Great Actresses of the Past (1911-16) and Opera Stars in Silent Films (1915-18)

Toronto Film Society presented Great Actresses of the Past (1911-16) and Opera Stars in Silent Films (1915-18) on Monday, November 16, 1964 as part of the Season 17 Monday Evening Silent Film Series, Programme 2.

Programme No. 1
Monday, November 16, 1964


“Nothing could be unkinder, in a sense, than to exhibit the distinguished executants of one fully refined medium as they were translated into another unfamiliar medium still in process of development.  What is presented on the screen is not the inimitable Bernhardt, the incomparable Duse, but the thin shadow of stage celebrity.  Yet since this is all that remains to be studied of these great actresses of the past, affection and curiosity unite to demand the preservation of their films.  At least the screen keeps a partial record of the physical appearance, stature, gait and gestures of the illustrious dead.  And wherever the films sought piously to recreate famous theatrical performances, they furnish instructive glimpses of extinct theatrical styles and traditions”.  (Museum of Modern Arts FILM NOTES)

Excerpts from:

          RÉJANE in Madame Sans-Gëne (1911)
Produced by Film d’Art.  Directed by André Calmettes.  Cast: Réjane as Mme Sans-Gëne; Duquesne as Napoleon; Dorival as Lefèbvre; Jacques Volnys as Neipperg; Mmme Raynal as the Empress Marie-Louise; Rablet as Fouche.

          SARAH BERNHARDT in La Dame Aux Camélias (Camille) (1911)
Produced by Film d’Art.  Directed by André Calmettes.  Cast: Sarah Bernhardt as Marguerite Gautier; Lou Tellegen as Armand Duval.

          MINNIE MADDERN FISKE in Vanity Fair (1915)
Produced by Edison-Kleine.  Directed by Eugene Nowland.  Cast: Minnie Maddern Fiske as Becky Sharp; Helen Fulton as Amelia Sedley; Frank McGlynn as Captain Dobbin; Bigelow Cooper as Rawdon Crawley; George Wright as the Marquis of Steyne.  (Copyright date: Sept 25, 1915)

          ELEANORA DUSE in Cenere (1916)
Produced by Ambrosio-Caesar-Film.  Cast Eleanora Duse as Rosalia; Febo Mari as her son.


          GERALDINE FARRAR in Carmen (1915)
Produced by the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company.  Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.  Screen play by William DeMille, adapted from the novel by Prosper Mérimée.  Cast: Geraldine Farrar as Carmen; Wallace Reid as Don José.  (Copyright date: Oct 4, 1915)

          MARY GARDEN in Thais (1917)
Produced by Goldwyn Pictures.  Adapted from the novel by Anatole France.  Directed by Frank Crane.  “Picturized by Edfrid Bingham”.  Cast: Mary Garden as Thais.  (Copyright date: Dec 18, 1917)

          ENRICO CARUSO in My Cousin (1918)
Produced by Famous Players-Lasky.  Directed by Edward José.  Story and scenario: Margaret Turnbull.  Starring Enrico Caruso.  (Copyright date: Sept 28, 1918)

Who has not said to himself at one time or another: “What a beautiful photograph!–it’s just like a painting!”  Why it should be considered praiseworthy for one work of art to resemble another medium of art is one of those things which are hard to explain.

Thus it was that the film, during its technical and artistic growth to maturity, went through a period when it could gain prestige only by duplicating stage plays.  This period began in 1908 in France, when a company calling itself Film d’Art set itself up with the impressive cooperation of Comédie Française to bring to the screen outstanding plays from that august company’s repertory, performed by its leading actors, with L’Ássassinat du Duc de Guise as its first product.  (No less a composer than Camille Saint-Saens wrote the accompanying score).  As one historian has put it: “It was the first time that eminent actors had condescended to act for the films: the cinema was bidding farewell to tents and circuses in order to woo a buskined Muse”.

Crude and misguided though this film appears to us today, it did not strike its contemporaries that way.  The public, tremendously impressed, felt that the lowly cinema had at last come of age, and the response both of the box-office and of enlightened opinion encouraged Film d’Art to turn out a whole series of filmed plays with celebrated stars. “This is my one chance of immortality” declared Sarah Bernhardt, who made for this company “picturizations” of four of her plays, including La Dame Aux Camelias, which we are to see tonight, and the famous Queen Elizabeth which revolutionized the film industry in the United States.

