Operas were a natural source of adaptations for cinema from the beginning of narrative film, for they provided dramatic plots that could be easily rendered in gesture, unlike the dialogue-heavy plays of nineteenth century theater. Opera also offered meaty roles to actors and occasion for exotic, aristocratic, or fanciful costumes and set design. Opera also gave early cinema, which from the very earliest years inspired debate about its status as an art form, a veneer of high class. Puccini's tragic and perennially popular opera Madama Butterfly, especially famous for the aria Un bel dì, vedremo and the Humming Chorus, was adapted at least three times during the silent era, both Mary Pickford and Anna May Wong trying their hand at the iconic role of Cio-Cio-San.
The story of the opera is a classic melodrama, one that echoes many of the themes and plot elements of other such operas in the tragic mode, such as La traviata, Norma, and Aida. Cio-Cio-San is an innocent, wide-eyed girl, with an absolute belief in the power of love within marriage. Pinkerton, an officer in the U.S. navy, marries her, secure in his belief that he can simply leave her and consider himself divorced, since Japanese laws on divorce are forgiving. Pinkerton indulges Cio-Cio-San's romantic ideals, fathers a child with her, and leaves her behind, considering himself free. The girl never loses her faith that he will come back, but she is stunned when he does return, married to an American woman who wants to adopt the child Pinkerton fathered. Agonized, Cio-Cio-San agrees to give up her son and commits suicide, with a harakiri blade, as Pinkerton, struck with remorse, rushes to her side too late.
The opera's first sound adaptation was released in 1932, starring Sylvia Sydney and Cary Grant. Sylvia Sidney was a known quantity, popular enough that she could headline a fairly high-budget film, though she wasn't a star on the scale of Norma Shearer, Kay Francis, or Jeanette MacDonald. Cary Grant, on the other hand, was up-and-coming, but not yet a star. He made his motion picture debut in 1932, and made eight different movies, including Madame Butterfly just in that first year. The two actors had already worked together, in Merrily We Go to Hell, along with Fredric March, a racy film about a married couple embroiled in tit-for-tat adultery (Cary played the "other" man) and they would work together once more in 1934 for the fluffy, but very sweet and appealing Thirty Day Princess, in which Sydney played a double role as the mumps-ridden princess and the struggling actress hired to impersonate her and Grant played a suspicious newspaper publisher out for a scoop. While Grant obviously went on to be one of the most beloved and recognizable movie stars of Hollywood history, Sydney gained a reputation for being "difficult" and was declared box office poison less than a decade later (though she continued to act for decades).
Casting Sydney as Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly) made a great deal of sense, given her star image. She typically played sweet, naive girls drawn into unsavory situations by brothers, boyfriends, or lovers, though she rarely lost a certain moral purity at her core. Her enormous eyes and heart-shaped face were exploited for a baby doll-style that was both chic and angelic, even in sordid surroundings. Grant's casting as Pinkerton is similarly appropriate, as in the beginning of his career he was often the rogue, handsome, charming, irresistible, and a womanizer, though not in the end a bad guy. He misbehaved, but the selfishness of his characters was framed as excusable, as the women who took their downfall with him were usually judged far more harshly.
The film is lushly romantic, the music essentially a heavily adapted, instrumental arrangement of the opera score and the sets and costumes are exquisite, a sort of late Art Deco rendering of a Japan straight out of fairy tales, more oriental than actually Japanese. The acting is overwrought and intentionally operatic, a style that fits Grant poorly, though he doesn't acquit himself as badly as one might expect for an inexperienced actor who had up until that year made his career primarily in vaudeville. Sydney's performance has aged very badly, though this is not entirely her fault. Mercifully, she doesn't fake a Japanese accent, but the screenplay, credited to Josephine Lovett and Joseph Moncure March, has the Japanese characters speak a sort of pidgin English, reflective of how Americans incorrectly imagined Japanese was spoken. Between the casting of white actors in Asian roles and the extensive use of this pidgin English, the film, no matter its merits, has no possibility of rehabilitation, ineluctably a product of its time.
Unsurprisingly, Hollywood never attempted another adaptation of Madame Butterfly (though there have been Hollywood films that have referenced the opera or drawn self-conscious parallels). During the production code era, the story was impossible to produce: interracial marriage was absolutely verboten, even when a white actor played a character of another race, though such stories were actually fairly common in the pre-code era - examples include The Bitter Tea of General Yen, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther, and Broken Blossoms, starring Mary Pickford and Richard Barthelmess. Abroad, a co-production between Italy and Japan produced an opera film adaptation in 1954, which used both Japanese and Italian actors, dubbed by Italian singers; I haven't had a chance to see it, but this was typical of the opera films which were a staple of Italian cinema for decades. Although the opera remains a standard in the repertoire, regularly produced at all the major world opera houses, today melodrama in the movies has gone out of fashion and current politics surrounding race make it a dicy proposition for mainstream filmmaking. Plays, films, and musicals have been produced instead, critiquing the Madame Butterfly story as an orientalist fantasy, the product of white imaginations at play with an othered culture in the realm of the exotic.
