Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, October 15, 2010

Movie Playing Cards: 3 of Hearts - Geraldine Farrar

Geraldine Farrar is the only Metropolitan Opera star
in the M.J. Moriarty deck. Other great singers would
make the transition from Met to movies, but not until
the sound era; and while some (Lawrence Tibbett,
Grace Moore, Lily Pons) would be more successful
than others (Luciano Pavarotti), only Geraldine Farrar
managed to become a movie star without ever once
depending upon her voice to get her there.

No wonder. She was a natural actress without a trace
of self-consciousness, and the camera loved loved  
loved her. The picture on the card isn't the most
flattering, with that hairstyle like a leather aviator's
helmet, but you can see what I mean, especially
with those enormous, all-seeing eyes -- they make
you want to glance over your right shoulder to see
what she finds so fascinating and amusing; not even
that huge corsage can pull your attention away
from her eyes for very long.

Here's another look at those eyes, this time smoldering and looking straight into your own. The portrait is by the German painter Friedrich August von Kaulbach (1850-1920), and is now part of the Geraldine Farrar Collection in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. It was probably painted in late 1901 or early '02, about the time the 19-year-old Geraldine created a sensation as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust and became the toast of Berlin.

That Berlin triumph was the culmination of a course of study that had taken her from her birth in 1882 in Melrose, Massachusetts -- where she determined at an early age to become an opera star -- through voice study in Boston, New York, Paris, and finally Berlin, where her big splash in Faust brought her under the tutelage of the great soprano Lilli Lehmann. She remained with Berlin's Royal Court Opera for several seasons and became a favorite of the Kaiser and his family; there were scandalous rumors of an affair with Crown Prince Wilhelm which Farrar's family and friends (protesting too much?) were at great pains to deny. Berlin was the springboard to a brilliant European career -- Monte Carlo, Stockholm, Paris, Munich, Warsaw -- that brought her home to America and the Metropolitan Opera in 1906. 

Geraldine Farrar was perhaps the world's first multimedia star -- if only because for the first time in history, a performer could have more than one medium to be a star in. Besides her dazzling success on the opera stage and recital circuit, she made over 200 recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company; you can still hear plenty of them on YouTube.

And then, in 1915, yet another medium; the movies came calling, in the form of Cecil B. DeMille and the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Lasky and DeMille had been making a go of their moving picture venture out in sleepy Hollywood, shooting in a converted barn at the corner of Vine and Selma Streets. I don't know what prompted them to approach Farrar; perhaps they read the interview where she described herself not as a singer but "an actress who happens to be appearing in opera" and figured an actress in any other vehicle... Whatever the impetus, it was a masterstroke. Farrar agreed to work eight weeks during the Met's off season, making three pictures for a fee of $35,000. The news, and the announcement that the diva's first picture would be a silent version of her Met success Carmen, electrified the industry. The William Fox Co. was inspired to do a quickie knockoff with their house vamp Theda Bara (Fox's picture went into release the day after DeMille's Carmen but doesn't seem to have cut very deeply into its business).

The DeMille-Lasky Carmen wasn't planned as an adaptation of the opera; the work was still under copyright, and the proprietors wanted too much for the movie rights. Instead, DeMille and his scriptwriter brother William turned to Prosper Merimee's original story, now in the public domain, which had a story much changed in the opera. Still, the opera was too familiar to ignore completely, so a musical score was commissioned adapting Bizet's themes (Lasky could afford that much).

Before shooting on their big-money title, though, DeMille made a canny decision: he would shoot Farrar's other two pictures (Temptation and Maria Rosa) first, just in case his leading lady needed a little experience to put her at ease in front of the camera. This was probably prudent, but it proved to be unnecessary; Geraldine Farrar took to movies like a duck to water. Here she is in Carmen's classic pose -- a cliche by now, but at that time you could hardly get away with leaving it out -- the rose clenched in her teeth, lasciviously eying the unfortunate Don Jose (Wallace Reid), whom she intends to seduce to help her smuggler cohorts.