For in New York a man named Adolph Zukor purchased the American rights to Queen Elizabeth, and launched it in 1912 with magnificent éclat, not in a mere nickelodeon but in one of New York’s finest legitimate theatres, as the opening gun of his new motion picture company, Famous Players in Famous Plays.  The film’s spectacular success in North America had many still-extant results. One was the establishment of the feature-length film as the norm, in place of the one-or two-reel films which had hitherto been the standard movie fare.  Another was the fact that Zukor’s Famous Players company (later united with its rival, the Lasky Feature Play Company) soon became one of the most powerful producing companies in Hollywood, both before and after changing its name to Paramount.  (“Famous Players” still survives as a chain of movie houses).

But more relevant to tonight’s program was the duplication in North America of the effect that the Film d’Art had had in France.  The prestige of Sarah Bernhardt suddenly made movies respectable, and her example made it o.k. for eminent stage stars to appear in films without losing caste.  (The few hold-outs were won over by Geraldine Farrar’s entry into films in 1915).  Zukor’s company lured numerous great stars to its studios to film their most famous plays, and other companies quickly followed suit.  There was suddenly a great trek of stage celebrities to Hollywood,–most of whom soon trekked back again, being unable to adapt their acting styles to the silent and intimate camera.

There were many exceptions of course, (such as Douglas Fairbanks),–but only one of those exceptions is to be found among the seven stars, outstanding in either the legitimate stage or the opera house, whose work before the movie cameras we are sampling tonight.  (Surprisingly, that exception was one of the opera singers: Geraldine Farrar).  For the most part, these samples are offered only as imperfect relics of some of the great stage stars of a bygone era.  We are concerned tonight not with Film as an Art, but with Film as a recording medium, preserving for us a rough (but only a rough) idea of what these giants of another medium were like.

*     *     *

RÉJANE in Madame Sans-Gëne

Madame Sans-Gëne was a play by Victorian Sardou and Emile Moreau, based on an actual historical character.  The play has also been made into an opera by Umberto Giordano, which was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in January, 1915, with Geraldine Farrar in the title role.  Gloria Swanson made another silent version of the play in 1925.

RÉJANE (Gabrielle Charlotte Réju) (1857-1920)–made her first professional appearance in 1875 at the Vaudeville in Paris.  “She was soon recognized as a leading player of comedy and appeared at many Parisian theatres.  She was frequently seen in London, making her first appearance there in 1894, and Shaw, in ‘Our Theatre in the Nineties’, while despising her choice of play, says of her acting ‘it has the quick sensibility which is the really moving quality in fine comic acting, and it is perfectly honest and self-respecting in its impudence’.  Few of her parts were memorable, with the exception of MADAME SANS-GENE (in which she was seen in New York in 1895), and she never ventured to approach the classics. But in her own line of comedy she was unapproachable”.  She retired in 1915.  (Quotations are from The Oxford Companion to the Theatre).

In 1911, when this film was made, she was 54 years old; but in the theatre, people were used to seeing actresses play youthful roles long after they were mature* (particularly if the role had long been identified with them) and didn’t seem to be upset when they continued to do so in films.  Audiences apparently had more imagination in those days.

*(In 1909, Sarah Bernhardt, then 65, produced “The Trial of Joan of Arc” in Paris.  When Joan was asked “How old are you?”, Bernhardt turned slowly till she faced the audience, then replied firmly “Nineteen”,..and received an ovation at this point every night).

SARAH BERNHARDT in La Dame Aux Camélias

In 1911, when she made Camille, Bernhardt was 67 years old.  “Contemporary criticism deplored the trumpery sets of Camille and the ravages which harsh lighting wrought on Bernhardt’s features, but praised the film.  The fact that the actress recreated her stage performance, ‘speaking my lines as usual’, explains some rather odd effects; but the bravura of the death scene still holds the power to impress.  This is the Camille of an idolized actress who had been interpreting the role successfully for more than thirty years”.  (MMA Film Notes)

