We left off with Mr. DeMille embracing the social film with his tenement weeper, Kindling. As 1915 drew to a close, DeMille released five movies, two pot-boilers, one comedy, one modern fairy tale and one virtuous melodrama. Three of these films are recognized classics. We begin with the title that was one of his biggest hits and certainly one of his most skillfully-made pictures.
U.S. Premier Date: October 31
At last! A 1915 DeMille film I have seen! And is it ever a doozy.
I protective of this film. You see, I have read one too many jokes about the concept of a silent opera. First of all, Carmen the opera is based on a novella. How do you like that, smartypants? Further, the story is full of love, betrayal, jealousy and murder. How could it not make an exciting motion picture?
Carmen was yet another case of a stage star being imported over to the silent screen. Geraldine Farrar was a world-renowned operatic soprano who needed to rest her vocal chords. The silent cinema and the sunny climes of California seemed ideal.
Farrar plays Carmen, a gypsy woman who seduces a naive soldier, Don Jose (Wallace Reid), in order to smuggle goods over the city wall. When Carmen gets arrested for assaulting a fellow worker at a cigarette factory, Don Jose sacrifices his rank and position to save her. He thinks he deserves Carmen as a reward. Carmen has other ideas. She hooks up with a handsome bullfighter, leaving the outlawed Don Jose in the dust. Driven mad by rage and jealousy, Don Jose tracks down Carmen and stabs her to death during a bullfight. Well, I guess he showed her.
Both Farrar and Reid are excellent in their roles. Farrar had played Carmen on the stage, of course, but she instinctively understood that she needed to tone down her movements for the motion picture screen. Her performance is operatic but believable.
Perhaps too believable. Censors clutched their pearls when confronted with the catfight in the cigarette factory (between Farrar and DeMille scenarist Jeanie Macpherson) and it had to be cut down for release in certain states.
Wallace Reid is a real revelation. He specialized in outdoorsy, all-American boy parts but he handled Don Jose’s descent into violence with enormous skill.
While The Cheat gets most of the attention, Carmen is my favorite DeMille film of 1915. It’s sassy, fast-paced, well-acted and it skillfully adapts its source material. Carmen dances on the edge of camp, even dips its toes in it, but never falls in. It’s fabulous fun.
There was a rival version of Carmen starring Theda Bara in the title role, Einar Linden as Don Jose and directed by Raoul Walsh. Like so many of Bara’s films, Carmen is considered lost.
What did we learn about 1915? State censor boards wielded an enormous amount of power and it was not always easy to predict what they would object to. The white hot career of Geraldine Farrar shows that signing stage and opera stars could sometimes pay off lavishly.
Survival Status: Prints held by the George Eastman House and others. Carmen has been released on DVD. You can read my full-length review of the film here.
Chimmie Fadden Out West
U.S. Premier Date: November 21
Now we have that rarest of creatures in DeMille’s body of work: a direct sequel. He would make follow-ups (Why Change Your Wife? followed Don’t Change Your Husband) but he rarely made films that continued the adventures of the same character.
Silent films in general were not given to making direct sequels and when they did, the sequel often followed the adventures of the descendants of the previous hero (albeit often played by the same actor). Performers like Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain would play characters who showed up again and again under the same name or description but every film was a clean slate; the characters had no recollection of their previous adventures. The most famous true silent sequel is probably The Iron Mask, Douglas Fairbanks’ farewell to the art form.
In Chimmie’s case, he heads out to Nevada but soon finds that he must save innocent citizens from getting scammed with a fake gold mine. As you can see, Chimmie Fadden Out West follows the classic sequel pattern of turning a popular hero into a fish out of water. Sometimes it works but it is just as often a spectacular failure. After all, what we love about the character may be too deeply tied to their locale. This time, however, this tactic seems to have been a smashing success.
And in a humorous instance of life imitating art, citizens of the area where the picture was made thought they had another gold strike on their hands when they discovered some of the prop gold that was left behind after shooting.
What did we learn about 1915? Direct sequels were rare at this time but not unheard-of. Cecil B. DeMille seems to be far more adept at directing comedy than most give him credit for, considering that he managed not one but two acclaimed Chimmie films. The western setting is a can’t-miss proposition in 1915.
Survival Status: Print held by the George Eastman House. This title has not yet been released on home video.
U.S. Premier Date: December 13
Here’s the big one. Probably the most famous silent DeMille film and certainly his most famous title of 1915. The Cheat has it all. It’s scandalous as anything and it features a breakout performance from Sessue Hayakawa. It’s the guilty pleasure of a whole lot of silent film fans.
The Cheat was originally announced as a vehicle for Blanche Sweet. How I wish it had stayed that way! Fannie Ward is pretty much everything that I do not like to see in a silent performer: Flailing arms, overwrought hysterics and weird expressions. She was meant to be the star of the picture and was billed accordingly but Sessue Hayakawa neatly stole the picture right out from under her. Admittedly, Ward’s character is rather unlikable but I think Sweet would have at least had a fighting chance at sympathy.
The plot of The Cheat is quite lurid and there are no heroes. Fannie Ward plays a socialite whose husband cannot buy her the designer dress of her dreams as his funds are temporarily tied up. (Miss Ward was noted for her ageless appearance. I was unimpressed.) Not one to take “no” lying down, Fannie embezzles from the Red Cross, loses it all on a risky investment and now must replace the money or face prison. Enter Sessue Hayakawa. He’s had a crush on her for just ages and will give her the money… if she pay the price. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) Fannie is desperate and agrees.
