Madame Butterfly (1915) and Madame Butterfly (1932)

Madame Butterfly (1915)    Madame Butterfly (1932)
Madame Butterfly (1915) and Madame Butterfly (1932)

Film:                                         Madame Butterfly                               Madame Butterfly
Year:                                         1915                                                  1932
Director:                                    Sidney Olcott                                     Marion Gering
Writing Credits:
   Novel :                                   John Luther Long
Play:                                                                                                  David Belasco/
John Luther Long
  Treatment:                                                                                         Harry Hervey
Cinematography:                      Hal Young                                          David Abel
Special Effects by:                                                                               Loyal Griggs
Art Direction:                                                                                        Wiard Ihnen
Cho-Cho-San:                          Mary Pickford                                     Sylvia Sidney
Lt. Pinkerton:                            Marshall Neilan                                  Cary Grant
Suzuki:                                      Olive West                                         Louise Carter
Adelaide:                                   Jane Hall
Cho-Cho-San’s Father:             Lawrence Wood
Cho-Cho-San’s Mother:            Caroline Harris                                  Helen Jerome Eddy
The Nakodo:                              M.W. Rale
The American Consul:              William T. Carleton                             Berton Churchill
The Prince:                                David Burton
The Soothsayer:                        Cesare Gravina
Naval Officer:                             Frank Dekum
Uncredited Role:                        Ruth Gordon
Lt. Barton:                                                                                             Charles Ruggles
Yomadori:                                                                                             Irving Pichel
Cho-Cho’s Grandfather:                                                                       Edmund Breese
Goro:                                                                                                    Sándor Kállay
Madame Goro:                                                                                     Judith Vosselli
Mrs. Pinkerton:                                                                                      Sheila Terry
Peach Blossom:                                                                                    Dorothy Libaire
Trouble:                                                                                                Philip Horomato
Comm. Anderson:                                                                                  Wallis Clark
Bridesmaid:                                                                                           Verna Hillie

June 22, 2013

I am a big Sylvia Sidney fan and I’ve always said that no one can suffer and cry like Sylvia does in most of her films.  It’s been many years since I’ve seen her version of Madame Butterfly and as it’s still not available on DVD, I was happy when I was able to pick up a copy at Cinefest 2012.  Having skimmed through it, it seems to be a better copy than I imagined it would be.  But first, we’ll be watching the 1915 version starring Mary Pickford.  I picked this up this year in Cinefest.  I wasn’t looking carefully and first thought it was the 1932 version, but got rather excited when I saw what it was.  So here we go.  Caren


Madame Butterfly was a good box office title.  Even if it was not based on the Puccini opera, plenty of people thought it was.  In any case, it told much the same story.  And it gave Mary Pickford the chance to prove her versatility.  For years it had been said that she was fine with parts as young girls and abandoned waifs but that strong dramatic roles were beyond her.  As Variety wrote:

Well, you “Doubting Thomases,” go to the Strand this week and disabuse your minds of any such idea once and for all.  Se her play the simple-minded, simpering, giggling little Japanese girl and the transition when she becomes the cast-off of the American lieutenant….  If she doesn’t raise a lump in your respective throats when she learns the truth about her husband, nothing will.

One may not agree with this verdict now.  Seen with the benefit of more than eighty years (closer to 100 now), Mary does not look sufficiently Asian.  Although her performance is usually well controlled, on occasion she is too unrestrained in her expressions.  And certainly the players that surround her are obviously not Japanese.  But resist her as you may, by the time Pinkerton returns, having married his American fiancée, you cannot avoid feeling terribly sad for poor Cio Cio San.

Mary quarrelled with director Sidney Olcott.  “I didn’t like him,” she told me.  “I should never have used him….  My brother called him Old Flat-Tire.  He was a little bit lame, and my brother disliked him because he was mean to me.  I didn’t rate him highly as a director.”  Olcott wanted her to play the role with Japanese reserve, and when she put too much American pep into it, a row developed, and Olcott walked off the set.  At this point, Mary announced that she would take over the direction, which prompted Olcott to dash back to the set.  Then it was Mary’s turn to walk off.

She conspired with Marshall Neilan, who played Pinkerton, to put some comedy into it, but the only sign of their work remaining is Mary giggling as she mixes a knockout cocktail to repel an unwanted suitor.  It jars with the Japanese atmosphere, which, for a film of 1915,. is carefully evoked.  (The film was to have been shot in Japan during a Pickford world tour, but World War I dashed the plans.)

