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Leila Porter comes to dislike her husband James, a glue king who is always eating onions and looking sloppy. But after she divorces him and marries two-timing playboy Schuyler Van Sutphen the now-reformed James looks pretty good.
A group of gypsy smugglers are frustrated in their attempts to bring their contraband into the city by Don Jose, an incorruptible officer in the Civil Guard. In order to help her kinsmen, the sultry Carmen seduces him, persuading him to abandon his post and look the other way. When his infatuation leads him to kill a fellow guardsman in order to prevent her arrest, he becomes a wanted fugitive. The capricious, fickle Carmen resents his possessiveness and leaves him for a famous toreador in Seville. Obsessed and frustrated, a distraught Don Jose follows her to the bullring with tragic consequences. Written by
The relationship between cinema and opera has always been a bit on-off, but occasionally has yielded some good things. Cecil B. De Mille was one of the first filmmakers to acknowledge the similarities between the two mediums, creating what was perhaps the first true opera film.
The casting of renowned opera star Geraldine Farrar was more than just a publicity stunt. Screen acting was still in development, but opera acting which is similar in that plot and character must primarily revealed visually through gesture and presence had been going for centuries. Farrar fits right in on the screen, giving a realistic performance with a touch of dynamic dramatics the style that De Mille favoured and that was central to his silent era work.
Farrar apparently enjoyed the freedom of not being so constrained by the music, and being able to act in her own time. However, De Mille's Carmen is still very much an adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera, rather than Prosper Merimee's novel. It not only follows the opera's libretto more closely than it does the original text, certain key sequences do appear to have been staged to fit Bizet's music in particular the final climactic scene. Funnily enough, when Raoul Walsh made his Carmen the same year, he deliberately based it on the novel, not the opera, as Fox could not afford the hefty fee for the rights to the libretto. Sadly Walsh's version, which he goes into some detail about in his autobiography, is lost.
In Carmen we can also see the De Mille style which made his silent films so watchable was really beginning to mature. One of the best things about his silent pictures is the sparseness of the intertitles. Not only are they used purely when necessary, De Mille also ensures they are spaced out we are never bombarded with them. Whereas many silent films might have a title when a character asks a question, followed a few seconds later by another title giving the response, with De Mille each title stands alone. If two characters are talking to each other, the majority of the conversation will be conveyed by gesture, expression and context. This means that the flow of each scene is not broken up. A good example is when Don Jose and Carmen are dancing in the tavern, Don Jose hears the bugler calling him back to his post, he is reluctant to go, but an officer persuades him. Whereas many other directors would have interrupted this sequence with two or three speech titles, De Mille credits the audience with the ability to be able to read the scene visually, which allows us to really watch the performances.
De Mille was also coming along in his handling of crowds scenes the extras in the cigarette factory and the bullring look particularly naturalistic, although he perhaps needed a bit more practice and drawing the audience's eyes to the most important part of the frame. Another De Mille trademark makes an early appearance here too the scene in which Carmen has her fortune read is shown with "Rembrandt lighting", that is with actors illuminated while that background is shrouded in darkness. This not only gives a moody atmosphere, it also isolates characters, really focusing us upon their performance.
Good as he was, De Mille was certainly also a rather pompous and pretentious figure, and it seems his contemporaries were already onto him. Charlie Chaplin's brilliant Burlesque on Carmen expertly skewers the seriousness of De Mille's vision (the parody is clearly based on this version, mimicking the sets, costumes and even some of the camera set ups). In his autobiography Walsh also talks about rushing out his version in order to upstage his rival (although he was a single day late). The self-important De Mille was probably more or less deserving of this derision, but he still made some great films. It is also interesting that De Mille, Walsh and Chaplin all took on Carmen at this time, as it was these three very different directors who would now take over from Griffith as being at the forefront of cinematic development.
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