fame that today’s pop stars inspire: fan clubs of young women who called themselves “Gerry-flappers,” extensive press coverage, high salaries, a lavish lifestyle, and rumors of a feud with composer Giacomo Puccini and an affair with conductor Arturo Toscanini.
When it was suggested she make films, Farrar admitted that she had been so busy performing in the U.S. and Europe, as well as recording, that she had seen only one motion picture, Quo Vadis (1914). But with war raging in Europe she was unable to tour abroad, and an offer of a three-picture contract from producer Jesse Lasky proved irresistible. Not only did she star in the film version of one of her biggest hits, Carmen, she also got a salary equal to two dollars a minute for every day she was in California, plus a six-hour workday, a fully-staffed house, a car, and all living expenses. In addition, the studio built her a little house on the lot with a dressing room, a bathroom, and a living room large enough to hold her grand piano. Farrar agreed to the offer and embarked on the cross-country trip in her private railway car, arriving in California to what became another tradition — the grand star welcome. A group of children laid a carpet of roses between train and automobile for Farrar to walk upon.
Farrar’s arrival to make a “silent opera” was greeted by skepticism in Hollywood. “Farrar voiceless!” began a 1916 Photoplay article. “The Mona Lisa without her smile; a Stradivarius without its strings …!” Jesse Lasky’s star director Cecil B. DeMille was also skeptical. Although he was enthusiastic about Farrar’s potential as a film actress, he also knew she was used to the exaggerated acting required by opera and stage, which would be ludicrous in close-ups. He and Lasky decided instead to make Maria Rosa before Carmen. Doing so would not only give DeMille a chance to develop Farrar’s film acting technique, it would also test her chemistry with costar Wallace Reid. In her autobiography, Such Sweet Compulsion (1938), Farrar writes that she was grateful for the opportunity to hone her cinematic skills. Other accounts say that she was furious and threw a tantrum. If Farrar was distraught, her temper was soothed by actor Lou Tellegen, who was working on the Maria Rosa script with DeMille’s brother, William. Farrar and Tellegen married in 1916. Farrar proved to be an apt pupil of film acting and developed excellent rapport with the tall, handsome Reid.
Wallace Reid (1891–1923) was from a theatrical family and had been onstage since the age of four, although he was a reluctant actor. Intelligent and well-educated, Reid spent time on a ranch in Wyoming and enjoyed riding and sports. His mother wanted him to go to college, but instead Wally followed his father into films, hoping to become a director and writer. With his good looks and physical grace, Reid soon found himself in front of the camera, as well as directing and doing camerawork. His small but memorable role as the blacksmith in The Birth of a Nation (1915) brought him to DeMille’s attention, and Reid moved to the Lasky Company.
One obstacle prevented Carmen from going into production. Bizet’s estate still held the copyright to the opera, so the Merimée novella was initially used as the basis for the screenplay. But DeMille was adamant: audiences were expecting to see Farrar in the opera for which she was renowned. In the end, Lasky was forced to acquire the rights to Bizet’s opera. The combination of this expense, plus Farrar’s high salary, made Carmen one of the studio’s most expensive movies to date. But DeMille’s instincts proved correct. Curiosity was high, and the film was a success.
Although Farrar made several films between operas over the next five years, her movie career turned out to be a brief interlude, and she abandoned films in 1920. Her marriage, too, was brief. She and Tellegen divorced in 1923. He committed suicide in 1934.
Wallace Reid’s end was also tragic. Injured in a train accident in 1919, he was given morphine for the pain and soon became addicted. His decline was aggravated by excessive drinking, and he died in a sanitarium in 1923 at the age of 32.
Geraldine Farrar returned to the stage with the naturalistic acting style she had learned in films. While performing Carmen at the Met, she allegedly punched and kicked Caruso so enthusiastically that the fracas caused a temporary rift in their working relationship. She retired from the stage in 1931 and died in 1967.
Presented at SFSFF 2003 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer