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Cinematizing Theatre: Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane, and the Early French Double Feature Film

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Cinematizing Theatre: Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane,
and the Early French Double Feature Film
Victoria Duckett
L'Esprit Créateur, Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2018, pp. 23-40 (Article)
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press
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Cinematizing Theatre:
Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane, and the
Early French Double Feature Film
Victoria Duckett
SARAH BERNHARDT (1844–1923) and Gabrielle Réjane (1856–1920)
are two of the most famous actresses of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. How did these two Parisian actresses, trained
(respectively) in the 1860s and 1870s in the elite Conservatoire—France’s lead-
ing school of acting run by the Comédie-Française—achieve popular renown?
What is specific to the cultural context of Paris in the Belle Époque that
facilitated not only their theatrical success within France, but their celebrity
across America, South America, Europe, and Australasia? While Paris boasted
a prestigious and globally influential theater, it was the creative industries that
fed into and supported the theater that ensured the visibility and renown of the
stage actress. Or rather, it was the actress’ capacity to respond to and engage
with modern industry that ensured her global visibility and renown. We often
overlook this vital link—the productive relationship between the Parisian
actress, modern industry, and the global visibility of the French entertainment
industries—when we explore the Belle Époque. Indeed, when Bernhardt and
Réjane were filmed, appearing first in Paul Decauville’s Phono-Cinéma-
Théâtre program at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and subsequently in longer
Film d’Art narrative films, they did this in an effort not only to record their
theatrical presence, but to demonstrate their ongoing engagement in emerging
media industries.
This engagement with technology and industry began in the 1860s and
1870s, with the use that the actresses made of photographers such as Félix and
Paul Nadar, Archille Melandri, and Léopold Reutlinger. The availability of
professional photographic portraiture and exchange networks within Paris
(and between purveyors in Paris and New York, Paris and London, and other
capitals of the world) ensured that actresses circulated abroad through the use
of reproduced images, first through the popular carte de visite (a small albu-
men print mounted on a thick paper card) and later through larger studio por-
traits, publicity photographs, postcards, and posters. Newspapers, journals,
and women’s magazines similarly ensured that the actress was recognizable
and identifiable through sketches, caricatures, lithographs, and photographs.
Available for purchase as a commercial image, the actress was also the subject
© L’Esprit Créateur, Vol. 58, No. 2 (2018), pp. 23–40
of readership and discussion within the home. Moreover, industrially pro-
duced statuettes of the actresses in given roles meant that they were also avail-
able as objects that could be purchased and collected. In a similar manner,
their image was used to sell a range of merchandise: cigarettes, cigars, beauty
products, and contemporary fashion.
Rather than see the French cinema as a new industry that was distinct from
this circulation of images and products, we might regard film as another
medium ensuring the ongoing visibility of Bernhardt and Réjane. Indeed, in
1912, when the French Film d’Art motion picture company simultaneously
released two films starring Bernhardt and jane as France’s leading stage
actresses, it intended the films to be shown together in the same cinemas
worldwide. These films, remarkable in themselves, have a significance that
substantially transcends the presence of the performers and the dramas they
enact. Thus, whilst the two linked films may constitute the first high-art
double feature (and may be read as such), their creation and release was con-
current with the wider nexus of related phenomena that will define the modern
twentieth-century motion picture industry: the commercial intertwining of
theater with photography, sound recording, and early film; the development of
commercial strategies to finance motion pictures and to market films world-
wide; and, finally, recognition that by that date films had lost much of the
stigma attached to earlier films (thought to be aimed to lower-class audi-
ences). Offered more ambitious subjects, the middle class could be brought
into cinemas. Cinemas, in their turn, are newly converted from variety the-
aters into full-time picture houses. Many of these events happen around the
narrow time frame (1912–1913) that this article explores. In this period, the
creative industries in France facilitate Bernhardt and Réjane’s ongoing com-
mercial ventures just as they actively promote Parisian tastes and styles.
