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Saturday, January 18, 2014

CARMEN (1915)

Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION; Walsh’s REGENERATION; Tourneur’s ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE and Chaplin’s THE TRAMP make a good case for claiming 1915 as the year American film came of age. And Cecil B. DeMille did his part with 14 films out that year, of which THE CHEAT, KINDLING and this still remarkably effective version of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy smugglers are the best known. They certainly make a good case for his quick learning curve on only his second year in motion pictures.* Still largely shot in presentational/proscenium mode, his use of composition, editing & close-ups give off an easy dramatic charge. (It’s always a kick to watch DeMille during the brief period when he was at the forefront of film technique. It sure didn’t last long!) Opera diva Geraldine Farrar came in from the Metropolitan to make a triumphant film debut, working in a surprisingly naturalistic style (for the day) that gives the lie to the usual regurgitated crap you still hear about operatic acting. Wallace Reid, a decade younger than Farrar, makes a fine, strapping Don José, and DeMille’s older, more literary brother, William (a fine director in his own right), neatly structures a story that’s a bit different than the familiar opera. This Carmen is far more nakedly manipulative and probably never in love with José, just using him as a means to move on up to toreador Escamilio. The scenes in the bullring are pretty darn scary since no one seems to know what they are doing! (Opera fanciers will also note that José’s hometown girl, Micaela, is nowhere to be seen since she’s a creation of opera librettists Melihac & Halévy not found in the Mérimée story.) Happily, the great Bizet score still works wonderfully with the film and is well coordinated on the very fine edition from VAI which concludes with three excerpts from the opera sung by Farrar in excellent transfers.

The 100 year old acoustic recordings capture a lighter view of the character that Farrar held before making the film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Eastman House print used for the DVD offers an excellent mini-course in tinting & toning techniques of the period.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Alas, there are no decent DVD editions of KINDLING, possibly DeMille’s finest early film, but THE CHEAT (with a star-making turn from Sessue Hayakawa) is out on KINO.

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