SARAH BERNHARDT (1844-1923).  “French actress, and one of the best known, not only in Europe but in America, both North and South, in Australia and in Egypt, where she frequently appeared on tour.  Numerous legends about her eccentricities were in circulation, some provoked by her undoubted unconventionality, others apocryphal.  She was probably one of the finest actresses the world has ever seen, and had a voice which, though likened to ‘a golden bell’ or the ‘silver sound of running water’, can never be adequately described to those who have not heard it. It constituted one of her main charms, added to a slim, romantic figure, dark eyes, and a consummate mastery of her art.  She began her training for the stage at the age of 13, and in 1862 made her first appearance at the Comédie Française, where she was destined to make many a brief and stormy appearance, her free spirit not accommodating itself easily to the the traditions of that venerable establishment.  She left it for good in 1880, and the rest of her career was passed in other theatres…”  She “set out on her travels, making her first appearance in London in 1879 in Phèdre, and in New York in 1880 in Adrienne Lecouvreur, scoring an immediate triumph in both capitals. She returned to them many times in later years, and always with success, her last appearance in London being Daniel, not long before her death…”  “Among the plays in which she scored her greatest successes, apart from Phèdre, were La Dame aux Camélias, Sardou’s Fedora, Theodora, and La Tosca, the plays of Edmond Rostand, particularly L’Aiglon, with which her name is always associated, and Hamlet”.  (Quotations are from The Oxford Companion to the Theatre)

On October 9, 1905, during a performance of La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, she leaped off the parapet in the last act, as required by the play; only this time someone had neglected to place the mattresses which normally broke her fall, and she fell heavily on her right knee.  She refused to have it treated till she reached New York three weeks later, and she eventually continued with her tour; but from then on the condition of her leg slowly deteriorated.  By 1908 she could walk only with difficulty; by 1911 (when this film was made) she could not walk unsupported; by 1913 the furniture on stage had to be arranged so that she never took more than two consecutive steps; and in 1915, by doctors’ orders, the leg was amputated to save her life.  And still she kept on acting,, confining herself to roles she could play sitting down,–some specially written for her.

Her film debut (apart from filming the duel scene from hamlet for the Photocinema Theatre at the Paris Exposition of 1900) was made in 1908 with La Tosca,–which, however, was so bad that she refused to allow it to be shown.  In 1911 and 1912 she made three more films of her stage repertory: Camille, Queen Elizabeth and Adrienne Lecouvreur, the latter two directed by Louis Mercanton.  In 1913 she made Madame Sarah Bernhardt at Home, and in 1916, during the war, Mothers of France (Mères françaises).  In 1923, on her death bed, she made La Voyante, again directed by Mercanton.

Lou Tellegen, who plas Armand Duval (he was also in Queen Elizabeth), was Bernhardt’s leading man on the stage at that period.  He was born in 1881 of a Greek father and a Dutch other, and was notd more for hsi good looks than for his acting ability,  He later went to the United States, and made a Broadway hit in a play called “Maria Rosa”, which shortly afterwards became Geraldine Farrar’s first film. Tellegen went to Hollywood too, where he was moderately successful for several years, and on the Lasky lot he and Farrar met, fell in loe, and were married in February, 1916, a marriage doomed to a stormy failure. Many years later Farrar described him in her autobiography: “Handsome and stupid, as long as physical appeal was seconded by youth, he typified romance and adventure to the casual eye.  He could be charming and well-mannered when he wished, but had the perception of a moron, and no morals whatever.  It was my own unwisdom to have been misled by a delightful and bland exterior, and I blame only myself for a marriage that turned out so badly for me.  For him, it was only another glamorous episode, I supposed”.  (Miss Farrar, it should be understood,was being kind.  Others have been more devastating, and his abominable treatment of her was unsparingly reported as long ago as 1923 in Samual Goldwyn’s autobiography, “Behind the Screen”).  Tellegen published his own autobiography, “Women Have Been Kind”, in 1931; and he committed suicide in Hollywood on October 29, 1934.


“In this adaptation of one of her most successful stage roles, Mrs Fiske undoubtedly shows to least advantage.  The film itself is poor in quality even for its time.  Both the actress’s appearance and her particular style are caricatured rather than recorded on the screen: her gestures seem extraordinarily nervous and abrupt, while the versatility and naturalness for which this intelligent actress was admired are quite lost”.  (MMA Film Notes)

MINNIE MADDERN FISKE (1865-1932) was born in New Orleans of an american theatrical family, and as Minnie Maddern made her stage debut at the age of 3.  At 5 she was playing in New York in such roles as Little Eva, and the Duke of York in Richard III.  At 17 she reappeared in New York and was “much admired for the vivacity and naturalness of her acting”.  In 1890 she married Harrison Grey Fiske (1861-1942), then editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror, and retired from the stage. Four years later, as Mrs Fiske, she returned to appear in a play by her husband, and also in a single charity performance of “A Doll’s House” which was received with such resounding acclaim that even Ibsen wired his congratulations from Norway.  From then till the rest of her life she was back on the stage,–in her latter years not because she wanted to be but because she had to make a living and the theatre was the only business she knew.  She was no egocentric exhibitionist; she surrounded herself with the best actors and actresses she could hire, and frequently took secondary roles in her own productions.  She directed all her own productions; and between 1901 and 1908 she and her husband had their own theatre in New York, “putting on a series of fine plays which were not equalled until the early years of the Theatre Guild”.  Otherwise it was mostly arduous tours of the United States and Canda (she never did perform outside of North America).  She frequently visited Toronto, especially during pre-Broadway tours.