In a striking sequence of Griffith-like intercutting, Mary endures the slimy suitor at the same time that Pinkerton enjoys a lavish wedding in the States.  Hal Young’s camerawork is full of silhouettes and glowing moonlight scenes, but these no longer carry the impact they once did because the surviving print is not tinted.  The film stays faithful to the story as Cio Cio San walks slowly into the lake outside her home, which provided a picturesque background.  (The film was shot at Plainfield and Bernardsville, New Jersey.)  A synopsis in the Moving Picture World described what must have been an alternative ending with Cio Cio San blindfolding the baby and stabbing herself in the throat.  When Pinkerton arrives she clasps the child to her breast and dies in his arms, her face glowing with happiness.  In The Forbidden City, the 1918 remake with Norma Talmadge, the suicide was eliminated—for by that time a happy ending was mandatory.

Madame Butterfly—Released:  November 8, 1915
Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow (1999)

Madame Butterfly (1915)Later that year, she was drastically miscast as Madame Butterfly.  Pickford’s director, Sidney Olcott, insisted she play the role with Japanese reserve; Pickford wished to make the role more Yankee.  Inevitably, tension broke in a “furious quarrel which resulted in Olcott stalking off the set.  I was shaking with anger,” remembered Mary.  Then she called the company together and propsed they continue under her direction, with the crew and her co-star Marshall Neilan assisting.  At this point Olcott, who was hiding in the scenery, emerged.  “he assured me that no one but Sidney Olcott would ever direct any scenes for Madame Butterfly.  Then it was my turn to walk off the set.”  The shoot ran long and over budge—in part, because of Mary’s behaviour.  She began to play the spoiled star, always finding something wrong with her costume,at one point refusing to wear her shoes, and dubbing the movie “Madame Snail.”  In the end, she poured mascara on her curls, pulled back the corners of her eyes, and played the role as Olcott wished it.  Fans were appalled: where was Little Mary?  And Pickford decided she must try to avoid men of Olcott’s rigid temperament.  She wondered how she might gain a little influence.

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfiled (1997)

John Luther Long’s story, “Madame Butterfly,” after having been dramatized and made into an opera has finally reached the movies.  A picture version was shown yesterday in the Strand, with Mary Pickford in the role of Cho Cho San.  David Belasco explained at great length last week that the picture was not based on his version.  The screen arrangement was taken directly from Mr. Long’s book.  Miss Pickford made an attractive Japanese maiden, her diminutive stature being well adapted to the character.  But notwithstanding her size and her black wig, she looked more Occidental than Oriental.

New York Times: November 15, 1915

For many moons it has been stated, and repeated, in the motion picture fraternity that Mary Pickford was a wonderful artist along certain lines, but that said lines were limited and quite circumscribed.  This statement had become so familiar that it was generally accepted as a fact.  Well, you “doubting Thomases” and “Unbelievers,” go to the Strand this week to see her in the Famous Players’ (Paramount) production of “Mme. Butterfly” and disabuse your minds of any such idea once and for all.  See her play the simple-minded, simmering, giggling little Japanese girl and the transition when she becomes the cast-off of the American lieutenant.  Observe carefully her depiction of the utter hopelessness of any solution but suicide at the finish, watch the gradations of joy and sorrow, her remarkable characterization of an Oriental woman, the perfection of detail in gait, gestures and mannerisms.  Attend, you scoffers, and if she doesn’t raise a lump in your respective throats when she learns the truth about her husband, nothing will.  Words are useless to describe the beauty and artistry of it all—the production, the photography, the uniformly excellent acting of the supporting company and, above all else, Mary Pickford.  The Famous Players has never turned out a finer feature—nor indeed has anybody else.

Variety: by Jolo., November   12, 1915

Madame Butterfly (1915)Not surprisingly, Mary Pickford failed to look sufficiently Japanese in this five-reel melodrama based on John Luther Long’s novel rather than Puccini. The star fought director Sidney Olcott tooth and nails throughout the filming at Plainfield and Bernardsville, New   Jersey. Olcott reportedly wanted Pickford to be more reserved and Oriental and walked off the set in protest of her too Americanized Cio Cio San. The headstrong actress began talking of directing the rest of the film herself, and Olcott quickly reappeared. Pickford’s friend Marshall Neilan played Pinkerton, heading a supporting cast of Caucasian actors, few of whom looked any more Asian than Pickford. As opposed to the 1918 Norma Talmadge remake, The Forbidden City, Pickford’s Madame Butterfly remained true to its source and included Cio Cio San’s suicide.

Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi

(Doug and Mary) met again at the Screen Club Ball at the Hotel Astor, and again they talked.  Mary had just finished Madame Butterfly, and was undoubtedly full of her experiences in the unlikely role of the tragic heroine Cho Cho San.  Every morning before shooting began she had drawn the corners of her eyes back to give herself an Oriental look, and rinsed the golden curls in mascara.  She had practiced working with Japanese cooking utensils, and concentrated, both at home and in the studio, on such mannerisms as covering her emotions in the accepted Japanese manner.  The director, she felt, and demanded too much repression, and it is easy to picture her, eyes flashing, curls bouncing, as she angrily told Doug about their confrontations.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks by Booton Herndon

Here’s a little anecdote of what was going on in Mary’s life during 1915:

Even though her marriage (to Owen Moore) was on the rocks, Mary did not necessarily lack for sexual companionship.  By the early part of 1914, she was engaged in an occasional affair with James Kirkwood, an old acquaintance from Biograph days whom she had requested as a director despite the fact that he had little previous experience.  Kirkwood was ten years older than Mary, and a boon drinking companion of Jack’s (Mary’s brother).  Like a later generation’s Leslie Howard, he was an unlikely lady-killer who was nevertheless devastating to women.

“Oh God, he had them all,” exclaimed James Kirkwood Jr. with a note of pride.  Kirkwood Jr., the product of his father’s marriage to Lila Lee, Valentino’s leading lady in Blood and Sand, grew up to become a successful novelist and playwright, with the co-authorship of A Chorus Line among his credits.  “Mary Miles Minter, Anna Q. Nilson…  Everybody slept with my father, except for Lillian Gish, and that includes Dorothy.”

What made it particularly interesting was that Owen was her occasional co-star in the pictures Kirkwood was directing.  “My father always said that he adored her, that he was very much in love with her and they had a lovely relationship,” said Kirkwood Jr.  “He even spoke about a time when they were very close to being married.”  (A possible reference to the relationship predating her marriage to Owen?)

“My dad liked Owen Moore and he liked Owen’s brother, Matt, too.  He liked Douglas Fairbanks as well.  These men were all very strange about cuckolding each other.  They seemed glad to bed each other’s wives and girlfriends.  There was no animosity or one-upmanship; if you could spirit her off to bed, it was fine.  No hard feelings.”

Kirkwood Sr. thought Mary had that certain quality that makes stars, a chemistry with the camera, an ease, without a lot of the eye work that hammier actresses resorted to to express emotion.  “The lovely thing about working with her,” Kirkwood Sr. told his son, “was that you didn’t have to fight a lot of stilted, heightened acting she was trying to drop over the screen.  It was all natural.”

Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart: by Scott Eyman (1990)

Madame Butterfly (1915)1920s Hollywood:  The Submissive Is Born

Long before she created so effectively the screen image of Dragon Lady, Anna May Wong gained her early stardom playing the opposing stereotype: the submissive Asian girl, sometimes referred to as “Lotus Flower,” the name of Wong’s character in The Toll of the Sea (1922) her first major screen appearance at the age of seventeen.  The movie was a reworking of the Madame Butterfly story set in China, where the peasant girl Lotus Flower is loved and abandoned by a shipwrecked American sailor who fathers her child.

Madame Butterfly has been made and remade again by Hollywood over the years.  Mary Pickford played in the role of abandoned Japanese wife in a 1915 silent version.  Next, Cary Grant played the lead in a 1932 version, changed somewhat from the Puccini opera.  The 1954 and 1995 film versions were screen adaptations of the opera, and there are numerous European opera company performances available on video and DVD as well.  In short, it is a story that has stuck with us for more than 100 years in several dozen interpretations on stage and screen.  It was inevitable, then, that when Asian actresses first began appearing in the first creations of the Hollywood film industry, that’s where they would have ended up.  In addition to these five films, several other works have adapted or reinterpreted the Madame Butterfly story, either with men or Vietnamese women cast as the doomed lovers, including: Limehouse Blues; China Gate (1957) starring Angie Dickinson and set in Vietnam; the made-for-TV move The Lady From Yesterday (1985) in which a Vietnamese woman shows up to her former GI boyfriend’s home in America and delivers their child; M Butterfly (1993), which makes the lovers both men; and, of course, the musical Miss Saigon, which transports the setting to the Vietnam War.

It is worth recounting the origins of the Butterfly story to show, yet again, how a loose interpretation of historical fact, rewritten as fiction, and then transformed onto stage and screen, takes the image of Asian woman and distorts her to Western fantasies.