Inserting the French actress into (feminist) film historiography
While in recent decades feminist film historians have established the impor-
tant contribution that women made to the nascent film industry at the opening
of the twentieth century, there has been little attention paid to the importance
of the actress as a creative agent within this industry. As the opening page of
Jane Gaines and Monica Dall’Asta’s Women Film Pioneers Project states—
and this a premier resource for feminist film history today—“Women Film
Pioneers Project features silent-era producers, directors, co-directors, sce-
nario writers, scenario editors, camera operators, title writers, editors, cos-
tume designers, exhibitors, and more to make the point that they were not just
actresses.”1This statement makes two related points. The first is that the
24 SUMMER 2018
actress is a visible and identifiable celebrity whose fame is premised on the
ongoing accessibility and circulation of her image on film. This visibility sets
her apart from those other creative women who are not as visible and acces-
sible in the nascent film industry. As Shelley Stamp reminds us in the opening
pages of her recent book, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, little documenta-
tion of women’s contribution to early film exists outside this “sphere of per-
formative labour.”2Second, it is presumed that an actress on screen was
indeed ‘just anactress,’ not a modern businesswoman active across the culture
industries. However, as Bernhardt and Réjane demonstrate, it is difficult to
establish the nature of the work the actresses undertook unless we contextual-
ize their contribution to the creative industries in the Belle Époque more gen-
erally. What was her relationship to the director, to the camera operator, or to
the costume or set designer in any given film? How can we determine the
extent of an actress’ contribution to film if we do not understand the terms of
her creative collaboration outside the film industry? Questions like these indi-
cate that while we can see the performance work of the actress on the silent
screen, we do not see or appreciate the terms of her creative labor.
Bernhardt and Réjane, straddling the entertainment world of the late nine-
teenth century and the emergent and overlapping cinematographic culture of
the new century, are pivotal and pioneering figures. They help usher in the
cinema but do not attain notoriety because of their participation in this indus-
try. They are instead actresses who are famous before they enter film. They
enter film precisely because they are celebrities. Through film they expand
their global visibility and maintain financial security. Silent film is but one
medium available to them. Indeed, when early film emerges in the mid-1890s,
cinema was not yet the centralized and ubiquitous apparatus that it would
become in the post-World War 1 period (when American cinema began to
dominate world markets). Rather, in the pre-war period, the French industry
reigned supreme: it was artisanal, experimental, and featured (among other
attractions) globally famous actresses (besides Sarah Bernhardt and Gabrielle
Réjane, we might also add figures such as Yvette Guilbert and Mistinguett).
How might we rethink the contributions these women made to the creative
industries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Can we identify
the existence of a theatrical culture that fed into an emerging cinematographic
culture within France? Or must we see Bernhardt and Réjane as ‘just
actresses’ who accidentally brought theater to film? To begin answering these
questions, we must follow theater historian David Mayer’s advice and resist
thinking of early theatrical film as the teleological endpoint of a histrionic
nineteenth-century stage.3In my view, we need to recuperate histories of
VOL. 58, NO. 2 25
women such as Bernhardt and Réjane in order to understand the significance
of French women to the emerging media industries, global celebrity culture,
and twentieth-century modernism more generally. These are not lost and
invisible histories of women’s creative work, but visible histories of screen
performance that are still available to us. Their subjects are actresses who
were filmed in their 50s and 60s. These women used film as a new platform
to engage new fans, to develop their association with modern commerce, and
to expand their own global media presence.
Filming two famous French actresses
While Bernhardt and Réjane were globally recognized as two of the most cel-
ebrated performers of the late nineteenth century, they exported French cul-
ture abroad in different ways. Sarah Bernhardt was regarded as an exotic
Jewess and was famous for her unusual, melodic voice and her use of the
spiral as the basis for performance. She was also renowned for her perform-
ance of death: she was feted for her dying Phèdre in Racine’s Phèdre, her
Hamlet fatally wounded by a poisonous sword in Marcel Schwob and Eugène
Morand’s 1899 Hamlet, and for her Tosca leaping to certain death in Victorien
Sardou’s La Tosca. Most famously, she played Marguerite Gautier, the con-
sumptive heroine of Alexandre Dumas fils’ La dame aux camélias. Marguerite
was her most performed role in the theater.
By contrast, Réjane was a working-class Parisian heroine; she was a
woman of the people. She displayed a suggestive sexual wit and was
described as being at once fresh, spontaneous, exaggerated, and vulgar. Her
greatest triumph, the role of Cathérine in Madame Sans-Gêne (1893), is built
on a modest character who displays both dignity and vulgarity. Portraying the
role of a washer-woman during the reign of Napoleon I, the tale revolves
around the comedy of Cathérine’s failure to take comfortably to court life.
Bernhardt and Réjane entered silent film in Paul Decauville’s Phono-
Cinéma-Théâtre program at the Paris Exposition of 1900 (Figure 1). This pro-
gram was made just four years after the Lumière cinématographe was given
its official launch in Paris in 1896. Appearing at an international exposition
that attracted over 50 million visitors, it was part of the first major promotion
of “sound” film. As the title of the program suggests, film joined Henri
Lioret’s Idéal phonograph and the theater to promote a new intermedial spec-
tacle. Allowing audiences to see short 1–2 minute films of performers in roles
that were both current and popular, the program was akin to a variety show.