“Becky Sharp”, the stage adaptation of Thackery’s “Vanity Fair” which the Fiskes commissioned from the young playwright, Langdon Mitchell, had its premiere in Montreal in September, 1899. (Montreal was cold to it; and the newspapers condemned it as “unwholesome”).  The original cast included Maurice Barrymore (father of Ethel, Lionel and John) as Rawdon Crawley, and Tyrone Power (Sr) as the Marquis of Steyne.  Montreal notwithstanding, “Becky Sharp” proved one of the most popular plays she ever had, one that she continued to revive as late as 1930.  In general “her acting was distinctly natural, and from 1893 on she was one of the most potent forces in the battle for realism on the New York stage.  Even those who detested Ibsen had to admire her greatness in playing him..”

She twice appeared in moving pictures.  In 1913 Zukor signed her up as one of his Famous Players in Famous Plays to make another of her greatest stage successes: Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  Archie Binns, in his book “Mrs Fiske and the American Theatre” (1955) describes it thus:

The repressed, realistic method of acting which Mrs Fiske had used in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was ideal for the camera, which revealed every exaggeration and made overacting intolerable. The coincidence helped make Tess one of the best pictures of its time, but unfortunately it left Mrs Fiske with the mistaken belief that the camera adapted itself to any method of acting,–a misconception that two years later backfired when she played Becky Sharp in the Edison Company’s film version of “Vanity Fair”.  When Becky’s mannerisms were exaggerated by projection on the screen, they became a cruel burlesque.  It was a belated lesson in acting before the camera, and Minnie was too old to make use of it personally.  She realized that the success of Tess had been due to a happy accident–and that made her think less of the picture.

The version of Vanity Fair that the Edison company made with her in 1915 was adapted directly from the book, rather than from Langdon Mitchell’s play “Becky Sharp”.

But Becky Sharp was still Becky, and Minnie played the character before the camera as she had played it on the stage over a period of sixteen years…  But the flickering film played unpleasant tricks on Becky. Her nervous and abrupt mannerisms, so effective on stage, made it appear o the screen that she was acting on the top of a hot stove…  The new medium required anew technique–something close to the repressed, naturalistic acting which Minnie had introduced to the American stage and Duse to the European; like that, but lighter and more smoothly done.  She was not too old to learn,–but at fifty-one she was too old to have another opportunity.

Unfortunately not a single print of Tess of the d’Urbervilles has survived.  The unsatisfactory Vanity Fair is all we have.


“At the time this film was planned, Duse–ill, unhappy, far from young,–momentarily felt hope. Though she had been absent from the stage for some time, she wished to work: perhaps the new medium might grant her an opportunity.  But even while the film was in production, she realized that the attempt was failure.  ‘I made the same mistake as nearly everybody has made’, she said, ‘but something quite different is needed…  I am too old for it, isn’t it a pity?'”  (MMA Film Notes)

Between 1909 and 1914 Italy produced a series of big historical “spectaculars”, such as Cabiria, Quo Vadis? and The Last Days of Pompei, which commanded world-wide interest, and played no small part in earning admiration for the screen, as well as inspring producers in other parts of the world.  Cenere belongs to this period, though it was produced a little later, when the Italian cinema was already on the downward skid into the obscurity and inconsequence in which it was to remain until the end of World War II.

ELEANOR DUSE (1959-1924) “…famous Italian actress, and one of the great tragediennes of the international theatre…  Daughter and granddaughter of strolling players, she was on the stage from her earliest years, playing Cosette at the age of 4 and Juliet at 14.  In 1878…she was engaged by Ernesto Rossi as his leading lady, and went on tour with him, soon taking her place as one of the greatest actresses of the day.  In 1885 she toured South America,..  In London in 1895 she and Sarah Bernhardt both appeared as Magda, an event which caused much excitement among public and critics alike.  Shaw, at that time dramatic critic of the Saturday Review, unhesitatingly proclaimed the supremacy of Duse, while Clement Scott preferred Bernhardt.

