Great Opera Silent Movie Stars

Geraldine Farrar in "Julien."(Photo: Bain News Service)
Geraldine Farrar in "Julien."(Photo: Bain News Service)

Talking pictures welcomed great names in opera:

Grace Moore, the American operatic soprano (born in Slabtown, Tennessee) helped to popularize opera with her musical films. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in One Night of Love, in 1935. (There were a lot more than one, according to Moore’s autobiography, You’re Only Human Once.)

Lily Pons — petite, uber-chic and hugely famous — starred opposite the young Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball in I Dream Too Much, and yes, the critics panned it as I scream too much.

Lawrence Tibbett, a handsome and sensational opera singer, made a hit with The Rogue Song.

American operatic mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens was in Going My Way, which won seven Academy Awards and was the highest-grossing picture of 1944.

Silent movie stars:

But if you love opera, you might crave some peace and quiet once in a while. For me, the world of the silent movies has always been a nice antidote. You can still indulge in the occasional over the top performance and a lot of quasi-operatic spectacle, but everybody shuts up. It can be a relief.

What about opera stars who appeared in the silents? And why would silent movies attract opera singers?

The first big name in opera to make silent movies was Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967). She was a baseball player’s daughter from Melrose, Massachusetts who counted Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini and the Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany among her lovers. Farrar starred in the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1907. Puccini disliked her and, apparently, she disliked him as much. But nobody argued with Farrar’s box office appeal.

Farrar starred in more than a dozen films from 1915 to 1920. One of her most notable onscreen roles was as Joan of Arc in the 1917 silent film Joan the Woman, a Cecil B. DeMille epic that stands up today — that is, if you like your movies very grand and silent. Geraldine Farrar was a true silent movie star.

As did most names of the day, Farrar considered movie making a rather joyful slumming. Scott Berg’s biography of Samuel Goldwyn has our Geraldine arriving in Los Angeles in her own railway cars, serenaded by her private orchestra with several comely studs on call. Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso was regularly Farrar’s leading man in opera, but an onscreen hunkmeister he was not. Geraldine made do with Wallace Reid, a Hollywood (silent film) pretty boy.

Eventually, Caruso, handsome or not, was the biggest draw in the world. Why shouldn’t he try pictures? In 1918, he appeared in the American silent film My Cousin, in which the great tenor did a rags to riches to the Met story, complete with Pagliacci (Caruso’s signature opera) and no singing.

It was thought that, even with no sound, the public would delight in seeing Caruso cuddling children and drawing the caricatures for which he was also famous. Caruso saw the film and demanded the right to buy every print and burn them. A few slipped out —  oh, dear.

By the time movies could sing, Farrar had retired and Caruso was dead. We’ve gone over a few of the early talkie era movie stars who were taken seriously by Hollywood (they were taken more seriously in opera).

The one elusive opera star on film was Rosa Ponselle. “Caruso in petticoats,” she was called. Nobody argued with Ponselle’s magnificent voice. All of the big, dramatic Italian operas were hers to command. Not bad for a little girl from vaudeville out of Meriden, Connecticut. But Ponselle wanted to be a movie star — Joan Crawford was a buddy. Ponselle was a famous Carmen and, if Farrar, in the previous generation, could film this opera, why not Rosa? Ponselle went to Hollywood for a screen test in 1936:

There she was, dieted to an inch of her life, insisting on singing an opera for which her luscious bronze soprano voice was unsuited. Carmen was the one flop of Ponselle’s opera career. But she was undaunted. “They sold a lot of tickets,” she later remarked. Rosa went to Louis B. Mayer and said yes, she would consent to filming “her” Carmen for a quarter of a million dollars. “That was ten times what they were paying Clark Gable,” one critic whined. Rosa Ponselle was not one to undervalue herself.  Still, the film was never made.