Where it differed from the variety format was in the number and range of per-
formers included. With no pauses between acts and providing a short, filmed
26 SUMMER 2018
highlight from each performer, over forty-one of the most famous contempo-
rary Parisian performers were collectively celebrated.
It is telling that it is the figure of Bernhardt who advertises this transmedia
initiative on the program for the Exposition. Dressed in a full-length vibrant
yellow dress with a dark wrap sheathing her shoulders and a soft broad-
brimmed hat fastened under her chin, she appears in the costume she wore in
Sardou’s Tosca, a role written expressly for her. Alphonse Mucha’s 1899 color
lithograph poster publicizing her appearance in the title role confirms these
details (Figure 2), as does François Flameng’s painting of her in the role, in
1908.4Tosca is also associated with Bernhardt’s use of a cane, a prop used in
the image to point down towards the phonograph at her feet. For an actress
who had her voice first recorded on Edison’s tin-foil phonograph in 1880 and
who went on to make recordings for a range of companies, this association of
VOL. 58, NO. 2 27
FIGURE 1. Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre program, 1900. Courtesy David Robinson
the actress with her reproduced voice was not novel. What was new, however,
was the triangulation between actress, phonograph, and silent film. Clearly,
while other actors were also part of the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre program, it
was Bernhardt who headlines the intermedial and intervisual culture of the
Belle Époque, selling the event to foreign audiences.
Choosing a theatrical role: the actress’ agency
Bernhardt did not appear on the program in Tosca, but in travesti cross-dress
as Hamlet. Performing the death scene where Laertes strikes her with a sword,
she highlights the performativity of her play (Hamlet’s death is a staged scene
within Shakespeare’s drama) and her own agency as an actress. As the actress-
manager of her own theater—the appropriately named Théâtre Sarah Bern-
hardt—just a year earlier she had commissioned the playwrights Marcel
Schwob and Eugène Morand to prepare a new translation of Hamlet. For the
first time, a prose translation based upon scholarly sources was used for the
play instead of one based on traditional rhyming alexandrine couplets.5More-
28 SUMMER 2018
FIGURE 2. Alphonse Mucha, color lithograph for La Tosca, 1899.
over, Bernhardt claimed a role that was usually the preserve of men. The
power that Bernhardt enjoyed as an actress who could choose her own role,
perform in her own theater, and commission artists to research, write, and
visually promote her work is evident here. While on screen we see just over
two minutes of a play that lasted for over five hours, this film serves as far
more than a mere record of theatrical action.
The Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre program that was restored and screened in
2012 at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy shows Bernhardt’s Hamlet
immediately preceded by an excerpt from Réjane’s play, Ma cousine. This
coupling of the two actresses on the program reiterates a point that W. Stephen
Bush makes over a decade later when he discusses their appearance in narra-
tive film. As he explains, “Madame Réjane is a good foil to Sarah Bern-
hardt.”6Indeed, Réjane’s acting and choice of roles were notably different
from Bernhardt’s. She was a comic actress who did not die on the stage; her
skill lays in performing fresh spontaneity and in lacing this with shifts into
comic vulgarity. She had first appeared in Ma cousine at the Théâtre des Var-
iétés in 1890. This role was written for her by Henri Meilhac; as Le Temps
explains a decade later, “Si jamais interpète fut un collaborateur, c’est bien
ici.”7Like Bernhardt, therefore, Réjane was appearing in a role that fore-
grounded her agency as an actress. Moreover, the work was also recognized
in the press as being representative of a feminist theater. As Parisian commen-
tators noted, in Meilhac’s play women have more importance than men (Lar-
roumet 1). In this way, both Réjane and Bernhardt differently articulate their
importance as leaders of the French theater.
Ma cousine followed the success of Réjane’s 1888 appearance in the title
role of Germinie Lacerteaux. In this play, based on a novel by Edmond de
Goncourt, Réjane plays a servant woman. In this role she became, as John
Stokes explains, “a living voice and a vital presence” for le peuple.8In Ma
cousine, Réjane is not a servant woman but instead Riquette, a minor actress.