“Duse had a certain statuesque way of playing, a slowness and subtlety which was not always to the taste of her audience.  A slender woman, with a dark, mobile face, melancholy in repose, and long slender hands and arms, she was noted for her beauty and expressiveness of her gestures, but her excessive nervousness and overwrought temperament led at times to too much restlessness on the stage, and it was in her rare moments of immobility that one best realized her greatness..  She was probably at her best in big emotional parts: Tosca, Fedora, Theodora, Camille….  In her late thirties, when she stood in the forefront of her profession, she ardently championed the cause of D’Annuncio’s poetic drama, and made him famous as a dramatist by her playing in La Gioconda, Francesca da Rimini, and La Città morta.  Even after the failure of his Gloria in Naples in 1899, she continued to appear in his plays, often with much loss of money and reputation.  She retired shortly before 1914, but returned to play in London and New York in 1923, dying in Pittsburgh the following year”.  (“Ye gods, in Pittsburgh!” lamented one romantic admirer in disgust).

“Unlike Bernhardt, Duse professed a great hatred of publicity, but in seeking to avoid it made herself even more conspicuous.  She was an enigmatic personality who captured the imagination of the theatre-going public and even in her own lifetime became a legend.  Yet, with all her faults, she was a superb actress, and it was finally the sterling truth of her representation which fired public imagination.  She disdained the use of make-up on the stage, and was noted for her ability to blush or turn pale at will”.  (Oxford Companion to the Theatre)


GERALDINE FARRAR (born Melrose, Mass., Feb 28, 1882; now living in retirement).  Studied voice in Boston, then New York.  At 17, in 1899, she was taken to Europe for further study, and in 1901 she was given a three-year contract with the Royal Opera House in Berlin, making her stae debut there on October 15, 1901, in Faust.  She made her American debut in November, 1906, at the Metropolitan Opera House, and remained principal soprano there and a great popular favorite until her retirement from opera in 1922.  Her autobiography, “Such Sweet Compulsion”, was published in 1938.

Jesse Lasky, in his autobiography “I Blow My Own Horn”, tells the story of Miss Farrar’s entry into films in 1915:

…Morris Gest, son-in-law of David Belasco and a well-known impresario himself, asked me at luncheon to go along with him to a matinee of Madame Butterfly.  Geraldine Farrar was making her farewell appearance of the season at the Metropolitan Opera House under Gest’s management.

There were no seats left, and we stood in the rear.  Farrar was currently the greatest dramatic soprano in grand opera and a fine actress.  I have never seen such adulation as when the final curtain came down.  She had a devoted following of young student fans as ardently demonstrative as Frank Sinatra’s bobby-soxers in later years.  Her idol-worshippers were called “Gerry-flappers”.  I got a sudden idea and told Gest I wanted to meet her.

Backstage I came quickly to the point.  “Miss Farrar”, I said, “I don’t know whether you have ever seen a motion picture, but my company makes them, and I’d like to persuade you to do the story of Carmen for us.  (I knew it was her favorite role).  We have no trouble securing famous plays and engaging their stars,” I continued, “but they’re always afraid acting in a movie will hurt their stage prestige.  I could see by the ovation you got today that your prestige is such that whatever you do, your public will accept it as right.”

“You think I could turn the tide?” she asked cordially, intrigued by the compliment.

“I’m sure other stars would follow your lead,” I said, “and I can see that you’d photograph beautifully.  If you consent, I’m prepared to offer you–in addition to whatever salary we agreed on–a number of other inducements…”  I ad-libbed as many as I could think of–our best director, an orchestra on the set to play music whenever she lied, a private railroad car to take her and her family to Hollywood, a house completely furnished an staffed with servants for her stay, a car and chauffeur at her complete disposal, a private dressing room for her comfort at the studio, which I promised to have built right next to the stage and equipped with a grand piano for her practising…

Perhaps Geraldine Farrar’s decision to accept my offer was influenced by the fact that she had recently overtaxed her voice to the point of despairing she might ever sing again, and the chance to give her throat a rest in silent pictures couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Be that as it may, she proved the most charming, gracious actress I ever brought to Hollywood, and was completely devoid of temperament, contrary to the tradition of prima donnas.  If the script called for her to be in mud up to her waist, or with clothing, skin and hair fireproofed for burning-at-the-stake scenes, she didn’t demur for an instant.

