Caruso’s Silver Screen Debut a Bust
by Barry R. Ashpole
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
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
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of a pianist-prince, was withdrawn before its first public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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Caruso was a master of facial expression and exaggerated
gesture. He retained two sets of expressions
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
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 &
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
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.
- Birdoff H. Enrico Caruso in "My Cousin".
Caruso Jr. E, Farkas A. Enrico Caruso: My Father and
My Family Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1990
HS. Caruso: An Hllustrated Life London, UK:
Collins & Brown,1991 (pages 139-140).
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
[performed by Byron G. Harlan, tenor,
- Verdi: Aida - "Celeste Aida", G&T 52369 (April 11,
- Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - "Una furtiva lagrima",
G&T 52346 (April 11, 1902.)
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).
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.