The coquetry that she performs is famously encapsulated in the scene we see
on screen: Réjane comically satirizes the can-can in a dumb-play rehearsal of
a pantomime (Piston d’Hortense) before an unfaithful husband. Discussing
the role in the Yellow Book in 1894, Daupin Meurnier explains:
In Ma Cousine, Réjane introduced on the boards of Les Variétés a bit of dancing such as one
sees at the Elysée-Montmartre [the Moulin Rouge]; she seized on and imitated the grotesque
effrontery of Mademoiselle Grille-d’Égout [the famous can-can dancer and teacher of the
Moulin Rouge], and her little arched foot flying upwards, brushed a kiss upon the forehead
of her model; for Réjane the “grand écart” may be fatal, perhaps, but it is neither difficult nor
VOL. 58, NO. 2 29
The appearance of Réjane as a dancing woman imitating a familiar act on the
popular stage indicates the comical and contemporary nature of her perform-
ance. She is an actress using her body to showcase gleefully the sexualized
nature of popular dancing within Paris. Serving as publicity for the actress’
ability to carve individual renown through gesture and expression, she brings
attention to the importance of agency in French theater.
Both Bernhardt and Réjane appeared on film at the same time that they
performed in Parisian theaters. In this way, the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre pro-
moted theatrical achievement. As noted above, Bernhardt had commissioned
and played Hamlet only one year earlier. It was a role that she had also
recently performed in London; her performance was received with much
debate about the validity of a woman playing a male role, and of a French
actress claiming cultural ownership over a Shakespearian work.10 Although at
the time of the Exposition she was performing the ‘white’ Hamlet of Edmond
Rostand’s L’Aiglon, this was a role in which she again adopted the part of a
youthful male born to privilege and power (Figure 3). Réjane, in turn, reprised
the role of Ma cousine in January 1900. Discussion about her performance
notes that she, more than any other celebrity actress, was “la parisienne” (Lar-
roumet 1). This focus on Parisian identity, theatrical renown, and the celebrity
actress in a familiar role written specifically as a vehicle that would fore-
ground her talent was strategic. As a commentator noted, identifying Réjane’s
subsequent reprise of Madame Sans-Gêne as worthy of particular praise, “On
the occasion of the World Exhibition, all theatres resumed performances of
the great box-office successes, the most outstanding of which was probably
‘Madame Sans-Gêne.’”11
Global celebrity and the French double feature bill
In 1912, the Moving Picture World (one of the leading North-American trade
presses for film) announced the joining of Bernhardt and Réjane in narrative
film. In an unusual move, a two- page advertisement was used to promote this
program. The program consisted of Bernhardt’s 1911 film Camille (La dame
aux camélias, André Calmettes and Henri Pouctal, Film d’Art, 1911) and
Réjane’s film Mme Sans-Gêne (André Calmettes and Henri Desfontaines,
Film d’Art, 1911). As the advertisement announced, the program was “The
Perfection of Motion Picture Photography” and “The Greatest State-Right
Proposition in the History of Moving Pictures.” (States-rights was a system of
distribution that sold film prints to distribution companies.) This stress on
“photography” reminded exhibitors that the theatrical actress was already a
figure who had successfully negotiated and used reproductive media to her
30 SUMMER 2018
advantage. Moreover, readers were reassured that the program would “prove
one of the largest money makers since the discovery of motion picture art”
and that states rights could be secured for Canada, America, and Mexico.
Clearly, the actresses were global brands who remained at the forefront of
developments in international media and modern commerce. The program is
not circulating here as a way to record the late nineteenth-century actresses on
film at the age of 67 and 55 respectively. Instead, discussion is commercial:
readers are advised to contact the American-French Film company in New
York and that prints are secured under international copyright law.
This combination of Parisian actresses partnering with major legal, cul-
tural, and commercial ventures in New York reveals their international impor-
tance. It also reveals the changed scope and scale of their engagement in film.
No longer performing in theaters in Paris alongside a major international exhi-
bition that features a short film excerpt of a play, they are now exported
abroad as a collaborative headline venture. Together, they represent the global
pull of the French theater and its dominance in emerging international media
VOL. 58, NO. 2 31
FIGURE 3. L’Aiglon, Mme Sarah Bernhardt, Scène de Wagram. Postcard c.1900.
Author’s collection.
industries. Although their roles as French cultural ambassadors would change
greatly during World War 1, when their task was to encourage empathy and
political engagement with the Allied cause, in 1912 Bernhardt and Réjane
were still selling Paris’ theatrical culture. Originating in the live theaters of the
late nineteenth century, they were now forging new relationships to a still-
experimental emerging medium.