Well, Fannie’s husband has money at last! His investments have come through and Fannie can have all the lettuce she needs. Off she goes with a check to pay off Hayakawa. He is not amused. A deal is a deal, after all. So they fight and he brands her shoulder and she shoots him and he collapses and her husband shows up and takes the blame and it’s all just a dreadful mess.
The Cheat is not everyone’s cup of tea, I get that. Its lurid subject matter and frank racism can be difficult to take. Two things ensure its place in movie history: DeMille’s direction and Hayakawa’s performance. DeMille’s moody lighting and fun with blood stains make this quite a darkly beautiful piece. Hayakawa, meanwhile, gave a subtle and brilliant performance that inspired other actors to try dialing things back a bit.
Hayakawa’s fine acting is particularly noticeable next to Fannie Wards flailing and wailing. He manages more with one twitch of his eyelid than she does in ten minutes of arm thrashing.
Many members of the Japanese community objected to The Cheat. They feared that the behavior of Hayakawa’s character (e.g. branding society matrons in fits of rage) would ratchet up racial tensions, a legitimate fear. In order the eliminate criticism, Hayakawa’s character is changed to Burmese in the intertitles.
In spite of this, The Cheat was an enormous hit. So big, in fact, that Lasky offered to pay the fines of theater owners cited for overcrowding. As publicity stunts go, that’s a pretty good one.
What did we learn about 1915? DeMille confidently tapped into the darkest fantasies of his audience and reaped a box office bonanza as a result. Racial sensitivity was not yet a priority in the motion picture game.
Survival Status: Prints held by the George Eastman House and the Film Preservation Associates. This title has been released on DVD. You can read my full-length review here.
The Golden Chance
U.S. Premier Date: December 30
After the darkness of The Cheat, it’s refreshing to have some lighter fare and The Golden Chance is about as light as you can get.
Jeanie Macpherson’s story borrows liberally from Chimmie Fadden and Cinderella. Cleo Ridgely is a formerly-wealthy young woman who married a thief and a drunkard. Things look up for her when her employer hires her to be window dressing at their party. Wallace Reid is the young businessman who falls for Cleo, not knowing her past or marital status. Meanwhile, Cleo’s husband plots to rob the mansion…
The whole thing is kind of silly and falls apart near the end but it is still a beautiful film with good performances from Reid and Ridgely. Further, DeMille’s lighting experiments are getting bolder and bolder.
The Golden Chance is best enjoyed for what it is: A well-produced bit of fluff guaranteed to help you while away an afternoon.
What did we learn about 1915? Viewers still liked their Cinderella stories (we’ve never grown out of that) and if they were spiced up with armed robbery, so much the better. DeMille’s lighting and atmosphere continued to impress.
U.S. Premier Date: December 30
DeMille’s final offering for 1915 was the follow-up to Carmen. The film had been a smash hit and star Geraldine Farrar was rushed into another film.
The story is a bit hackneyed. Geraldine played an opera singer (a shocker, that) who rejects the advances of a boorish admirer, Otto (Theodore Roberts). Geraldine loves the penniless Julian (Cuban-American actor Pedro de Cordoba, who had played Escamillo in Carmen), who is trying to get his first opera produced. Blackballed by the powerful Otto, the couple is reduced to poverty. Then Otto comes up with a deal: He will produce Julian’s opera if Geraldine pays the price. (Again, nudge nudge, wink wink.) Geraldine emotes a bit but agrees and thus the opera is produced. However, before Geraldine has to pay the nudge nudge, wink wink price, Otto is conveniently murdered by the girl he dumped in favor of Geraldine. Thank heaven for insane exes with firearms!
Possibly due to the reaction to Carmen and The Cheat, DeMille seems to have toned down his lurid tastes for this film. There are no catfights, no brandings, and I see no evidence of exquisitely lit bloodstains. Nope. Just a fragile flower battered by the cruel winds of Otto.
Theodore Roberts, who plays the villainous Otto, received praise but the critics were rapturous about Farrar. Her animated manner and expressive face were made for the silent screen. In general, the story was labeled as threadbare, though DeMille’s mythological symbolism (virgin sacrificing self) was praised. Of course, we all know that old Cecil would take that idea and run with it for most of his career.
What did we learn about 1915? Geraldine Farrar was on fire at the box office. Hiring her was a great business decision for the fledgling Paramount. “Behind the scenes” movies about showbiz were were quite popular, especially if they contained the right combination of titillation and moralizing.
Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. Check that closet!
After researching these titles, I am hoping against hope that someone will put together a high quality early DeMille box set. Kindling, The Captive and Chimmie Fadden Out West are at the top of my wishlist.
What a year!
DeMille found his voice in 1915. With eccentric costume films like The Captive, the high class sleaze of Carmen and the unabashed tackiness of The Cheat, DeMille discovered the keys to making crowd-pleasers. His battles with censor boards also prepared him for later skirmishes when he would be able to defeat his foes by taking refuge behind the Bible.
The year also saw the beginning of DeMille’s fruitful collaboration with Jeanie Macpherson, whose oddball writing talents would continue to shape his films for decades.
DeMille’s 1915 Numbers
Titles Directed: 14
Released on Home Video: 3
Presumed Lost: 5
Held in Archives: 6