Film Review: A Burlesque on Carmen
In 1915, Charlie Chaplin A Burlesque on Carmen, parodying Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen, which was based off of the George Bizet Opera of the same name.Starring Chaplin, Jack Henderson, Edna Purviance, Leo White, John Rand, May White, Bud Jamison, Lawrence A. Bowes and Frank J. Coleman, the film had an unknown box office gross. Two further versions were released in 1916 and 1926 as well, with a version in 1999, based on the works of film preservationist David Shepard.
The gypsy seductress Carmen is sent to convince a Darn Hosiery, the goofy officer in charge of guarding one of Sevilla’s entrances to allow a smuggling run. However, after she seduces him, Hosiery kills an officer and he must join the gang, but she soon falls in love with a toreador named Escamillo.
A fun example of an early silent era film, A Burlesque on Carmen does pretty well in presenting a parody of Carmen, with quite a bit of humor to be found throughout the film, both from the actions performed by the characters as well as what is found on the dialogue cards, with one notable example of the latter being when Carmen is described as being able to make anyone younger than 96 fall in love with her. For the former, the humor can be seen in absurd moments, such as when an officer commands that a bug be shot for being in the way, or simply in making light of heavy moments. This is really seen in the fight scene near the end when Hosiery is fighting an officer. The officer is giving everything he has to the fight while Hosiery is barely paying attention and just moving his hand to block the other’s sword. It also leads to some good physical humor, where Hosiery puts the officer’s head through a wall.
The film also goes into unprecedented waters at the end, probably presenting one of the first examples of breaking the fourth wall in cinema. At the end, Hosiery stabs Carmen and then laments over her death when he realizes what he’s done. This is the point where the original opera as well as DeMille's film close. However, this film throws in an unexpected moment where Hosiery and Carmen both rise and then have a good laugh while showing that the dagger used was a stage prop and she’s not really dead. This break of the fourth wall is particularly interesting as not only was it unexpected in the context of the film, but it was unexpected in the context of the film’s release. Films have been around for decades and as such, while not every film breaks the fourth wall, there have been a number of films that have either broken it or at least refer to it. As such, this film breaking the fourth wall by continuing after the expected ending doesn't quite have the impact it probably did when the film was released in 1915. Having the two characters stand and address the audience within the plot and showing “Hey, look, I really didn’t kill her, let’s laugh” probably created the most out of left field experience for the viewers, making it so that employing this tactic would do wonders for the film's comedic aspect.
However, while the film’s comedy is really well done, it does have a few technical problems, namely its poor editing. And though it can be expected that the editing done in 1915 won’t be nearly as impressive as editing done in 1980 or 2015, There are a lot of moments that are so noticeable that they can’t merely be attributed to the earliness of the craft. This can really be seen in one scene where Hosiery is walking across Lillas Pastia’s inn. He starts walking, gets a few step in and the film cuts to him on the other side. Most of the other jump edits aren’t that major and though those are slightly noticeable, they don’t really bring the audience out of the experience like the aforementioned example does. Though it’s not too hard to re-immerse back into the film.
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