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.
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.
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…
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?”