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Localizing Sarah Bernhardt

  • Deakin University, Melbourne (Burwood)


Through my research I have come to understand the pivotal function that ephemera can have in our understanding of women’s contribution to film and media industries. Particularly in the instance of French actress Sarah Bernhardt–where the collection boasts three rare film programmes written explicitly for UK audiences–we have evidence of the historical importance of ephemera to histories of theatre and film.
Localizing Sarah Bernhardt:
Exploring celebrity reception in
the Bill Douglas Cinema
Museum by Dr Victoria Duckett
Our latest blog from a stipend holder comes from Australian scholar Dr Victoria
Duckett of Deakin University, who explores our collection of material on Sarah
Bernhardt and other theatre actresses working in early film.
I would like to thank the BDC Museum for the international stipend which made my
month of research (in January 2018) possible. The museum’s curator, Dr. Phil
Wickham, was particularly instrumental. He ensured easy and ready access to the
materials I requested from the museum while enabling some wonderfully productive
discussions with the University’s many talented scholars (and a shout-out here to
Professor Kate Newey, Dr. Joe Kember, Dr. John Plunkett, James Downs, and
Amelia Seely). I also had the good fortune to meet and talk with Peter Jewell, Bill
Douglas’s lifelong friend and his partner in the creation and building of this precious
collection. I sincerely thank him for his generosity, kindness and–above all
pioneering capacity to see the importance of ephemera in the building of film and
media histories.
When I arrived for my month-long residency as a recipient of an international
research stipend at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in January 2018, I knew that
the Museum was particularly strong in early cinema machinery, optical illusions, and
in early twentieth century cinema ephemera. I knew, too, that the Museum boasts
valuable materials that support the ‘Million Pictures’ project, focusing on magic
lantern slide heritage. Indeed, a ‘Million Pictures’ workshop fortunately coincided with
my stay in Exeter. This provided me with a welcome introduction to the breadth of
international scholarship that surrounds this significant part of the Museum’s
collection. The workshop also brought home to me the collaborative and collegial
nature of the Museum itself: this is a museum that through invites exchange and
debate and that encourages participatory use of its extensive holdings.
What my research explores, however, are a different set of questions. What can late
nineteenth and early twentieth century intervisual culture reveal about theatrical
celebrity in the nascent cinema? Can we learn about networks of transnational
exchange between famous European actresses and local UK audiences through a
study of film ephemera? Can the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum give me insight into
the fluid and overlapping relationship between the late nineteenth century theatre,
early film, and celebrity female actresses? In other words, is there room for
exploration in the collection that does not focus on male technological invention, the
colonial reach of lecture circuits, and/or the historic significance of (often male) film
and television directors?
In the moment of the #MeToo campaign, these questions become all the more
prescient. In other words, while I went into the collection with concerns that are
framed within the context of ongoing academic debate, my aim was to see whether a
film collection that is not noted for its engagement in histories of female agency and
performance might quand même tell us something about the reception of celebrity
actresses on film. It is the histories of actresses who transitioned from the stage to
early film–media celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane, Yvette
Guilbert, Eleanora Duse and Mistinguett–that are of particular interest to me.
Through my research I have come to understand the pivotal function that ephemera
can have in our understanding of women’s contribution to film and media industries.
Particularly in the instance of French actress Sarah Bernhardt–where the collection
boasts three rare film programmes written explicitly for UK audiences–we have
evidence of the historical importance of ephemera to histories of theatre and film.
Indeed, the museum's 1912 press book for Queen Elizabeth (Les Amours de la
Reine Élisabeth, Louis Mercanton and Henri Desfontaines, Histrionic Film Co.,
1912, EXEBD 18356), Penzance Pavilion Queen Elizabeth program (December 2, 3,
and 4, 1912, EXEBD 18494) and 1913 press book for An Actress's
Romance (Adrienne Lecouvreur, 1913, Louis Mercanton and Henri Desfontaines,
EXEBD 18614) together reveal the reception of Bernhardt’s films in the UK. A close
reading of these three items also gives evidence of Bernhardt’s status as a
celebrated French theatrical actress who appeared in film before English audiences
and of her status as a popular celebrity who implicated herself in the production of
films in England itself.