The Farrar expedition to the wilds of Hollywood was heralded in banner headlines across the continent.  Accompanying her in the private car were her parents (her father was Sid Farrar, a famous National League baseball player), her personal press agent, and her manager, Morris Gest, with his wife, Reina.  Our New York publicity men saw them off with great fanfare, while I rushed ahead to the Coast to make sure the diva would be ushered in like a visiting queen. The Santa Fe platform and depot were carpeted from her private car to the waiting limousine. School children lined both sides of her path, strewing it with roses.  The mayor and other dignitaries formed a welcoming committee and a reception was to be held in Hollywood.

Since she was the first personality in motion-picture history to receive what has since become known as “the full treatment”, every detail of it was front page news.

I rode with Miss Farrar to the two-story house we had rented for her stay.  Every room was banked with flowers.  I introduced her to the maid, cook, and butler we have provided.  As I started back to the studio, I mentioned that DeMille was looking forward to meeting her the next day, after she was rested from her long trip, as he was anxious to talk over her role in Carmen.

“Give me a few minutes to change”, she said with a smile, “and I’ll go with you now”.

I think perhaps she couldn’t wait until the next day to view her bungalow dressing room, a luxury bestowed on most stars now but unheard of then.  Built next to the open-air stage, as I had promised, it contained a tastefully furnished living room, dressing room, and bathroom.  I left her in Cecil’s office, deeply engrossed with him over wardrobe details.

Although it was understood by everyone (particularly the publicity department) that Carmen was to be Farrar’s first film, Cecil DeMille very wisely insisted that they do another of her three scheduled films first, though its release could beheld back so that Carmen could appear first (which it did).  By cutting her teeth on Maria Rosa, she would gain valuable experience in the technique of screen acting which would be all to the good of Carmen.  And the experiment apparently paid off.  (Maria Rosa was actually not released until April, 1916).

The screen play for Carmen was written by Cecil’s brother, William DeMille (this was just before he himself became a director), and he was early finished his first draft when they called him in and broke the news that they had just discovered that the opera libretto, on which they were basing their screen play, was still protected by copyright, and (as Cecil put it) “the copyright owners were demanding a price which might have been reasonable if they had thrown in the Louvre and a few thousand front-feet along the Champs Elysées”.  The only way they could circumvent this was to go back to the original novel by Prosper Merimée.  “Some of the characters and some of the situations were different in book and opera, but Carmen was Carmen in both; and it was Geraldine Farrar as Carmen that the public, we hoped, was avidly awaiting”.

All in all, it was a successful film.  Almost simultaneously William Fox produced another Carmen starring Theda Bara, but the DeMille version was easily the winner.  Lasky reports that “Carmen turned out to be the biggest money-maker we had up to that time”.

But William DeMille, in his autobiography “Hollywood Saga” (1939) reports:

Just twenty years later I had occasion to look at our picture of Carmen.  It was hard to believe that what I saw on the screen was actually the same work upon which so much honest effort had been expended.  As I had gone with the screen, step by step, in its gradual evolution, my memory tended to clothe our earlier efforts with technical attributes which had become essential and commonplace in the modern film.  Their absence was startling.  Our beloved Carmen, which had been hailed as an achievement in 1915, was as much like a modern motion picture as… the earliest “horseless carriage” is like the streamlined, high-powered automobile of today…   Looked at with 1935 eyes, our picture was badly photographed, the lighting was childish, the acting was awful, the writing atrocious and–may Allah be merciful–the direction terrible.  The only interesting thing about our work was the fact that we had taken the same pride in it as Henry Ford took in his Model T, or the Wright Brothers in their first plane”.

Farrar made three pictures for the Lasky Feature Play company in the summer of 1915, the third one being Temptation.  All three were directed by Cecil DeMille, with Wallace Reid as her leading man.  (Within a few short years Wallace Reid was to be one of the screen’s most popular idols in his own right.  We showed on of his films in last year’s Silent Series).  In the summer of 1916, after the Metropolitan Opera season was over, she returned to make Joan the Woman, which took all summer, it being a large-scale production,-the first of DeMille’s long list of big spectacular historical pictures.  Wallace Reid again played opposite her; and this film and Carmen are remembered as her two best.  In the summer of 1917 DeMille directed her in two more films, The Woman God Forgot and The Devil Stone; after which she left the Lasky company and joined the new company formed by Samuel Goldwyn.  For Goldwyn she made seven more films in two years, mostly with her husband, Lou Tellegen, as her leading man.  But Goldwyn gave her much less interesting material; and her initial popularity as a screen star ebbed away, and at the end of 1919 she and Goldwyn tore up her contract by mutual agreement.  In 1920 Pathé lured her back to the screen, but their first picture, The Riddle Woman, was so bad (she says) that she refused to make a second; so that was her last film.