Giacomo Puccini’s original 1904 opera Madame Butterfly was based on a play Puccini had seen in London in 1900 that was adapted from an 1898 American Century magazine short story that was, itself, adapted in a sort of half-truth from an 1887 French novel called Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti (real name Julien Viaud), which was loosely based on encounters he had on a visit to Japan.  In it, main character Loti lands at the Japanese treaty port of Nagasaki with the twin objectives o getting a tattoo and acquiring a temporary wife, “a little yellow-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes.  She must be pretty.  Not much bigger than a doll.”

Here is the factual part: In Japan at that time, girls from poor families were hired or sold to traders as temporary wives.  Foreigners were able to look them over, make a selection, and negotiate a price.  For the most part, it was a straight commercial transaction with no romance.  The “wife” was more or less a long –term prostitute with housekeeping duties for as long as the trader was in port.

In the novel, Loti acquired Miss Chrysanthemum, but quickly finds her tiresome.  He makes disparaging remarks about the Japanese in general, and he is glad to be rid of her as he prepares to leave Japan.  She makes a big scene of crying and begging him not to leave.  Later, having forgotten something, Loti returns to find Miss Chrysanthemum happily counting the money he had given her and awaiting her next “husband.”

That story was made in an 1893 opera and ballet and enjoyed moderate success.  Seven years later, the American writer John Luther Long wrote a short story for American Century magazine graduating Miss Chrysanthemum to Madame Butterfly.  Long said that his sister had been to Nagasaki and had met the offspring of one of these unions between a visiting sailor and temporary wife.  The offspring, a son, recounted that his mother had tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide.  Long’s fictional story keeps the transactional side of the temporary wife arrangement, and makes the protagonist an American naval officer.  The officer in his story returns to Japan with his American wife but does not go see the Japanese woman.  The American wife does, and when she discovers the Japanese woman has the child of her husband, she claims him as her own.  Because the Americans have taken away her child and left her with nothing, the Japanese woman attempts suicide but fails.

By the time playwright David Belasco adapted it to the stage in a one-act play, and then Puccini saw it in London and felt inspired to create the most successful opera of the early twentieth century, Madame Butterfly had evolved again, and would once more.  Puccini’s opera depicted his Butterfly and Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in somewhat coarse terms, akin to prostitute and cad. But after initial less-than-rave reviews of the debut as La Scala in Milan, Puccini made the characters more sympathetic, transforming Madame Butterfly into the story we know today; a Japanese woman with loyal, undying love for the officer who abandoned her and left her pining for his return, who willingly gives up her son and commits suicide (successfully) so that her son can be raised in America and have a better life.  It took more than seventeen years to transform the story of a tiresome, money-counting prostitute into the story of a pining, suicidal lover.  And it is Puccini’s final portrayal of Asian woman as a delicate, fluttery, bewitching butterfly that has endured, affecting so many of the images of Asian women since.

The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, And Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient by Sheridan Prasso  (2005)


Madame Butterfly, Cary Grant’s seventh and last 1932 film, was little help in his career.  As in David Belasco’s play, the inspiration for Giacomo Puccini’s durable opera, the Madame Butterfly (1932)plot’s main focus is on its heroine, Cho-Cho-San (Sylvia Sidney), who marries selfish Lieutenant Pinkerton (Grant), a U.S. Navy man temporarily stationed in Yokohama.  Eventually, he must return home, promising to come back “when the robins build their nests.”  By the time he returns—several years later—“Butterfly” has his son, unknown to Pinkerton.  She has lived only for his return, and when she discovers that he now has an American wife (bland Sheila Terry) and considers their union no more than a passing romance—a pleasant memory—Cho-Cho-San decides to “die with honor, rather than live without it.”

Miss Sidney is lovely and appealing as the tragic heroine and, almost single-handedly, maintains the viewer’s attention, since Marion Gering directs the picture at a pace too Madame Butterfly (1932)sluggish for the creaky plot.  Without the sumptuous Puccini score, which the studio uneasily blended in the background with its own “incidental” music, the hoary old tearjerker holds little interest.  As the caddish Pinkerton, Grant is given little to do.  In the opera, the character at least has the rousing tenor-baritone duet “Dovunque al mondo” and his long, idyllic duet with Butterfly that closes act 1, as well as the plaintive act 3 aria “Addio, fiorito asil.”  By way of compensation, the 1932 film has ex-Broadway tenor Grant sing to Sylvia Sidney a little ditty entitled “My Flower of Japan,” neatly turned out for the occasion by W. Franke Harling and Ralph Rainger.  Undoubtedly, it was easier for him to sing to Sylvia than to stand by while she called him “Honorable Lieutenant, the most best nice man in all the world.”