On the most obvious level, these programmes demonstrate that the film industry re-
titled Bernhardt’s original French theatrical titles for English audiences, making her
plays both accessible and popular. Hence, her 1912 play La Reine Elizabeth was
translated into Queen Elizabeth on film and retitled Queen Bess on its appearance in
English film programmes. [featured image] In this way, Bernhardt is celebrated as a
famous head of country and–more importantly–affectionately localized as a historic
icon. As we can also see in An Actress's Romance, the French play Adrienne
Lecouvreur is again re-titled to sell romance to local audiences. As English
audiences surely knew, Bernhardt was an actress whose changing love interests
were both public and publicized.
In An Actress's Romance Bernhardt is not only presenting a familiar story to viewers,
she is an actress who adapts her own script to film.
Moreover, in each of the three programmes, we are reminded that Bernhardt
performs with ‘the distinguished Company from the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris’
(EXEBD 18494), and ‘The Entire Company from the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris’
(EXEBD 18356 and EXEBD 18614).
With Bernhardt’s own theatre and company foregrounded in each publication, and
with note made of her authorship of one of the screenplays, Bernhardt emerges less
an anachronistic actress reluctantly participating in silent film than an active agent
who is the manager of her own theatre, director of her own productions, and
participant in her own media outreach. In this context, I think it is significant that no
mention is made of either Louis Mercanton or Henri Desfontaines as directors,
authors or managers of these films.
Little has been written about Bernhardt’s role as an actress-manager in late
nineteenth-century France. Still less has been written about the agency that she–or
indeed any nineteenth century theatrical actress–might have enjoyed in the making
and marketing of ‘feature’ films abroad. We know that Bernhardt involved herself in
the management of Parisian theatres in September 1882, after her 1879 break with
the Comédie-Française (and when she returned to France from her first 1880-1881
tour of North America). At this point, Bernhardt took charge of the Théâtre de
l’Ambigu on the Boulevard Saint-Martin. She went on to manage the Théâtre de la
Porte-Saint-Martin (1883-1890), the Théâtre de la Renaissance (1893-1899) and the
Théâtre des Nations (1899–1923). Renamed the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, this
theatre announced not only her fame as an actress; it announced her capacity to
direct, manage, lease and even name a theatre in Paris.[1] As the museum's
programmes reveal, it was during her tenure with her own self-named company in
her own self-named theatre (and when she was commissioning and writing her own
plays) that Bernhardt also engaged in silent film. Featured as the star performer in
the film programmes, she was also a performer who chose her own cast. Ensuring
that they, too, were billed alongside her, we now have valuable record of the
programs promoting the first screen appearances of actors such as Lou Tellegen and
Max Maxudian. As film historians are aware, these actors went on in the 1920s and
1930s to enjoy international careers in the cinema. In this context, Bernhardt
emerges as a savvy media manager who knew the strengths of her supporting cast
on film. These programmes confirm Bernhardt’s agency as an actress and producer
of film, as well as her role as a facilitator of respected international film careers.
An Actress's Romance and the two Queen Bess programs also reveal the efforts
made to accommodate Bernhardt’s films for local English-speaking audiences. We
know that when Bernhardt took her plays abroad that she performed on the stage in
her native French. Because of this, she often provided the text of her plays for
audiences. For example, on her first tour of North America she provided ‘The
Bernhardt Edition’ of Adrienne Lecouvreur. This ‘Bernhardt Edition’ provided the
original French text of the Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé play alongside its
English translation.[2] As we can see in the programme, film repeated this practice
but greatly condensed theatrical narrative. Rather than providing theatre-goers with
translated French, audiences could learn about a five-act play in four short pages
introduced through the simple title, ‘ THE STORY’.
