Known as “the most beautiful woman in the world”, opera singer Lina Cavalieri starred opposite Caruso, was fêted by D’Annunzio, and was painted by Boldini. She began her career singing in the café-chantants of Rome, Naples, and Paris; rising to international stardom, she toured Europe, was beloved in Tsarist Russia, and performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Along the way, she launched her own perfume (‘Mona Lina’), and married and divorced several times. Indeed a great beauty, Cavalieri was extensively photographed, her face and fashionably corseted figure published on many postcards. The proliferation of her likeness certainly helped establish Cavalieri as a defining icon of the Belle Époque.
Cavalieri also appeared on the silver screen, though unfortunately almost all of her films are now lost. The sole exception is her second film, Sposa nella morte! (literally Wife in Death, released in the USA as The Shadow of Her Past), which she made at Tiber-Film in 1915.
The plot of Sposa nella morte! is boilerplate: musical student Elyane goes to Rome to study music, where she meets and falls in love with the painter Pierre. Her star rises and she is welcomed by high society, where a Duke pursues her; she chooses this man of status over the man she truly loves. But to her chagrin, Elyane finds out that the Duke has no intention of putting a ring on her finger. Meanwhile, Pierre and the Duke quarrel and then duel; Pierre is wounded, and Elyane nurses him back to health. But can Elyane and Pierre ever really be together? Read on to find out!
Only part of Sposa nella morte is extant, consisting of less than 25% of its original running time, and the copy has significant nitrate damage. But happily, this fragment is the last section (part IV) of the film, so we get to see Sposa’s most climactic moments.
Sposa part IV opens with a contrite Elyane in front of a painting by Pierre, wishing for his forgiveness before she collapses to the ground. Later, she attends an elegant soirée. The ballroom is furnished stylishly and filled with the beautiful people, with Elyane taking centre stage. (Though a very nice set, the scene was clearly filmed outside—a noticeable breeze passes through the ballroom, ruffling the womens’ gowns and their feathered hats). Pierre—played by Lucien Muratore, Cavalieri’s real-life husband—is also at the gathering. Pierre appears in the depths of anguish, judging by the amount of air-clutching going on as he emotes against a curtain.
Elyane is otherwise occupied: she takes to the floor to perform a dance. Lina Cavalieri really shines here—she moves very gracefully and appealingly.
Meanwhile, Elyane’s lover, the Duke Alberto Cenci de Vallalta is interested in Pierre’s painting, but Pierre isn’t having it, telling the Duke: “There are some things money can’t buy, and for you, one of them is my work.” He throws the Duke out. Naturally, this leads to a duel between Pierre and the Duke. Bang! Pierre is injured, and Elyane goes to look after him, offering her love, and eventually there is a reconcilitation. But the past cannot be forgotten. Caught in melancholy, Elyane enters a room bedecked with flowers, taking down her hair and reclining among them. When Pierre enters, he cannot wake her. Elyane’s suicide note reads, “Only in death could I be your wife. Now you will not doubt the love of your Elyane.”
Sposa nella morte! was received well by audiences, less so by critics. A review in La cinematografia italiana ed estera is very positive, but American reviewers found it rather hackneyed both narratively and visually. Cavalieri’s star power carried the film: as Moving Picture World put it, “Every American has read of her; to every American she is more than a name.” Thus, despite its drawbacks in the eyes of reviewers—the silly plot, actors who gesticulated too much, etc—The Shadow of Her Past was a box office success, reportedly seeing extended bookings and being a “harvest” for exhibitors.
Sposa is credited as being directed by Emilio Ghione, one of Tiber-Film’s key directors and players. Tiber was a quite prominent Roman studio: its roster during the teens included Ghione, who produced most of the Za La Mort films there, Mario Caserini, Ferdinand Guillaume (Polidor), Hesperia, and Diomira Jacobini (sister of Maria).
It was reported in the American press, however, that Muratore supervised the picture, and reviewers were scathing about both his performance and direction: “Mons. Muratore had best stick to grand opera, for there will be little or no chance for him as a movie director,” said Variety (July 1916). Motography (29 July, 1916) wrote: “in a cast whose every member over-acts most of the time, he is the chief offender against the golden rule of natural restraint.” The duel scene was singled out for particular criticism. Motography again:
When he is wounded in the duel with the Duke, the emotion, and the pain he feels is expressed with much physical effort, and it will not be surprising to learn that a laugh or two were created by it at every showing of The Shadow of Her Past.
And Variety said:
Mons. Muratore was at his best in the dueling scene, where his actions after being shot resembled a man in swimming and it was one of the best laughs in the picture, although not intended for comedy.
Ouch. The shot in question is indeed pretty goofy—you be the judge of whether the criticisms hit the mark:
In itself, I found Sposa nella morte! undistinguished: the chance to see Cavalieri is certainly the best thing about the film. Though no Geraldine Farrar—the high water mark for opera stars taking on film roles—Cavalieri seems relatively comfortable in front of the camera, if sometimes unpracticed. At 41, her beauty is undiminished, and she carries off the dance scene very nicely. Aside from that, the most striking scene is that of Elyane’s death: the bouquets of flowers (a diva film classic), Cavalieri’s movements, the scene’s sense of inevitability. Plot-wise it’s fairly nonsensical, but visually and thematically it’s a strong end to the film.
As I find it often does, the nitrate damage lends a certain poignancy to the film. Some screenshots showing the beautiful side of deterioriation:
Lina Cavalieri made several more films in Italy, France, and the USA. But in fact, she is most well-known nowadays due to her afterlife as an icon of design. Italian artist Piero Fornasetti discovered her likeness in a nineteenth-century magazine, and an obsession grew: in his series Tema e variazioni, he compulsively reproduced her portrait, transforming it “as he wished”, reimagining Cavalieri with glasses, with a mustache, veiled, as a memento mori. All in all, he created more than 350 variations of Cavalieri’s face. The ‘Linatypes’ are undeniably attractive, but more so, it’s a stunning work of creative dedication by Fornasetti.
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Sposa nella morte! [The Shadow of Her Past, lit. Bride in Death]. Dir. Emilio Ghione. Roma, Italy: Tiber-Film, 1915. An incomplete Spanish-language copy (Esposa en la muerte, 345m of the original 1537m) survives in the collection of the Filmoteca de la Generalitat de Valencia; it was restored in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna and is available to watch on the CdB’s Cinestore here (low-res copy).
See also: Sempre in Penombra’s excellent post collecting reviews of Sposa nella morte.