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Caruso’s Silver Screen Debut a Bust

In 1918 the motion picture industry was flourishing, and to one enterprising film producer, Jesse L. Lasky, it seemed only logical that cinemas could be filled with audiences who wanted to see Enrico Caruso, the world’s favourite tenor, even if they could not hear him.

It had worked for Geraldine Farrar, who became a star of the silent screen, so why not for Caruso, who was loved not only for his voice but also for his undeniable charisma and common touch?

Caruso was offered more than $200,000 for approximately six weeks work. The producer decided to make two films rather than one during this period, thereby halving the risk.

From Caruso’s point of view, it was a new and potentially profitable challenge, as well as an opportunity to be seen by millions who would never have a chance to watch him in person. It would also stimulate the sales of his records all over the country,to the satisfaction of the Victor company which eagerly agreed to help in the promotion of the films.

Caruso took his work seriously and maintained a gruelling pace throughout the production of the films. He arose early, taking his morning coffee at six, and inevitably arrived at the studio, a former riding academy in New York, ahead of schedule. His director, Edward José, was both surprised and impressed by his new star's conscientiousness.

Furthermore, Caruso’s good humour never flagged, despite the enervating heat. There were no displays of temperament, from the first day to the last. As always, in spite of his practical jokes, which he practised on the set as he did on stage, Caruso was a professional, even in a field completely new to him.

Unfortunately, his seriousness was not rewarded; for once the Caruso magic failed completely.

The first film was called My Cousin, and in it the star assumed two roles, that of a great tenor and that of his cousin, an impoverished artist, whose success as a lover depended on the credibility of his relationship to the tenor.

When the film opened, it was so poorly received that the second film, The Great Romance [or The Splendid Romance], in which the tenor played the role of a pianist-prince, was withdrawn before its first public screening in North America.

Obviously the public was not interested in a voice- less Caruso. "Candidly, if you cannot hear his marvellous tenor voice," the reviewer of Photoplay Journal wrote, "you cannot possibly enjoy Caruso much...You cannot help but wish the star would step through the silver sheet and offer just one tiny song."

Yet in England both films played, and even The Great Romance did fairly well.

But Caruso on the silent screen just wasn't Caruso.

One movie house tried to turn the film into a talking picture. The cinema correspondent for the Daily Express reported that at the screening of My Cousin in London’s Cathedral Hall, Caruso’s soundless, on- screen rendition of "Vesti la giubba" was accompanied by a recording of his voice, and "synchronization between sound and picture was practically perfect".

But another reporter abhorred the resulting effect and expressed the hope that no one would pursue the crazy idea of making talking motion pictures!

Certainly the idea of adding sound to the Caruso films did not escape some enterprising promoters and theatre owners this side of the Atlantic. The film's producers and distributors, however, appear not to have acted upon a proposal that,in retrospect, might have made the tenor’s silver screen debut less of a commercial disaster.

It was argued that the sound of Caruso’s singing voice would add a measure of realism to My Cousin. Large theatres would achieve this by the use of heavy duty compressed air machines like those used in big hotels to amplify orchestras. The machines were so powerful, the promoters claimed, that "they could fill any theatre with sound" and, with orchestra accompaniment, "it was impossible to distinguish between machine and the human voice". In small movie houses Caruso’s best records would be played before the film started, and the Pagliacci aria when that scene was being enacted.

Some theatre owners did indeed improvise with "talking machines" and were rewarded with improved box office receipts.

The script for My Cousin had its origins in the lyrics of a Ziegfeld Follies show tune of 1909, "My Cousin Caruso". Publicist for the film studio, Harry Birdoff, recalls when the tenor heard the tune for the first time, played by an orchestra in a Philadelphia hotel he was visiting.

Caruso was nettled. He strongly objected to his name being shortened to "Carus" in the lyric. Equally offensive was the verse, "His voice so dreama, like da peaches an’ creama," sung to the tune of "Ridi Pagliaccio".

The lyric dealt with a barber who aired his small grandeur by pretending a relationship to Caruso. No one believed his boast, until the famous opera singer dropped into his shop.

The cover of the sheet music featured a self-caricature of the tenor as Canio in the Leoncavallo opera, which today might beg questions regarding copyright.

Caruso completely forgot about the song - until 1918 and Lasky’s handsome offer. The plot of the screen play parallels that of the song.

In the Little Italy of New York, a struggling sculptor, Mario Tomasso, makes plaster images. His proud boast is that he is a cousin of Ceare Carulli, the great tenor. He loves Rosa Ventura [played by Caroline White, not to be confused with Carolina White, the opera singer], a cashier in her father’s restaurant. Although she flirts occasionally with Bombardi, proprietor of a fruit and vegetable stand, she really loves Mario.

The latter takes her to the opera, where from gallery seats they hear Carulli sing, "I Pagliacci". The singer is accorded a great ovation. [This scene was actually filmed on location at the Metropolitan opera house in New York.]

