A Silent Opera

“La Boheme,” the final film shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Winter Event, tells the story of a group of impoverished artists who share an apartment building in Paris.  The 1926 MGM movie stars Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, who play the passionate lovers Mimi and Rodolphe.  Silent film organist  Dennis James provided a wonderful musical accompaniment on the Wurlitzer — giving a rich feel and selections from Giacomo Puccini’s score to go along with the visuals.

Lillian Gish in "La Boheme."

Director King Vidor’s production presents a realistic portrayal of 19th century Paris, except that it features two quintessentially American movie stars — Gish and Gilbert.  The Paris street on the back lot of MGM doesn’t look like the Paris of “An American in Paris,” but more like the Paris of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”  Life seems gray and cold, and the streets seem dirty, but the artists, despite their impoverished conditions remain festive and full of artistic resolve.  They also help each other to survive, and a friendly prostitute who lives downstairs feeds them, so they remain a very happy group.

Lillian Gish, a major icon of the silent era, delivers her usual riveting performance as the seamstress Mimi — who sacrifices herself for the hothead Rodolphe.  La Boheme, like a few other opera stories, relies upon a simple misunderstanding to trigger a pivotal plot point, and that makes Mimi a much more sympathetic character than Rodolphe.  By the time the lovers reunite, I wondered if Mimi’s sacrifice proved worthwhile.

Despite Gish’s reputation for being tiny, I noticed that Gilbert did not dwarf her in their scenes together.  It turns out Gish stood 5 foot 5 inches, which is small but not tiny.  Gilbert stood 5 foot 11 inches.  However, King Vidor, the director, must have wanted to make use of Gish’s small frame.  She plays a sickly seamstress, prone to fainting spells.  At least 3 different actors — including Gilbert, a woman who runs the slum laundry service, and an old man she meets on the street — carry her at various times.

Edward Everette Horton, the famous character actor who worked well into the 1960s, appears as Coline, one of the artists.  By 1926, Horton had already appeared in a dozen films.  I found it odd not hearing his distinctive voice, or seeing his usual nervous attitude.  But all members of this artist troupe seem happy with their lot — the only real drama occurs between Mimi and Rodolphe.

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