Monday, August 30, 2010

The Silent Treatment

It’s Music Monday, with a twist - Bossman found out what happened when someone turned La Bohème into a silent movie. (Yes, you read that right.) While this Bohème has none of Puccini's original music, it's still a really interesting story...

The Silent Treatment
Rex Fuller, Opera Colorado Director of Marketing

There have been so many innovations in opera over the centuries, but here’s one you might not have seen coming: silent opera.

During the golden age of silent pictures, there weren’t many stars in Hollywood bigger than Lillian Gish. A serious actress, Gish specialized in portraying innocent young women who broke your heart in sad tales of tragic love. By 1925, she’s been signed to a six-picture deal with MGM worth a million dollars. Gish was one of those rare stars who was granted complete artistic control. She was able to choose the pictures she wanted to work on, name the director and her co-stars.

One of her first projects was a silent film version of the Puccini classic La Bohème.

Some critics say that Miss Gish had just returned from a European publicity tour and the chance to tell a story set in Paris gave her one more opportunity to connect with fans on the continent. Studio head Irving Thalberg reviewed possible directors with her, including a special private screening of King Vidor’s unfinished The Big Parade. Miss Gish was thrilled with what she saw and the director was chosen.

However, La Bohème was a problematic concept for other reasons, aside from the fact that this was a silent film and the topic was…um, an opera. Giacomo Puccini had died in 1924 and his estate remained in dispute, so the rights to the music and the story of the opera were not available. So instead, screenwriters turned to Henri Murger’s original novel Scènes de la vie de la bohème. They also used studio musicians to compose a new score for the film, one that did not include opera singers. (The original film score, never regarded as a masterpiece in the first place, is now lost.)

Miss Gish would star as the tragic heroine Mimi. For the male lead, Rodolphe, Gish selected matinee idol John Gilbert to be her co-star. During the silent era, Gilbert was known as “the great lover” and rivaled Rudolph Valentino as a top draw at the box office. As Musette, Gish cast French film sensation Renée Adorée.

The film follows a very similar story to the opera. Mimi is a poor, humble seamstress. Her neighbor, the artist Rodolphe, falls madly in love with her. They have a stormy relationship and wait to break up until spring. She dies tragically of tuberculosis.

Reports vary on filming. Many say that Gish was treated like a queen when she arrived at the studio, but others regarded her as arrogant and difficult to work with. It’s said that she didn’t want to give Gilbert the time of day but that he was infatuated with her. Some reported that he would intentionally flub scenes during filming so they would have to be re-shot and Gilbert would be forced to kiss his beautiful co-star again. And again.

While far from a masterpiece of the silent era, there are fascinating elements to the film, one of them being Lillian Gish herself. When you watch the film, you get a sense of her depth as an actress. Long before anyone had coined the phrase “method acting,” Gish was employing its techniques. She spent weeks at the hospital observing TB patients. She taught herself to breath with minimal visible movement. Three days before filming, she quit taking liquids so that she appeared drawn and exhausted. The result was a death scene of astounding realism.

John Gilbert himself can be a revelation to the movie fan. One doesn’t necessarily think of silent film stars as sex symbols, but some people might think that Gilbert could give Johnny Depp a run for his money in this film. (Well, that might be stretching it, but you get the point.)

The film has been released on DVD and can be ordered online. For a small sample, we can thank YouTube for this brief clip:

You learn something new every day. If you're looking for a not-so-silent version of La Bohème, tickets are still available for Puccini's classic premiering November 6 and playing November 9, 12, 14 & 16.

Ciao for now!

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