MARY GARDEN (born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Feb 20, 1877, and taken to the United States at the age of eight; now living in retirement).  She began her singin lessons in Chicago, but was eventually sent to Paris to study.  In the fiction-honored manner, she stepped into prominance on April 10, 1900, when she stepped in to complete a performance of the opera “Louise” at the Opéra-Comique when the regular soprano became ill in the middle of a performance.  In 1902 Debussy chose her to create the role of Melisande in his “Pelléas et Mélisande”.  She made her American debut in Massenet’s “Thais in November, 1907, with the Manhattan Opera Company of Oscar Hammerstein I, and sang with this company for three seasons.  She never did sing at hte Metropolitan.  After the Manhattan Opera was disbanded in 1910 she joined the newly-formed Chicago Opera Company and starred with them till 1930.  (She was its artistic director 1921-22).  She sang her last opera in Paris in 1934.  Since 1940 she has lived in her native city, Aberdeen.  She has come to North America from time to time on lecture tours, and in 1951 published her autobiography, “Mary Garden’s Story”.  She always had a reputation as a great singing-actress, although Grove’s Dictionary reports: “Her personality was counted for more in her performance than her vocal art, which was defective, or her histrionic skill, which was limited and vitiated by many mannerisms”.

In 1917 Samuel Goldwyn left Lasky to form his own company, and was busily engaging new stars. Hoping to duplicate Lasky’s success with Geraldine Farrar, he signed Mary Garden to do a film version of one of her most successful operas.  Thais, (or to be more accurate, a film version of the novel on which it was based).  In her autobiography, Miss Garden says that Goldwyn came to her and offered her $125,000 for ten weeks work on the film.

“I find that highly satisfactory”, I said,  “I only hope you have a director who knows something about Egypt”.

“Don’t you worry your pretty head about that”, Mr Goldwyn said.  “If he doesn’t, he’ll learn fast enough”.

Well, I went over to Jersey City and began work Thais.  For awhile it was interesting–till I discovered that the gentleman putting it on not only knew nothing about Egypt but had no intention of finding out.  From then on it was just torture for me.

They had me to do things that I’m sure neither Thais nor anybody else in any other part of the world would ever have done under any circumstances.  I remember I was supposed to be walking in the garden, and along my path were thirty parrots on their perches.

“Scratch their heads!” the director shouted at me.

“You’re not serious!” I protested.

“Scratch their heads!” he demanded.

“All of them?” I asked.

“Each and every one of them”.

And scratch their heads I did; for a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars I suppose I would have scratched the heads of all the parrots in the world.

Mr Goldwyn’s side of the story is told in his own autobiography, “Behind the Screen”:

No sooner had the actual presentation of Thais begun than I was beset with grave fears.  Miss Garden, feeling rightfully that her operatic presentation of the role was authoritative, did not recognize the difference of medium involved, and her first days on the set showed her, as the studio people expressed it, “acting all over the place”.  That which was art in opera was not art on the screen, where the secret of achievement is emotional restraint.

At any rate, Thais was badly received everywhere, particularly at the box-office. Unlike CarmenThais was never considered good even at the time.

Miss Garden herself was quite as overwhelmed by this failure as was the company.  It had certainly been through no lack of diligence on her part that the story went as it did, for she had arrived at the studio early each morning and was often the last to leave it.

Certainly we were most unwise in selecting for her first picture a story in which her operatic tradition was so ingrained.  This was brought out by the comparative success of her second film The Splendid Sinner.  Had this only been produced first we should have done on it three or four times the business which we actually did.  As it was, Thais had been such a complete “flop” that exhibitors had their fingers crossed when it came to Mary Garden.

Obviously Goldwyn had forgotten the precautions that DeMille had taken with Farrar’s first film.  Be that as it may, Mary Garden’s report on the sceond of her two films made during her ten weeks with Goldwyn is:

I made The Splendid Sinner in three weeks, and I hope nobody in God’s world will ever see it again.  I have heard many films called the worst ever made; I am sure those who make such judgements never saw The Splendid Sinner.

