Until diva Geraldine Farrar duked it out with screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson on film, the opera Carmen was staged without the brawl between the two pretty cigar factory workers.
The two women, born within 10 miles of each other in Massachusetts, performed in the 1915 silent film directed by another Massachusetts native: Cecil B. DeMille.
DeMille adapted the novella by Prosper Merrimee rather than the opera by Georges Bizet to avoid copyright violations. The Merrimee story, about the amoral Carmen who seduces a soldier named Don Jose, included the fight scene. The opera by Bizet did not.
Carmen was Geraldine Farrar’s first film, and it won critical and popular acclaim.
Farrar was born Feb. 28, 1882 in Melrose, Mass. Her father was Major League Baseball player Sidney Farrar, an infielder for the Philadelphia Quakers and Philadelphia Athletics.
At 5 she started studying music, at 14 she gave recitals and at 19 created an operatic sensation in Berlin, where she was linked with Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany.
From 1906 to 1922, she performed at the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 29 roles, including Carmen. Her devoted fans were called ‘gerry-flappers.’ She had a 7-year affair with Arturo Toscanini, who suddenly left as conductor of the Met after she demanded he leave his wife and children for her.
Farrar was rumored to have had an affair with Enrico Caruso before she married Lou Tellegen at age 33. Tellegen’s philandering made great tabloid fodder, and they divorced in 1923. Eleven years later, he locked himself in the bathroom of a home he was visiting, shaved, powdered his face, then stabbed himself seven times with a pair of scissors while surrounded by press clippings about himself. When told of his bizarre suicide in 1934, she said, “Why should that interest me?”
It was during her time at the Metropolitan Opera that she made her film debut starring in Carmen.
Her sparring partner, Jeanie MacPherson, played a smaller role in the movie but a much bigger role in the movie industry. She was born in Boston on May 18, 1887 and named after Jeanie MacPherson, who led the Highlanders at the Battle of Culloden. She attended school in Paris until her wealthy family fell on hard times. She started out as an actress and dancer in Chicago until she discovered the new medium of film. In 1908 she hunted down moviemaker D. W. Griffith in New York and starred in her first film.
MacPherson had 146 film acting credits from 1908 to 1917. She got her first break directing at Universal Company in 1913, when she wrote, directed, and starred in The Tarantula. Her directing career ended when she got sick, and she went to DeMille looking for an acting job.
DeMille ultimately decided he was more interested in her as a writer than as an actress. She wrote 30 of DeMille’s next 34 films, becoming one of the most influential women in Hollywood and a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
After Farrar was cast as Carmen, screenwriter William deMille was dismayed to learn the Bizet opera was under copyright. His brother, Cecil B. DeMille, told him to go back to the orginal story:
You’ve got smugglers, and a tavern, and soldiers, and a fight between two dames (and give that the works, too), and a camp in the mountains, and, best of all, the bullfight. …you’re supposed to be a dramatist, so if you can’t make the audience think they’re seeing the opera without butting into their damn copyright, you’d better go right home and take a big dose of Lydia Pinkham’s Compound.
Geraldine Farrar asked that the film premier at Boston Symphony Hall. It made her an overnight film star, and the fight scene was used subsequently in many stagings of Carmen. She appeared in other DeMille films written by Jeanie MacPherson, including Joan the Woman.
Farrar retired from opera at 40 and lived in Ridgefield, Conn., until she died in 1967 at 85.
Jeanie MacPherson died of cancer in 1946 at age of 59.
MacPherson, Farrar and deMille all have stars on Hollywood Walk of Fame. DeMille, by the way, was born in Ashfield, Mass., only because his parents were on vacation there. He and his brother grew up in North Carolina.
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