After the performance, the tenor, in disguise, wanders into the restaurant where Mario is avowing his love for Rosa. Mario proposes a toast to the great Carulli, whereupon the tenor rises to leave. Mario offers him a glass of wine, which he refuses.

Later, Mario learns that the stranger was Carulli himself. Bombardi challenges his kinship, else he would have recognized his distinguished cousin. This ruins the sculptor’s reputation in Little Italy, and his beloved Rosa is led to believe that his claim is unfounded.

Mario makes a bust of Carulli, and takes it to the latter's apartment. The tenor mistakes him for an aspirant, and requests that he sing in order to determine whether he is worthy of help. The sculptor bungles the attempt, whereupon Carulli orders him to leave.

The tenor learns of Mario's sorrow. He seeks him out, and orders the completion of the bust, crowning the happiness of the poor sculptor. This establishes Mario's status as the tenor's cousin. Despite the protestations of Bombardi, Rosa gives her heart to Mario.

To my knowledge only excerpts from the two Caruso films are in circulation; they crop up from time-to-time on commercial video tapes or in television documentary programs. Complete copies of the films may very well exist in private hands or in a commercial or public film library somewhere. If any CAPS member can shed any light on the films I would appreciate hearing from them.

Birdoff writes:

Caruso was a master of facial expression and exaggerated gesture. He retained two sets of expressions appropriate to the two characters he was to portray. Through a trick of double exposure, Mario and Carulli appeared together in a scene, shaking hands.

Some of Birdoff’s promotional lines for My Cousin were not much of an improvement on the lyrics of, "My Cousin Caruso," and included:

"You've Heard the Song, My Cousin Carus. Now see the Screen Play about the Sculptor Who Claimed the Great Tenor as His Cousin!!!"

"You May Be Perfectly Tone-Deaf and Still be Able to Appreciate Caruso’s Smile!"

"Movie Fans Who Once Heard but Not Saw Him on Their Victrolas Will Now See But Not Hear Him in this Theatre!"

These "literary gems" were to be topped a few years later on the death of Caruso with a popular song titled, "They Needed a Songbird in Heaven, So God Took Caruso Away".

A final word - not about Caruso the film actor, but Caruso the opera singer. In particular about the tenor’s April 1902 recordings for The Gramophone & Typewriter Company.

The events surrounding Caruso’s very first recordings have been recounted numerous times over the past 95 years. Fred Gaisberg, the sound recording engineer whose enterprise was responsible for capturing on record the voice of Caruso, enjoyed telling of the tenor’s demand for £100 to record ten songs.

To us in those early days, these were really staggering terms, but [ transmitted them to London with a strong recommendation, feeling all the time how inadequate were words in telegraphic form to describe the merits of the case.

A cabled reply came back: "Free exorbitant, forbid you to record."

This was humiliating and I felt it was hopeless to argue with the people in London, as it was only by being on the spot that one could grasp the urgency of the opportunity. I therefore gave the word... to go ahead.

This episode has been repeated and embellished with each telling, not least of all by Gaisberg himself. Biographers and researchers have delighted in perpetuating the story.

Recently published research, however, does not substantiate Gaisberg’s story. Previously unpublished sources clearly demonstrate that Caruso’s first recording session was very much a team rather than an individual effort. This is not to undermine Gaisberg’s contribution to recording Caruso’s Gas so prized by collectors today. The research does point out the undue emphasis that is so often placed on uncorroborated evidence and reliance on anecdotal evidence.

Bibliography

  1. Birdoff H. Enrico Caruso in "My Cousin". Hobbies 1966; November: 36,51. 1966; December: 36.
  2. Caruso Jr. E, Farkas A. Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1990 (pages 260-261).
  3. Greenfeld HS. Caruso: An Hllustrated Life London, UK: Collins & Brown,1991 (pages 139-140).
  4. Martland SP. Caruso’s First Recordings: Myth and Reality. ARSC Journal 1994;25(2):193-201.

What Was Seen and Heard

Excerpts from My Cousin, a "mix" of actual footage from the original film and studio photographs taken during production, probably for publicity purposes.

  • My Cousin Caruso Columbia 2-minute Indestructable Cylinder No. 1136 [performed by Byron G. Harlan, tenor, August 1909(?)]
  • Verdi: Aida - "Celeste Aida", G&T 52369 (April 11, 1902).
  • Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - "Una furtiva lagrima", G&T 52346 (April 11, 1902.)
  • Puccini: Tosca - "E lucevan le stelle", G&T 52349 (April 11, 1902).
  • Ponichielli: La Gioconda - "Cielo e mar", G&T 52417 (November 30, 1902).
  • Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci - "Recitar!... Vesti la giubba", G&T 52440 (November 30, 1902).
  • Bizet: Les pecheurs de perles - "Mipar d'udir ancor", G&T 052066 (April 8, 1904).

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to CAPS member Paul Dodington for his expert transfer of the Columbia/Harlan cylinder to tape, and to Yen Peng, of Worldclass Video, for his assistance in compiling the video tape segment of this presentation.