And although she admits she never saw the finished film, all reports from those who did seem to concur with hers.


ENRICO CARUSO (born in Naples, Feb 25, 1873; died there August 2, 1921).  He made his debut in Naples in 1894; his international fame began in 1990 when he sang with the Monte Carlo Opera. He made his London debut later that year, and his New York debut in 1903.  From then on, though he sang frequently in Covent Garden and in Europe, the greater part of his career was spent in America.  During his years at the Metropolitan he sang 36 different roles.  “He developed as an actor, chiefly in the way of character portrayal, and he had uncommon skill in make-up, but he was never a romantic figure as a young lover.  His innate sense of comedy contributed materially to his success in such parts as Elivno in L’Elisir d’Amore…  His early death  (an attack f pleurisy led to abscesses of the lungs) was the occasion for more sincere mourning than the passing of many statesmen.  His popularity was unsurpassingly general and all-inclusive”  And, needless to add, forty years after his death he is still a legend.

The story of his ill-starred appearance in moving pictures has been related by Jesse Lasky in “I Blow My Own Horn”:

We tried to outdo our competitors, not only by collecting the biggest names of stage and screen, but also by presenting a certain number of offbeat attractions, glorifying personalities whose names were household words because of achievements in other phases of show business…  (Lasky goes on to cite Julian Eltinge and Harry Houdini….)

The idea of building a silent picture around the world’s greatest singer, Enrico Caruso, was in the same “freak” category, but I didn’t think of it that way then.  Encouraged by the success of Geraldine Farrar’s films and my own penchant for renowned musicians, I thought the whole world would flock to a Caruso picture just to see what he looked like, even though they couldn’t hear him sing…

And so when I read one day in 1917 that Joseph Schenck and his partner Julius Steger planned to make a picture with Cruso, I was mortified at not having had the inspiration myself but hastened to make up for this oversight by negotiating with Schenck to buy his eight-week contract with Caruso for $40,000.  He was happy to make a sizable profit on a picture he hadn’t even started.  It seemed good economy for me to charge this investment off to two pictures rather than one, so we prepared and filmed two original stories.  The first was based on a popular Gus Edwards song, My Cousin Caruso, current when Caruso was at the height of his glory, and concerned a barber who brightened his humdrum life by spinning colorful tales of an improbable cousin, said to be a great opera singer, but whom everyone considered purely a figment of the imagination until he showed up and vindicated the boastful barber.  Caruso played both parts, the first dual role we ever had to contend with, and the director and cameraman had to improvise some hanky-panky to show Caruso as the barber patting Caruso as the cousin on the back.  We were really getting three performances out of him for the price of one–I thought I was playing it pretty smart.

I was on the set frequently during the shooting of the two pictures, and we became good friends.  He was an irrepressible practical joker, and you never knew what to expect of him next, but you could always expect to laugh.  Some of his fanciful tricks were crude and not very funny, but we got in the habit of laughing expectantly, as a television studio audience does today when a comedian lifts an eyebrow.  He also had a brilliant flair for caricature, and was almost always drawing your picture while he talked to you. I still treasure an impudent sketch he did of me the first time we met….

When one of our important pictures was given a general simultaneous release, Zukor and I customarily waited for the reports on the first day’s business that came into the sales department from all over the country as anxiously as we would have watched race results or election returns on which we had made a huge wager.  As the first reports on My Cousin came in, it was evident that it was going to spoil our unbroken five-year record of no failures (although Less Than the Dust had come too close for comfort).  The public was smarter than I was, and, realizing they’d be cheated of Caruso’s glorious voice, they saved their money.  My Cousin was such a fiasco at the box-office that we had to refund rental money to many complaining exhibitors.  Zukor also ordered all booking contracts for the second picture cancelled and we never released it at all–the first time we ever shelved a completed film.  I can’t even remember the name of it, and please don’t remind me!

Incidentally, the Edward José who directed My Cousin is presumably the same Edward José  that played the title role in A Fool There Was opposite Theda Bara in 1914.

Programme Notes by Fraser Macdonald

(References, in addition to those already cited in the notes, include Cecil B. deMille’s “Augobiography” and “The Movies in the Age of Innocence” by Edward Wagenknecht).


Our next programme will be Monday, January 11, 1965

Buster Keaton in Cops
Richard Barthelmess and Clarine Seymoure in The Idol Dancer (1920) – directed by D.W. Griffith.
(A story of missionaries and traders in the South Seas).

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