Pre-production code females were given carte blanche when it came to committing their ‘crimes’ against men/society, without veritable punishment, leaving the likes of Theda Bara, Pola Negri and Ida Lupino free to vamp it up, transgress, and use their feminine wiles as they chose, with little condemnation or repercussion. Post-code ladies like Marguerite Namara, for example, in 1931’s Gipsy Blood (aka Carmen), is not quite so lucky. Adapted from the novel Carmen by Prosper Mérimée and informed by the subsequent opera, Gipsy Blood tells the tale of a cigarette factory worker caught up in a love quadrangle. Directed by Cecil Lewis and music arranged and conducted by Malcolm Sargent, this Elstree Studios production is the first filmic rendering of Georges Bizet’s libretto.
Set in Seville, ‘betrayer of all men’, Carmen (American soprano Namara) is striking and clearly, the star, with her alabaster skin, black hair and saucer-like eyes framed with dark lashes. She’s the quintessential Spanish woman in her flamenco dress, hooped earrings and headscarf, standing with her hands on her hips, emitting an air of authority and accentuating her breasts and hip. She’s a seducer, capricious, even duplicitous and when stiff upper-lipped, innocent (and quick tempered) officer Don Josè (Thomas Burke), caddish, lecherous moustachioed corporal Zuniga (Lester Matthews) and charming Toreador Escamillo (Lance Fairfax) fall for her ample charms, it can’t end well. It’s the usual story: woman wrongly labelled ‘harlot’ because she exudes passion, sexuality and confidence leads to murderous jealousy all the while depicting the proletarian life amid immorality, and lawlessness (and xenophobic/sexist stereotyping).
Displaying stark cinematography, replete with chiaroscuro tones, Gipsy Blood is a delight albeit archaically put together. It won’t be for everyone, especially given the histrionic acting and, at times, stilted, awkwardly delivered dialogue. Sadly, the singing ability from the main mezzo-soprano, baritone and tenor does not quite match the acting style but in its deliciously camp and melodic story there is joy to be found. Granted, you probably have heard the arias sung far more proficiently in the 70 years since but Sargent’s arrangements still shine, no mean feat given the audio recording limitations of 30s cinema. A word of advice, never trust a dark, exotic temptress; they’ll break your heart!