Both Cecil B. De Mille and Raoul Walsh directed versions of this story in 1915, early in their careers as directors, but De Mille’s is the only one that survives at present, so unless Walsh’s is rediscovered and restored, only De Mille will be considered on this blog. I might as well admit right off that I’m hardly well-educated in the many versions of “Carmen.” I know the music mostly from “Gilligan’s Island,” and the story from Jack Lemmon and more significantly from Radley Metzger’s 1960s adult version. The story is pretty simple, though, a naïve young officer falls in love with a woman of low morals (here, a gypsy allied with smugglers), and is ruined, as he is dragged increasingly to her level in order to try to hold on to her. Here, the title character is played by Geraldine Farrar (later in “Joan the Woman” and “Flame of the Desert”), who approaches the role with more strength, confidence, and maturity than I expected. I say maturity not just in the sense that she’s clearly older than, let’s say, a D.W. Griffith starlet (Griffith seems to have liked them young, but Farrar was 33 when this was made), but in the sense that she brings an obvious range of emotional experience to her character. The obsessed hero is played by Wallace Reid (almost ten years her junior, he was also in “Joan the Woman” and had a small role in “The Birth of a Nation”), and typically I found him a bit less interesting to watch, though as he gets more desperate and more tormented, he does show some decent acting chops as well.
“Carmen” is once again a demonstration of how much of a game-changer the year 1915 was for film making. We get a variety of camera angles and compositions, including some judiciously used close ups and camera-masking for emphasis. Even when in two-shots or longer shots, actors’ faces are generally visible, and there’s no hesitation to cut them in half (or more) to get them on the screen. The intertitles are placed in mid-action, rather than set up to introduce what follows. Actors move upscreen and downscreen, not simply on and off stage. There’s a well-choreographed sword fight and a good crowd scene as well as bullfighting in Seville. Costumes and sets clearly took some real work and attention. The editing is tight and uses inter-cut simultaneous action to draw out tension during the climax. Unfortunately, the surviving print is a 1918 re-release, so it’s possible that some aspects, especially the editing, have been “modernized” a bit for this print.
Director: Cecil B. De Mille
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff
Starring: Geraldine Farrar, Wallace Reid, William Elmer, Raymond Hatton
Run Time: 57 Min, 15 secs
You can watch it for free: here (tinted, no music), or here (b&w, no music)
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