That being said, the surface of 1932's Madame Butterfly discomfits far more than its deeper meanings. Puccini's opera centers Cio-Cio-San not only as the heroine, but as the moral ideal of the story. In good faith, she loves and welcomes and hopes; her tragedy is the result of selfishness and the fulfillment of utilitarian lust on the part of Pinkerton, who uses her as a sexual object (and, frankly, a fetishized sexual object) to placate his desires before marriage to someone of his own race. The opera's tragedy lies precisely in the colonial attitude. Had Pinkerton been able to see past race (and past gender), perhaps he would not have treated Cio-Cio-San like a mixture of prostitute and trophy and recognized that she is a person, as complicated as he is. Naturally, given the time that has elapsed (the opera premiered in 1904 and the sound film was released in 1932), the stylization of Cio-Cio-San has become objectionable - especially the casting of a white actress in the part - but to dismiss the character as inherently racist, I think, necessitates removing her from her context within the traditions of melodrama.
The diva of melodrama can meet two possible ends: 1) she can die a tragic death, having lost the man she loves, often in his remorseful arms, or 2) she can be reunited with her lover and attain unqualified bliss. Cio-Cio-San, like Violetta in La traviata or Manon in Manon Lescaut, meets the first end. She dies, an excusable suicide, just as Pinkerton is struck with a knowledge of his own cruelty, when it is too late. Italian diva films, wildly popular in the silent era, similarly offer these two possibilities. In Ma l'amore mio non muore (translated in English as Love Everlasting; the title in fact means But My Love Doesn't Die), the heroine takes poison and dies on stage, having become an opera singer (she appears to be playing Violetta), just as her lover who has abandoned her rushes to her side, while in Assunta Spina the heroine condemns herself to the prison sentence her lover merits, when she takes responsibility for the murder he has committed in jealous rage. Examples of the second type exist too: in Tigre reale, the much-suffering heroine survives a literal inferno, losing her cruel husband in the process and reunited with her lover. In other words, Cio-Cio-San is typical of the heroines of melodrama, whether in opera or in the diva films that established melodrama as a marketable genre.
That being said, inevitably, the racial subtext effects our understanding of the story, but it's essential to recognize that Madame Butterfly can be reconfigured for the twenty-first century. One could read the doomed romance of Cio-Cio-San as a critique of colonialism, or as a nihilistically feminist protest against the domination of women in the patriarchal structures of marriage, a structure all the more damaging when the man dominates because of his race as well as his gender. Or, one could read it as a racist, or anti-feminist, story, though, such a critique seems to rest at least partially on an insistence that tragedy is somehow, in and of itself, misogynistic. Aspirational feminism demands happy endings; it's worth remembering that such endings are equally the domain of the most misogynistic of genres, the fairy tale. Tragedy permits a critique without fantasizing a world better than one that exists or existed in the past. What if Pinkerton had honored his marriage vows to Cio-Cio-San? In that case, no critique is possible; a fantastic, sugar-coated version of a past reality (mediated through theatrical conventions) is instead posited, one in which obstacles created by systemic inequalities of race and gender can simply be overlooked. What if Cio-Cio-San tells Pinkerton he can stuff it and chooses to reinvent herself as a single mother, defiantly rebellious? This is, of course, what would seem the obviously desirable outcome from the perspective of today, but such an outcome denies several realities, most importantly, the fact that Cio-Cio-San must live in the same world that allowed a man to simply pick her up and toss her - and her child - aside, consequence-free. Cio-Cio-San has no money, is not trained to any profession, and would most likely end up, if she was lucky, a prostitute, or if not, on the street. What we want for her and what is possible are two entirely different things; aspirational feminism tends to enjoin us to ignore that gulf.
As such, perhaps it's time for Hollywood to revisit Madame Butterfly, make it anew. Precisely because the story yields such a richness of subtext, like a fairy tale or a myth, it has endless possibility, its characters and themes are elastic, and a brilliant film could be made, one that takes on the complexities of power as it intersects with race, gender, colonialism, economy, national identity, and parenthood. The attempt could fail, but it could also open up a space to revisit the relics of our collective pasts, relics that both frighten and anger us.