Geraldine Farrar is most certainly a unique figure in the annals of our silent screen star pages. Born slightly before the era that gave rise to our most well-known screen sirens, Geraldine was primarily known not as a film actress, but as a diva of the opera world, and arguably, to some, as one of the best opera singers of all time. Ironically, this gifted musical voice was silenced during her tenure as an actress, only one of the many intriguing aspects of Geraldine’s life.
Geraldine was born in Melrose, Massachusetts on February 28, 1882 (some sources, for instance the American History and Encyclopedia of Music, say 1883). She was no stranger to the extraordinary life, being the daughter of baseball maverick Sidney Farrar. She went through the conventional public school system but from an early age had an affinity for singing. The talented soprano singer became a music student, studying under the tutelage of Mrs. J. H. Long, Trabadello, Lilli Lehman, Graziani and Emma Thursby. The latter was her entry into the field of performance; she was around fifteen years old when her parents took her to meet Thursby, who was so taken with Geraldine’s voice that she took her on as a student for two years.
Simultaneously, she began studying acting, or the art of drama with Caboul, who at one time was a famous opera singer himself. The seeds for the future performer Geraldine would become were born. It was a Mrs. Bertram Webb who funded a study trip to Paris for Geraldine, and that is where she met Trabadello to begin her serious study of the opera in earnest. Graziani became her mentor when she later traveled to Germany to sing and continue studying. Paris, though, was where she first sang to a public audience (notably, Paris is also the sight for the first ever public showing of a film to a paying audience, in 1895, just prior to Geraldine’s arrival).
Germany became the site of her fame in the 1890s and the turn of last century, particularly in Berlin, where she is still best known today. There she met Lilli Lehman, another teacher figure who trained her to play Elizabeth in
Tannhauser, one of her most famous roles. She stayed in Germany for a total of five years and then toured several European cities while honing her skills in several high profile roles. Until her death, she held a life position at the Royal Opera House in Berlin, where she debuted in 1901 with her role of Marguerite in
In 1906 Geraldine returned to the United States, initially on a leave of absence from her engagements in Europe, and performed in several large American cities, notably the Metropolitan Opera House, where she played the roles of Elizabeth in
Tannhauser, Cho-Cho San in Madame Butterflyand Romeo and Juliet’s Juliet. She was a key figure at the Metropolitan Opera House from 1906 to 1922. While at the
Met, she also embarked on a very long, passionate affair with Arturo Toscanini while he served as chief conductor there from 1908 to 1915, a secretive affair given Toscanini’s status as a married man. He left the company rather surprisingly, allegedly after she threatened to tell all in the event that he didn’t leave his wife for her (scandals have always been mainstay in the entertainment industry).
So, where did Geraldine find the time to enter the world of the movies, and who had the foresight to tap into her talents?
The answer to that question is the notorious Cecil B. DeMille, two years Geraldine’s senior and on his way to becoming one of the great Hollywood moguls of all time (think
The Ten Commandments – both versions – The Buccaneers, Cleopatra, all DeMille productions). DeMille was a Renaissance man of the silver screen: he acted, wrote, edited, produced, and did virtually everything as the movies were just starting to get underway and before roles were so clearly broken down into divisible labor.
Geraldine made her first six films with DeMille, who was cranking out films at an extraordinary rate at that time. These films are:
Carmen and Temptation (both 1915), Maria Rose (1916), Joan of Woman,
The Woman God Forgot and The Devil-Stone (all 1917). She didn’t make too many films after that, but did work making movies until 1920, most often working with director Reginald Barker (in 1918’s
The Bonds that Tie, 1919’s Shadows, The Stronger Vow and 1920’s
Flame of the Desert, her penultimate film). Her last film, 1920’s The Riddle: Woman (director, Edward Jose), saw her in a co-starring role next to
Madge Bellamy, a more well-known and marketable movie star.
Geraldine married one of her co-stars, the Dutch-born Lou Tellegen; he later
tragically killed himself. Their daughter Jane Farrar later became an actress of
note. Lou himself was a daredevil who led a crazy, tempestuous life and also
only briefly flirted with the movies. His marriage was a more or less a flirtation too – they divorced in 1919. Unbelievably, he died in 1934 by stabbing himself with scissors.
Geraldine must have been a certain type of woman to lead the life she led. It is said that when she acted, despite the fact that these were silent films, she insisted on having musicians on set to put her in the right mood for her performance. She even had string trios provide the backdrop for her most trying scenes. Whether or not this music ever made its way into the live score scenarios for these films is likely lost to history.
It’s becoming clear that Geraldine’s life was far from ordinary. In 1936, she joined the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which protected her status as a songwriter of note – she wrote many works including
Ecstasy of Spring, The Tryst, The Mirage and The Dream, all based on famed composer Rachmaninoff’s music. She also wrote two autobiographies detailing her exotic, jet-setting life as a musician and actress.
Geraldine made a number of famed recordings – among them, one with maestro tenor Enrico Caruso, her friend and co-star on the stage, and was eventually given two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for her music, and one for acting. She died on March 11, 1967 in Ridgefield Connecticut of a heart attack, and was buried in Kensico Cemetary in New York. Unlike many of her peers, the legacy of Geraldine Farrar endures in more widespread fashion thanks to the nature of music technology: her recordings still evoke all the gifts, strengths and uncanny gifts that this remarkable woman had.
# Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in
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