And here she is again, assuring her gypsy confederate (Horace B. Carpenter) that the trap is ready to be sprung. As DeMille biographer Scott Eyman observes, Farrar wasn't exactly beautiful, but she was alluring. Her Carmen moves like a cat, lithely self-assured and radiating a confident, even aggressive sexuality. (Apparently in real life, too; Crown Prince Wilhelm wasn't the only name linked romantically with hers. While at the Met she carried on a torrid six-year affair with conductor Arturo Toscanini that ended only when she gave him an ultimatum: leave your wife or else. The maestro abruptly resigned from the Met and beat a hasty retreat back to Italy, wife and family in tow.)

Carmen was a big hit for the Lasky Co., in both money and prestige. Not since the aging Sarah Bernardt hobbled around on her wooden leg in Queen Elizabeth had a star of such international magnitude graced a movie screen. And it must be said, whatever the Great Sarah's power on stage, she had hardly a tenth of Farrar's instinctive understanding of movie acting. By the time the picture was released -- on October 31, 1915 -- Farrar had returned
to the Met; the other pictures she had shot that summer were spaced out for release the rest of the season, Temptation at the end of December and Maria Rosa at the beginning of May 1916.

Farrar enjoyed her eight week stint in Hollywood, where every man and woman in the Lasky Co. was completely won over by her professionalism and her down-to-earth personal charm; people used to gather outside the window of her dressing room and listen to her sing as she prepared to go on the set. Between pictures she met the handsome actor Lou Tellegen, whom she married in February 1916. That following summer, with the Met again going dark, she was back at the Lasky Studio, again working for DeMille. 

This time the subject was even bigger than Carmen: Farrar would play Joan of Arc in Joan the Woman. Joan had not yet been elevated to sainthood, but it was only a matter of time; she had been beatified in 1909 (sainthood would finally come in 1920). As the title suggests, Farrar's allure was not to be entirely subsumed into the religious fervor of the Maid of Orleans; DeMille and writer Jeanie Macpherson defied history by giving Joan a chaste romance with an English soldier, teaming Farrar again with Wallace Reid. (In the movie it plays better than it probably sounds.) 

Joan the Woman was the first example of the kind of movie most people think of when they think of Cecil B. DeMille today: a sweeping historical epic with semi-florid acting and none-too-subtle religious overtones. A second historical epic followed: The Woman God Forgot, with Farrar bizarrely cast as an Aztec princess, daughter of Montezuma, whose intervention on behalf of her Spanish lover brings about the downfall of her father's empire. (Both Variety and the New York Times commented that Miss Farrar was noticeably more pale-skinned than the rest of her Aztec family.) 

The Woman God Forgot wasn't released until 1917; 
the big money picture for '16 was Joan the Woman
DeMille and Macpherson drew a direct parallel 
between the Hundred Years War and the war then 
raging in Europe, telling the story of Joan's battle 
for France within a framing story of an English 
officer in the trenches of the Great War (also 
played by Wallace Reid) who takes heart from 
Joan's devotion (and attains a similar shall-not-
have-died-in-vain martyrdom under the 
barbed wire). This publicity still was presumably
approved for release by DeMille and Lasky, 
but unfortunately it isn't terribly becoming to 
Ms. Farrar; granted, she was some years over-age
(and some pounds overweight) for the role, but in
the finished picture she never looks quite as tomboy-
silly as she does here.

In fact, it was in working on Joan the Woman that Farrar demonstrated the quality that DeMille, throughout his career, would especially prize among his actors: absolute fearlessness. Well, not absolute; she was actually afraid of horses and had to be doubled in many of her riding scenes. But fearless nevertheless; you can see it in the battle scenes, as she strides resolutely in full armor (only without that dear little pleated skirt) among the flailing swords, maces and pikestaffs.

You can particularly see it in the scene
of Joan's execution at the stake, one of 
the most horrific scenes of the silent era,
all the more effective for the stencil-tinting 
process that colored the flames of her
pyre. Looking at a single frame, this
closeup might look easy to fake, and it
probably would be, but believe me, the
flames in action look a lot closer and
more dangerous than they do here. But if
this shot of Joan appealing to her saints
at the moment of death doesn't convince
you Geraldine Farrar was a
real game 'un...

