21 Dec 2022

The Daughter of the Regiment Online Course by Dr. Glen W. HicksPart 3. La fille du cinéma

by Dr. Glen W. Hicks

In July 1898, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company began the production of a short film at their studio on the roof of 841 Broadway at 13th Street in Manhattan. While only in its third year, the Biograph Company, as it was commonly known, was already reknowned for its productions and had become one of the most prominent film studios in America and the world. With many different films already in their catalogue, this new production would be something no one had ever done before. The resulting two-minute silent movie was the first time scenes from an opera were ever committed to film thus making La fille du régiment, or The Daughter of the Regiment, the first opera to be turned into a movie.

The relationship between opera and cinema, and later television, was predicted by America inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) some years earlier. Edison had pioneered the technology for recording sound and capturing moving images on film. Five years before the filimg of The Daughter of the Regiment, he addressed his motivations in The New York Times.

My intention is to have such a happy combination of photography and electricity that a man can sit in his own parlor, see depicted upon a curtain the forms of the players in the opera upon a distant stage and hear the voices of the singers.[1]

It comes as no surprise that the founder of the Biograph Compay was William Kennedy Dickson (1860-1935), a British inventor who had worked with Edison up until 1895 before leaving to form his own studio. While its possible he may have got the idea to film opera from Edison while he was in his employ, Dickson was the first to actually do it.

Figure 1 – Images of William Kennedy Dickson (Thomas A. Edison, Inc, and Edison Collection. Dickson Greeting. produced by Dickson, W. K.-L, Uction, and Heise, Williamuction, Camera [1891] Video. https://www.loc.gov/item/00694118/).

We do not know why Dickson chose The Daughter of the Regiment and not one of the many other popular operas for his film. However, we do know that Donizetti’s work held a special place in American popular culture that took root during the Civil War. First performed in the United States in 1843 at the Théâtre d’Orléans in New Orleans, The Daughter of the Regiment grew steadily in poularity and was staged across the country from New York to San Francisco. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, several opera companies decided to capitalizes on the work’s ouvertly patriotic themes and feed the flames of “war fever” by reviving the production.[2] One such production opened in Washington D.C. on 3 May 1861, less than a month after the start of the war. The popular American soprano Clara Louise Kellogg (1842-1916) starred as Maria and a group of Union soldiers were cast as non-singing extras.[3]

Figure 2 – Clara Louis Kellogg (Clara Louise Kellogg,  [No Date Recorded on Shelflist Card] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654279/).
Figure 3 – Unidentified woman (printed in Cricket Bauer, “Viva la Vivandières: A Short History of Women in Pseudo-Military Costume,” Military Images 21, no. 6 (May-June 2000): 23).

This production, and many others like it, had a profound effect on the American psyche, particularly the character of Marie. From her patriotism and loyalty to her military-esque costume, Marie became somewhat of a figurehead or role-model for American women during the 1860s. Civil War historian Cricket Bauer observes,

The role of the “Daughter of the Regiment” provided American women with an opportunity to display patriotism on the home front. The costume of the Daughter was worn not only by those who were actually adopted by a regiment: any young lady could dress the part for a photograph.[4]

The result is evidenced by countless photographs of women dressed in the attire of a “daughter of the regiment.” Additionlly, Bauer argues that the influence of Donizetti’s opera is further supported by the fact that many of these photographs depict women playing (holding) a drum – a prop specifically used by Clara Kellogg in her successful performance as Marie.[5]

Although the conflict had been over for nearly a quarter of a century, the impact of the Civil War was still being felt when The Daughter of the Regiment was filmed in 1898. Moreover, the use of the opera as propaganda helped to solidify its lasting popularity among American audiences. By choosing to film this opera and not another, Dickson was able to capitalize on the American penchant for patriotic themes, and tap into the nation’s emotions which were still very near the surface.

Following Dickson’s original movie, La fille du régiment would be filmed multiple times around the world. Notably, one of these productions was presented at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and is among the first films with sound. Film historian Ken Wlaschin (1934-2009) included a comprehensive list of these movies in his book Opera on Screen (1997). A selection of these films is included below.