If Madame Butterfly did little to enhance Grant’s burgeoning career, neither did it harm him, for women could hardly fail to notice Cary Grant’s dark and handsome good looks, enhanced by his naval uniforms.  The actor’s striking physical appearance was exactly what now gave an added boost to his film future, in the buxom form of an unexpected benefactress—Mae West.

Cary Grant by Jerry Vermilye

Madame Butterfly (1932)Madame Butterfly (1932) – Is there someone out there who has always wanted to know what the opera is about, without being distracted from the plot by the music?  Sylvia Sidney, got up in fancy kimonos, mournfully smiles through tears, and a not yet suave Cary Grant is the rotten-hearted Occidental who deserts her.  Based on a stage version that David Belasco had co-written, it’s every bit as bad as you might expect.  Marion Gering directed; the cast includes Charlie Ruggles, Helen Jerome Eddy, Irving Pichel, and Sandor Kallay.  Paramount. b&W

5001 Nights at the Movies by Pauline Kael

Except for the persuasive acting of Sylvia Sidney, “Madame Butterfly,” as a talking film, Madame Butterfly (1932)is not especially successful. The script seems to have been contrived on the theory that an aggressive use of the word “honorable” in the dialogue allotted to the Japanese characters would result in a picturesque quality. Miss Sidney in particular is forced to wrestle with a type of pidgin English that smacks less of the Orient than of the studio mills. Cho-Cho-San’s dashing American lover is “the most best nice man in all world,” as well as “Honorable Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, the whole works.” The humor is of the same whimsical antiquity, and it accomplishes the feat of representing Charles Ruggles as an in-effective comedian.

The tragic romance of the geisha girl moves leisurely through an exquisite flower garden, Goro’s sinful establishment and the lovely Cho-Cho’s house on the hill where she can watch the American fleet in the harbor and sigh for her lover to return. Through the story runs an engaging musical score compounded from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” strains. In costuming, make-up and settings, the film is quaintly satisfying, and the composition of the photography has its own charms. The pace of the picture is too lethargic for modern audiences.

Variety:  December 26, 1932

Slow moving and tedious talkerization of the noted operatic and legit plot that must depend entirely on the title to draw its business.  As a picture it is hardly more than fair, and as a grosser it should rate about fair also.

Although the pattern has been used for screen purposes in various forms countless Madame Butterfly (1932)times, the ‘Butterfly’ theme and title have been dormant in this amusement branch since a silent version years ago.  Although it’s cleaned up a bit, with the seduction of Mme. Butterfly slightly purified by a native marriage ceremony, and the dialog contains some current slang that wasn’t in the original, nothing radically new was inserted by the talker producers.  The most pleasant change is the tragic heroine, Sylvia Sidney, as lovely a Mme. Butterfly as ever curled her eyebrows upward.

Miss Sidney was up against a tough assignment and sometimes she doesn’t finish on top.  The role as constructed and the lines as written very often become too much of a struggle for her, as they would for probably any actress.  As the wistful geisha girl who meets her one and only in her first night at the Japanese Rose Bailey’s and then crams an entire married life into a Yankee sailor’s six weeks’ shore leave, she is most convincing most of the time.  But the old-fashioned build-up and the pigeon English that goes with it make for an unfavourable start.

By the time Miss Sidney surmounts the handicaps by the simple artistry of her acting, the plot has slowed down to a turtle’s gallop.  It’s too late then.

Madame Butterfly (1932)There are numerous Japanese characters in for every purpose from paternal severity to comedy relief.  They do everything but risley (sic).  More comedy comes from Charlie Ruggles in one of those stock Ruggles roles.  Cary Grant is okay on the looks but a rather cold Lieut. Pinkerton who fails to look, sound or act as impulsive as the authors intended him to be.  A cute Japanese kid about three years old is the cast’s most interesting member outside of Miss Sidney.

Puccini’s opera score runs through the sound track as a musical background but never is permitted to be heard above the dialog nor gain distinction in the pantomimic moments.  Grant signs one song and it isn’t so hot.

Variety by Bige., December 27, 1932

Joining me for the evening was Ronda, Allen, Chris, Geoff, Betsy and Jillian.

1 thought on “Madame Butterfly (1915) and Madame Butterfly (1932)

  1. Pingback: Madame Butterfly (1932) - Toronto Film Society

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