A second double-page advertisement, appearing a week later in the
Moving Picture World, emphasizes the financial gain to be enjoyed by
exhibitors who purchase the state rights to this program. The films do not just
show “the Divine Sarah, the World Renowned Emotional Actress, and Mme
Réjane, the Famous French Comedienne, at Their Best.”12 They are “The Talk
of the Universe” and “The Surest State Right Proposition Ever Offered.”13
With particular attention paid to Bernhardt, it is proclaimed that “SARAH
ers are assured, “A SURE BOX OFFICE WINNER.” What is needed to
engage her is not “a train load of people to carry and tons of scenery,” but
“only a machine and a picture screen in, giving a production of merit of the
highest class” (MPW, Feb. 17) (Figure 4).
The impact that the actresses—and particularly Bernhardt—enjoyed as
leaders in the development of modern commerce and celebrity culture is linked
with their new availability. For decades French photographers such as Achille
Melandri, Léopold Reutlinger, and Paul Nadar (together with others such as
Aimé Dupont and Napoleon Sarony in the US) had circulated and publicized
portraits of Bernhardt and Réjane in theatrical costume and modern dress
(Mayer 88). The tours that the actresses conducted ensured that people could see
them perform live on the stage. Hence, when Bernhardt undertook her extensive
tours across Europe, conducted nine tours to North America (beginning in
1880–1881, her final tour taking place in 1917–1918), and traveled as far afield
as Australia in 1891, she was recognized by a changing general public. Film
made both her image and her performance newly available to audiences. This
new medium also allowed her acting to be seen by a vastly greater public, at
cheaper prices. Bernhardt was well aware of the financial availability and
appeal of the cinema. Reflecting on playing La dame au camélias to a full
cinema alongside her performance of the same role before a full theatrical audi-
ence in 1912 in America, she states that “in the one you are paid only fifteen or
twenty sous while in the other it costs fifteen or twenty francs.”14
Bernhardt and Réjane on film were not, however, substituting for the the-
ater; they were not replacing one performance context with another. Film was
32 SUMMER 2018
a separate and identifiable product. It could uniquely claim to be at once of
“the highest class” and “An entertainment for all classes” (MPW, Feb. 17).
The powerful attraction of this new medium, which joined audiences together
around a common celebrity and spectacle while vaunting the respectability of
performance culture, indicates the appeal and function of what we today
understand, in retrospect, to be twentieth-century cinematographic culture.
For audiences in 1912, however, a lengthy cinema program featuring two
stage stars was a considerable novelty. For the actress, film was another way
to engage in the entertainment industries. It was an intervisual media that
helped them build visibility, audiences, and revenue at the opening of the
twentieth century.
In this broadened context, Bernhardt and Réjane were astute business-
women. Both used new media to their financial advantage while maintaining
and developing their impact in the more traditional space of the theater. This
strategy included undertaking extensive tours abroad while also becoming
managers of their own theaters in Paris. Indeed, it is this latter point that needs
to be remembered. As in the case of André Antoine—who returned to the
Théâtre Libre just one year after departing in 1896, renaming it the Théâtre
VOL. 58, NO. 2 33
FIGURE 4. The Moving Picture World, February 17, 1912, 596–97.
Antoine in 1897—the two actresses named theaters after themselves in Paris.
Bernhardt did this in 1899, when she took over the Théâtre des Nations,
naming it Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt. Réjane, in her turn, founded the Théâtre
Réjane, renaming the Théâtre Nouveau in 1906 (this would subsequently
become the Théâtre de Paris in 1918). These women were therefore far more
than opportunistic actresses who turned to film in an attempt to preserve their
performance for posterity, as savvy a purpose as that might have been.
“An evening’s entertainment”
Publicity for the double feature paid attention to the length of each film and
the combined length of the program. Camille was advertised at two reels and
2275 feet; Mme Sans-Gêne at three reels and 3050 feet. Together, advertise-
ments announced that this was a “Complete Evening’s Entertainment of
About Two and a Half Hours” (MPW, Feb. 17). The emphasis upon the film’s
constituting an evening’s entertainment indicates the legitimacy that the film
industry was courting: in legitimate theaters, theatrical debuts were launched
in the evening. While plays could last late into the evening—because of set
changes they could extend for as long as four or five hours—this double pro-
gram guaranteed a theatrical event that would not run into the early morning
hours. Indeed, both Bernhardt and Réjane were famous for holding their audi-
ences for notable lengths of time. For example, the French première of Bern-
hardt’s Hamlet ran for over five hours. Even though 885 lines and three
tableaux were cut for the London production, one reviewer still recounted
how “the wag in the gallery who whistled “We won’t go home till morning”
during the last entr’acte was felt to have neatly expressed the feeling of the
house.”15 Réjane, in turn, was famously unpunctual and kept audiences wait-
ing between acts. James Agate, an influential British theater critic, therefore
commented in a review of Réjane’s performance of Divorçons at the Garrick
Theatre, in 1902, that pressure from the press must have been the reason why
she “kept her appointment to the minute,” and her intervals were “of a con-
scionable duration.”16
The sociocultural legitimacy that the film industry was striving for in this
emphasis upon an evening’s entertainment was one that also attenuated its dif-
ference from popular film. Modeling its appeal on the legitimate theatrical
play’s evening debut, the film program sought new audiences and publics.
