Carmen (1915) A Silent Film Review

Carmen may be best known as an opera but it made a successful silent debut for opera diva Geraldine Farrar. An early hit for Cecil B. DeMille, Carmen is a lively, sensual and surprisingly earthy adaptation of a familiar story. Farrar and Wallace Reid ignite the screen and have a grand time in the process.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The perils of smuggling.

Adapting an opera for the silent screen may sound odd but Carmen, arguably the world’s most famous opera, works well as a silent feature.

Borrowing elements of both Prosper Merimee’s novella and Bizet’s opera, the film clocks in at just under one hour. None of the running time is wasted and the film is fast-paced and enjoyable.

The adapted plot is as follows: A band of gypsies want to smuggle their goods into the city. Unfortunately for them, the new dragoon guarding the wall is the principled Don Jose (Wallace Reid), who can’t be bribed. The smugglers don’t know what to do but Carmen (Geraldine Farrar) has a plan. She will seduce Don Jose.

Carmen takes a job in a cigarette factory to get near Don Jose’s post. She dances at a tavern at night and flirts with the toreador Escamillo (Pedro de Cordoba). Don Jose cannot resist Carmen and allows the smugglers inside the city.

Carmen continues to work at the factory. The other workers call her cheap and laugh at her clothes. Carmen loses her temper and beats up one of the girls. Don Jose comes to arrest her but ends up helping her escape. In the process, he kills one of his fellow dragoons.

Don Jose is no longer useful and Carmen discards him for the more successful Escamillo. But Don Jose is not ready to give up on Carmen…

Old movies are so dull. So polite. People must have LIKED boring things back then. Sigh.
Old movies are so dull. So polite. People must have LIKED boring things back then. Sigh.

Carmen was an early film in Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood career. It features everything that he was good at: crowds, fights, over-the-top emotions and unhinged behavior. It is also considerably leaner than his later, more bloated features.

Geraldine Farrar was an internationally renowned operatic soprano. War and a tired voice brought her to motion pictures. Any worries that she would overact with operatic gestures were quickly allayed. Farrar’s down-to-earth personality came through and her performance was very natural for the period. She was not a classic beauty but her features were intriguing, her body language is mesmerizing and she is convincing as the sexy Carmen.

Don Jose and Carmen. Watch the hands, Wally!
Don Jose and Carmen. Watch the hands, Wally!

Wallace Reid steps out of his usual all-American-boy image to portray a lusty Don Jose, he doesn’t embrace so much as grope. Pedro de Cordoba does mug a bit but overall he does well in the thankless part of Escamillo.

Carmen is a good choice to show newcomers to silent film. It’s short, it’s fast-paced and it features several “You can’t do that in an old movie!” moments. For example, the vicious brawl Carmen starts with the workers in the cigarette factory and the confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose after he has killed for her.

Think you don’t like Cecil B. DeMille? Try this one!

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Where can I see it?

Carmen is widely available on DVD. There is a standalone disc (which I have not yet viewed) and a double feature from Image, which includes DeMille’s other 1915 hit, The Cheat. It’s quite a bargain. The Image release also includes Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen, also made in 1915.