Having had one of their biggest turnouts at the screening of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), the Hendersonville Film Society has opted to tackle a few more silent movies, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 version of Carmen, starring then-famous opera star Geraldine Farrar. A couple of things need to be noted about this decision. First of all, there’s the inescapable fact that Cecil B. DeMille is no Frank Borzage. But more to the point, 1915 is no 1927. It also probably doesn’t hurt to bear in mind that silent movies based on operas are significantly lacking in the area of singing, by their very nature. As a result, the DeMille Carmen is less the Bizet opera than it is a version of the Propser Merrime story on which the opera is based. This, in turn, means that La Farrar’s participation in the film is essentially an early form of stunt casting. However, this just happens to be a case where the stunt pays off, since one of the most gratifying aspects of the film is her performance. There are a few instances of teeth-flashing broad acting (after all, Carmen isn’t a terribly subtle character), but for the most part, Farrar gives a surprisingly modern performance that seems to have been pitched to the intimacy of film and not aimed at the last row of the balcony. Her Carmen is a charmingly amoral creature and a pleasure to watch. Her co-star Wallace Reid, on the other hand, is very much of the era—and in the early scenes often appears to be waiting for DeMille to tell him what to do next.
The filmmaking itself is typical to the period prior to German-influenced Hollywood filmmaking, with the camera nailed down and the action recorded. I only noticed one camera movement—a slight downward tilt to keep the players in frame—in the entire film. The film is, nonetheless, both intelligently made and entertaining within those limitations. It’s also rather surprisingly adult in its frank presentation of an essentially fairly trashy story. For its era, that’s particularly noteworthy, since it affords us an anti-heroine that is worlds away from the Victorian virgins or stereotypical “bad” women associated with early filmmaker D.W. Griffith’s work.