These spectators were not only the fans who might have wanted to see Bern-
hardt or Réjane and had never had the opportunity to do so, but middle-class
audiences of women and families who might have harbored ongoing doubts
about the status and content of film. As a medium that had its roots (at least
34 SUMMER 2018
in America) in lower-class urban immigrant culture and that was associated
with pornography, the marketing of familiar French plays, performed by
world-famous actresses, was a guarantee of respectability.
An evening’s entertainment also promised audiences the novelty of seeing
Bernhardt appear in a complete play. From 1910 onwards, Bernhardt per-
formed excerpts of her most famous roles on the live stage. This practice
began when she agreed to appear in the music-hall in London and continued
into her 1912–1913 tour on the vaudeville stage in North America.17 Her deci-
sion to engage in these forums was largely practical: they offered enormous
financial recompense while allowing her to perform to the greatest majority
possible. Troubled, at this point, by pain in her right leg that immobilized her
performance on stage, these shortened theatrical appearances also gave Bern-
hardt physical respite. Three years later, on February 22, 1915, this pain led
to the amputation of her leg. In this context, film enabled Bernhardt to maxi-
mize her global exposure at the moment when her live performance was
adapted to her growing infirmity.
Creating a collaborative context
Why were Camille and Mme Sans-Gêne chosen for the double program? It is
important to realize, in the first place, that Camille and Mme Sans-Gêne were
the roles that first launched Bernhardt and Réjane to international fame. Bern-
hardt adopted the role of Marguerite Gauthier, the 16-year-old courtesan of
Alexander Dumas’ La dame aux camélias, in 1880, when she left the
Comédie-Française. At this point she ventured out as an independent player,
making her first tour of North America. An actress who threatened established
conventions by leaving the premier theater company in France therefore intro-
duced herself to American audiences in a role that challenged middle class
mores. One commentator described the play as a “moral monstrosity.”18 Bern-
hardt took the role to England the following year, in 1881. She was the first
actress to perform La dame aux camélias on the English stage. Réjane, in turn,
adopted the role of Cathérine (a washerwoman) in Victorien Sardou and
Émile Moreau’s Madame Sans-Gêne (1893) (Figure 5). Built on the comedy
of her failure to take to court life, Cathérine lacks dignity in the court of
Napoleon. Cathérine is forthright, spontaneous, and unable to take lessons in
deportment and dance; she remains a woman and patriot of the people. This
role, taken to London in June 1894, prompted the British drama critic J. T.
Grein to call Réjane “the greatest actress of modern times […] certainly
greater than Sarah Bernhardt.”19 As John Stokes tells us, by 1901 “Réjane’s
Madame Sans-Gêne had become an annual London event” (Stokes 126).
VOL. 58, NO. 2 35
As the publicity for the film program explains, Bernhardt is a renowned
emotional actress while Réjane is a “comedienne.” This distinction provides
contrast for a discerning audience: Bernhardt promises empathy and affect
while Réjane promises light-hearted and popular humor. These differences in
theatrical content and performance style also indicate the modernity and ongo-
ing relevance of the actresses. Bernhardt’s emotional tirades were seen as an
expression of her own nervous, hysterical excess, while Réjane’s fresh spon-
taneity and undercurrent of vulgarity were seen as a reflection of an emergent
naturalism on the stage. Réjane provided a knowing nod to those contemporary
Parisians “qui flott[ent] dans les coulisses, les salons, les ateliers, qui pétill[ent]
chez la comédienne, la mondaine et le trottin” (Larroumet 1).
In this comparative context, the two actresses highlight the public tastes
that were driving cultural production at the opening of the twentieth century.
