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[ Home: Virtual Museum: Masters of the Poster: The Entertainers: Sarah Bernhardt: Queen Elizabeth I ]


Sarah Bernhardt as Queen Elizabeth I

La Reine Elisabeth (Queen Elizabeth)

Queen Elizabeth is a gripping drama which was filmed in Bernhardt' s own theater during a special performance given for the Film d'Art. Bernhardt's
portrayal of Elizabeth was one of her most highly praised roles and considered one of the best interpretations in the history of the theater. The film ran approximately one hour and was originally narrated by a reader in the theater who explained the action to musical accompaniment.

On July 12, 1912, America saw the feature-length film at the Lyceum Theater for the unprecedented amount of one dollar a ticket. The evening was a great success even though the "divine Sarah" could only be seen flailing about the screen to subtitles.

Her consent to act in motion pictures made considerable headway in
liberating film from the prejudices of the intelligenia. Certain films
could now be considered in the same league as the legitimate theater.
Bernhardt's reasons for undertaking this adventure, on which many
of her fellow artists looked askance, was, perhaps, more personal
than altruistic. When she, at age sixty-five, was asked to film Camille
and Queen Elizabeth, her comment upon accepting was, "This is my last chance at immortality." Fortunately, Bernhardt was correct in that
a permanent record of several of her later performances does exist.

Unfortunately, the quality and charisma that Bernhardt projected from
the legitimate theater was not captured on the screen. Her emphasized,
representational style of theatrical acting was too stylized for palatability on film, which inherently renders everything larger than life. Apparently, she was as shocked as a spectator today might be if he or she did not understand the conventions of turn-of-the-century theater. Her extraordinary voice was absent and the stage gestures for which she was revered became ludicrous when blown out of theatrical proportion. It is said that Bernhardt fainted when she saw herself on screen in the role of Camille. The stilted camerawork was not cinematic; the film employed theatrical staging, acting, and set painting as well as unedited scenes, the results being very similar to Georges
Melies' films without the imaginativeness. Characters enter from right and left as if the edges of the screen were the stage. Some of the most famous and skillful actors in the world grimace for the camera like a Samurai in an Akira Kurosawa film while indulging in up to our double takes. The charismatic vitality of Bernhardt's living presence is absent and the result is expressionistic gesticulating with arms swinging wildly, fists clenching, chest beating, and eyes rolling as her wrist is pressed to her forehead, and her fingers tear at her breasts and clothing.

Source: Macgill's Survey of Cinema


Sarah Bernhardt in costume as Queen Elizabeth I, 1912

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