...then how about this?...


...or this?

As Scott Eyman says,
"How Farrar managed to survive
without third degree burns or,
at the very least, smoke inhalation
remains a mystery."

Alas, the honeymoon with Lasky and DeMille did not last, chiefly because of the honeymoon with Lou Tellegen. The Dutch-born Tellegen had come to America in 1910 at 29, as leading man (and offstage consort) to Sarah Bernhardt. After marrying Farrar in 1916, when she returned to Hollywood he began throwing his weight around and interfering in her films. To keep him out of their hair (and hers), DeMille and Lasky allowed him to direct a picture, What Money Can't Buy. When they judged that one to be a dog -- along with another, The Things We Love -- Tellegen got his nose bent out of shape, and Farrar (out of what she later ruefully called "wifely loyalty") sided with him. Both of them left the Lasky Co. and signed with Samuel Goldwyn.

Working her customary off-season shifts, Farrar made six pictures for Goldwyn (three co-starring Tellegen). When Goldwyn complained that her pictures were not doing well, she suggested (with no hard feelings) that they cancel the remaining two years of her contract. She left movies for good in 1920 (by that time she'd been replaced by Cleo Madison in the M.J. Moriarty deck) and returned to the Metropolitan Opera, where she retired amid great fanfare in 1922 at the age of 40.

The marriage to Lou Tellegen (her only one, the second of four for him) suffered from his chronic infidelities and succumbed to divorce in 1923. Tellegen himself came to a sorry end in 1934, a month short of his 53rd birthday. By then he had lost his looks (to a combination of age and facial injuries in a fire) and his career. He was ailing (it was cancer, but he wasn't told). In 1931 he had published an autobiography, Women Have Been Kind, essentially a long boast about his sexual conquests that made him widely despised as a kiss-and-tell cad. (That year, the old Vanity Fair magazine had spotlighted him in their monthly "Nominated for Oblivion" feature, referring to his memoir as Women Have Been Kind [of Dumb].) Now, three years later, he elected himself to the oblivion Vanity Fair had nominated him for: while visiting friends in Hollywood, he locked himself in the bathroom, stood naked before the mirror, stabbed himself seven times with a pair of sewing scissors, and bled to death over an array of his clippings he had strewn on the floor. Approached by a reporter for a comment,
Geraldine Farrar said, "Why should that interest me?"                   

Now that's a bitter divorce.                                                         

 What might have been if Geraldine Farrar had not joined in
Lou Tellegen's falling-out with Cecil B. DeMille is a tantalizing
question mark. Even more tantalizing is the thought of how
her career might have gone if she'd been born 20 years later,
if she had made that hit in Berlin in 1921 instead of 1901.
Then, when Hollywood went ransacking New York for
 musical talent during the sound revolution, she would have
been about the age she is here, when she appeared in the article
"The Muses of Movie-Land" in the June 1918 issue of Motion
Picture Magazine, as Euterpe, Muse of Music. Jeanette MacDonald
and Irene Dunne, among others, may have had reason to be
grateful that they never had to deal with the competition.

As it is, Geraldine Farrar is doubly unique in the Moriarty deck:
the only opera star, and the star with the shortest movie
career -- where others made dozens, even hundreds of
pictures, she made only 14 features (plus one Liberty Bonds
short to aid the war effort in 1918) during five years in
Hollywood. In her autobiography, she wrote of her movie
experiences: "I had greatly enjoyed them, and only regret
that my own era was too early for the combination
of the present acting and talking features."

The determination, hard work and self-
confidence of a little girl who decided
before age 10 that she would be a great
opera star served Geraldine Farrar well
through a long and healthy life. After 
retiring from the Met, she continued 
on the concert stage until 1931, and 
appeared in a 1926 Franz Lehar operetta,  
Romany Love, that closed after one 
performance. From there she made 
occasional appearances on the radio, 
published her autobiography (Such Sweet 
Compulsion) in 1938, and served as a 
Red Cross Volunteer during World War II. 
She lived in comfortable retirement in 
Ridgefield, Connecticut as the well-
loved Dowager Queen of American 
Opera until her death on March 11, 
1967. She was 85.

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