On the one hand, there was Bernhardt’s commercialization of what John
Stokes calls “the nerveuse(Stokes 78). Through her performance of emo-
tional and expressive women who suffer love and (usually) death, Bernhardt
made “theatrical erotics democratic, available to all audiences, including
those made up in an unusually large part by women” (Stokes 79). On the other
36 SUMMER 2018
FIGURE 5. Réjane in the role of Mme. Sans–Gêne. Postcard, n.d. Author’s collection.
hand, Réjane articulated in a single character the gaiety and dignity of the
working-class woman. In this way, she gave voice to both the comedy and
values of the gamine (Stokes 125).
This comparison between the actresses playing back-to-back was not
unique to the cinema. It was a practice that had its precedent on the stage and
that was maximized for impact on film. As the Scottish theater critic William
Archer notes, in a discussion of Bernhardt’s and Réjane’s contemporaneous
performances in London of Halévy and Meilhac’s Frou-Frou, in 1897:
London is becoming the Belgium of the theatrical world—its recognized dueling-ground.
The leading actresses of Europe have contracted an agreeable habit of popping across the
Channel every summer to exchange a few shots, and we lucky dogs of critics have the priv-
ilege of sitting by and seeing fair […] Madame Bernhardt appeared as Gilberte in Frou-Frou
on Wednesday evening, Madame Réjane on Thursday; and the comparison forced on us not
only interesting but pleasant […]. Let me merely note, as symbolizing the difference
between her [Réjane’s] performance and Sarah’s the little incident of the glass of water
which Gilberte offers to De Sartorys and he will not accept. Réjane puts down the glass
simply and naturally, trusting her face to bring out the meaning of the point; Sarah must
needs shatter the glass in putting it down; and this proportion holds throughout.20
In this description, we understand the impact sought by the Film d’Art in
exporting the actresses on a double bill. In playing two actresses of different
acting styles beside one another, they affirm the variety on the French stage.
Moreover, they highlight the agency that actresses enjoy in determining how
a role and personality will be expressed.
Changing content on film
Discussion of the differences between Réjane as a representative of the peuple
and Bernhardt of the nerveuse is enabled through theatrical criticism and dis-
cussion. The many critical comparisons between the two actresses indicate
comradely competition rather than competitive hostility. Difficulties emerge,
however, when we examine how their respective plays were adapted to the
screen. Because Réjane’s film is no longer extant, and because there is no lit-
erature describing the three reels of her performance, we cannot say how her
film might have changed a play’s content. Nevertheless, we can access Bern-
hardt’s Camille and, through this, begin to appreciate the extent to which the
nineteenth-century actress engaged with film as a separate product in her
expanding media empire.
The most obvious changes that Bernhardt brought to Camille relate to the
shortening of narrative content and the visibility given to materials that we
cannot see on the live stage. The first act of the play, for example (where
VOL. 58, NO. 2 37
Armand and Marguerite meet at a supper party in the frivolous world of the
demimondaine), is absent on film.21 Instead of replicating the original stage
play or presuming prior familiarity with the Dumas narrative, Camille conse-
quently brings new details to the telling of this narrative. For instance, close-
ups are provided of the letter that Duval Sr. receives threatening cancellation
of his daughter’s marriage; we also see the letter Marguerite sends Armand
explaining that she is leaving him. Through these letters and the emotional
performance of their execution and reception, we understand nineteenth-cen-
tury arguments about social propriety, social acceptability, and morality. Most
obviously, Marguerite selflessly removes herself from Armand’s world (fol-
lowing the will of his father), allowing his sister to marry a respectable hus-
band. Given the concern—particularly in America—about cinematic content
and the efforts made to protect “those of limited means […] against the evil
influences of obscene and immoral representations,” Camille exposes and
enacts emotions while guaranteeing the maintenance of social order. The
working classes can enjoy a product that engages them as spectators, yet the
separation of social classes is nevertheless reinforced through this tale. Rec-
onciled with Armand only at the moment of her death, Marguerite does not
live to enjoy the middle-class social acceptance she is finally granted.
The most remarkable scene of the film remains the scene famously asso-
ciated with Bernhardt’s performance of Marguerite’s death. This is due to the
unusual use of the pivot she makes as she falls in Armand’s arms to her death.
Much discussed when she introduced this standing death to London audiences
in 1881, it physically incarnated the tendrilic form of art nouveau (Figure 6).
This physical spiral, newly brought to film in a scene that accelerates theatri-
cal action, indicates the ways in which art nouveau was reintroduced to audi-
ences through film. Emerging at the film’s conclusion, in a narrative that rein-
forces Victorian mores, Bernhardt’s spiraling body reaffirms her association
38 SUMMER 2018
FIGURES 6, 7, 8. Bernhardt spirals to her death, Camille, 1911. National Film and
Sound Archive of Australia.
with an art, craft, design, and performance style that heralds the twentieth-
century engagement in industrial production, the design of quotidian objects,
the global exchange of goods, and shared transnational tastes.