1898 American Mutoscope Film

A very early film of a scene from this opera was made in July 1898 in the New York City studio of the American Mutoscope Co. It was distrubuted with the title The Daughter of the Regiment. Black and white. About 2 min (155 feet)

1900 Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre

This was one of the first sound films. It features La Scala opera singer Polin performing an aria from La Fille du Régiment. The film was first shown at the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Black and white. About 3 min.

1909 Cines film

The Italian film company Cines made a silent version of the Donizetti opera in 1913 with the Italian title La Figlia del reggimento. About 20 min.

1915 Pittaluga film

Another Italian silent film of the opera was made two years later and also titled La figlia del reggimento. It was distributed by Pittaluga. About 40 min.

1920 Vidali film

The popularity of the opera was so strong in Italy at this time that a third and somwhat longer version of the opera was produced and again titled La figlia del reggiment. Liliane de Rosny stars as Mary (not Marie) opposite Umberto Mozzato as Toni. The film was directed by Enrico Vidali for Subalpina Films of Turin. Black and white. About 50 min (1000 meters).

1927 Cameo Operas series

Kitty Barling stars as Marie in this British Song Silms highlights version with Oscar Sosander as Tonio and Algernon Hicks as Baron Bertrand. It was screened with live singers and an orchestra in synchronization with the screens. H. B. Parkinson directed as part of the Cameo Opera series. About 20 min.

1929 Betty Balfour film

English movie star Betty Balfour was brought to Berlin to star as Marie in this silent version of the opera adapted by Hans Zerlett. Alexander D’Arcy plays the man she loves and Kurt Gerron is the Sergeant. Hans Behrendt directed this German-British co-production. Black and white. About 80 min.

1933 Pierre Billon film

Pierre Billon’s French film modernizes the opera, moves the setting to Scotland, turns the French regiment into Scottich Highlanders and Anglicizes the names. Anny Ondra starts as Mary with a cast that includes Claude Dauphin as Lt. Williams, Marfa Dhervilly as Lady Diana and Paul Asselin as Sergend Bully. The adaptation was written by Has Zerlett and Hans Hannes. Vandor Film. Black and white. In French. 90 min.

1933 Karel Lamac film

This German-language version of the opera titled Die Tochter des Regiment was shot in Austria at the same time as the French film with the same changes in the plot and names. It also stars Anny Ondra as Mary but with supporting Austrian cast that includes Werner Fuetterer, Adele Sandrock and Otto Wallburg. Karel Lamac directed. Vandor Film. Black and white. In German. 90 min.

1944 Mapy Cortes film

Mapy Cortes stars as Maria in the Spanish-language film based on the Donizetti opera and made in Mexico under the direction of Jamie Salvador. It was released by Aguila Films with the Spanish title La Hija del Regimiento. Black and white. In Spanish. 86 min.

1953 Geza von Bolvary film

Antonella Lualdi stars as the daughter in this narrative film of the opera made in three languages with Isa Barzizzi, Hannelore Schroth, Michael Auclair and Theo Lingen. The Italian version is called La figlia del reggimento, the German version Die Tochter der Kompanie and the French version La fille du régiment. All three were directed by Geza von Bolvary with help from Tullio Covazi in Italy. Black and white. In Italian, German or French. 90 min.

1974 Wolf Trap Park

Beverly Sills is delightfully exuberant and really enjoys herself as Marie in this English-language production of the opera staged by Lotfi Mansouri at Wolf Trap Park in Virginia. William McDonald is Tonio, Spiro Malas is Sergeant Sulpice and Muriel Costa-Greenspon plays the Marquise. Charles Wendelken-Wilson conduscts the Filene Center Orchestra and the Wolf Trap Company Chorus. Ruth and Thomas Martin wrote the translation and Kirk Browning directed the video. Color. In English. 118 min. VAI video.[6]

[1] As quoted in Marcia J. Citron, Opera on Screen (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000), 25.

[2] Cricket Bauer, “Viva la Vivandières: A Short History of Women in Pseudo-Military Costume,” Military Images 21, no. 6 (May-June 2000): 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ken Wlaschin, Opera on Screen: A guide to 100 years of film and videos featuring operas, opera singers and operettas (Los Angeles: Beachwood Press, 1997), 123-124.