The late nineteenth-century French actress was a global celebrity who was
fundamental to the early twentieth-century development of entertainment
industries. A pivotal figure in the emergence of modernism, she gives us the
tools to examine and explore intermediality as a commercial and creative
choice at the opening of the twentieth century. Bernhardt and Réjane fit here,
in this exchange between media, publics, and performances. In their appear-
ance in Paul Decauville’s Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre and in the double bill pro-
gram of 1912, audiences did not just see them act. They saw collaborative pio-
neers who knew how to inject creative and cultural difference into an
emerging, industrial, and international product.
Deakin University
1. Women Film Pioneers Project,
2. Shelley Stamp, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (Berkeley: U of California P, 2015), 3.
3. David Mayer, “Learning To See in the Dark,” Nineteenth Century Theatre, 25:2 (Winter
1997): 94.
4. See for confirmation of this. For a longer discussion of Bernhardt
and the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, see Victoria Duckett, Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Perform-
ance and Silent Screen (Urbana: Illinois U P, 2015), chapter 2.
5. Gerda Taranow, The Bernhardt Hamlet: Culture and Context (New York: Peter Lang, 1996),
6. W. Stephen Bush, “Bernhardt and Rejane in Pictures,” Moving Picture World [MPW]
(March 2, 1912): 760.
7. Gustave Larroumet, “Chronique théâtrale,” Le Temps (January 8, 1900), 1.
8. The French Actress and Her Audience (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2005), 121.
9. Dauphin Meurnier, “Madame Réjane,” The Yellow Book, vol. 11 (July 1894),
10. See “Madame Bernhardt’s Hamlet,” London Times (July 13, 1899), 12.
11. Source not noted. Cited in François Baudot, “Réjane—the Queen of Boulevard Theatre,”
booklet part of the book Réjane—La Reine du boulevard (Paris: Éditions 7L, 2001), n.p.
12. MPW (February 10, 1912): 498–99.
13. MPW (February 17, 1912): 596–97. Note that these advertisements continued until June 22,
1912. It is the earlier advertisements that are double-paged. See Martin Marks, Music and
the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895–1924 (New York: Oxford U P, 1997),
notes 106, 267.
14. Sarah Bernhardt, “Sarah Talks to Us About the Cinema” in Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writ-
ing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema, Antonia Lant and Ingrid Periz, eds. (New York:
Verso, 2006), 597.
15. “Madame Bernhardt’s Hamlet,” London Times (July 13, 1899), 12.
16. James Agate, “Divorçons,” Those Were the Nights (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1923), 116.
17. “The Palace Theatre presents Madame Sarah in Vaudeville,” Box 4, Sarah Bernhardt col-
lection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
VOL. 58, NO. 2 39
18. Grace Greenwood (Sarah Jane Clarke), “Five Camilles,” The New York Times (February 21,
1875), 7.
19. J. T. Grein, Dramatic Criticism, vol. 3 (London: Greening & Co., 1902), 257.
20. William Archer, “Les deux Frou-Frou,” Theatrical World of 1897 (London: Walter Scott
Ltd., 1898), 198–99, 201.
21. The most complete copy of the film is held at the National Film and Sound Archive, Can-
berra. Note that at least three versions of the film exist. I note these discrepancies online at
40 SUMMER 2018
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Learning To See in the Dark
  • David Mayer
David Mayer, "Learning To See in the Dark," Nineteenth Century Theatre, 25:2 (Winter 1997): 94.
Bernhardt and Rejane in Pictures
  • Stephen Bush
W. Stephen Bush, "Bernhardt and Rejane in Pictures," Moving Picture World [MPW] (March 2, 1912): 760.
Réjane-the Queen of Boulevard Theatre
Source not noted. Cited in François Baudot, "Réjane-the Queen of Boulevard Theatre," booklet part of the book Réjane-La Reine du boulevard (Paris: Éditions 7L, 2001), n.p.
Sarah Talks to Us About the Cinema" in Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema
  • Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhardt, "Sarah Talks to Us About the Cinema" in Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema, Antonia Lant and Ingrid Periz, eds. (New York: Verso, 2006), 597.
  • J T Grein
J. T. Grein, Dramatic Criticism, vol. 3 (London: Greening & Co., 1902), 257.