This translation of Adrienne Lecouvreur is strategically exclusive and inclusive. On
the one hand, the condensation of a theatrical play into a short discreet booklet
available for purchase promises audiences a piece of memorabilia that is akin to the
programmes and texts that accompanied Bernhardt’s tours abroad. On the other
hand, the booklet is available for just one penny (which was the 1912 equivalent of
the cost of a postal stamp). It also lists the location of theatres included in the newly
established (in 1908) ‘London and Provincial Electric Theatres’ circuit on its cover.
The public thereby know that the film circulates before audiences in Bolton,
Birmingham, Leicester, Cardiff, Wolverhampton, Stratford, Forest Gale, Chelsea,
Notting Hill, and Tottenham Court Road. Distributed through the Gaumont Film Hire
Service, Bernhardt’s film is therefore at once a popular film available to mass
audiences and an undertaking that mimicked–in an affordable and accessible
manner– the materials that traditionally accompanied the theatrical road tour.
The availability of Bernhardt as a popular and celebrity theatrical actress is
underscored by the inclusion of photographs within the written text of the booklet.
Illustrating key moments of narrative tension, these are featured under headings
such as: ‘Robert receives the poisoned sweets’[Figure 6a], ‘The Duchess foiled’,
Refused Absolution’, ‘The Gala Performance’[Figure 6b], ‘Adrienne and her lover’,
‘Poisoned’, ‘Adrienne’s Death’[Figure 6c].
These pictures make available to audiences photographs that might otherwise have
been sold as discreet items. In this context, the cinema develops and popularises the
theatrical practice of selling photographs of actresses in a given title role. Although
no credits are supplied for these pictures, we can presume that they are provided by
Hecla Film Co. Ltd., the English film company that the booklet tells us produced this
‘Picture Play.’
The fact that Hecla produced this film is of particular significance. Here was a
company formed in 1912 with the specific aim of producing “sensational films with
fashionable actors such as Sarah Bernhardt.”[3] With offices in both Paris and
London, Hecla underscores Bernhardt’s transnational base and audience appeal.
Consequently, instead of seeing Bernhardt as a foreign actress circulating on An
Actress's Romance in an English market, we need to appreciate the collaborative
and transnational genesis of her film production. Indeed, when we understand her
long and productive involvement in English theatre (and appreciate her close
relationships with famous figures such as Oscar Wilde, Mrs. Pat Campbell, and Ellen
Terry), her involvement in the English film industry is not unusual. It came, after all,
on the heels of over thirty years of tours to the country. As though to underscore her
established transnationalism, the only photographs of the actress credited in the
booklet are the portrait shots by Dover Street Studios.
In an effort to consolidate this relationship between Bernhardt and English audiences
through the new media of film, the language used to in the booklet is engaging and
accessible. We are told on the ‘Introductory’ page, for instance, that the play
describes an actress who “was the idol of the public” yet “came to an untimely death
at the early age of 38, in the year 1730.” We are also told that this role is one of
Bernhardt’s “most famous” and “in it her acting is exquisitely beautiful and touching.”
Audiences who might not have seen Bernhardt on stage are therefore reassured that
this is a famous role, that it elicits emotional response, and that they will be ‘touched’
by Bernhardt’s performance of youthful death.
The booklet that promotes Queen Bess is similar to An Actress’s Romance. The
heraldic image of Bernhardt in profile captioned by ‘Dover Street Studios’ on the
cover is repeated [See featured image]; so too is the portrait photograph of the
actress ‘Copyright ‘Dover Street Studios’.
Moreover, in both programs images again supplement the text and are captioned by
simple and clear titles: ‘Elizabeth’s despair’, ‘Nottingham intercepts the ring’,
‘Remorse’], ‘Death of Queen Elizabeth’and so on.
A preface similarly contextualises Bernhardt in this role and is, in the longer
programme (EXEBD 18356 ) entitled an ‘Introductory’. Here we learn that the film
depicts a period when ‘the national spirit rose to its highest’ and that it is an ‘English
historical drama’ that will ‘stir the feelings of every one who can boast of English
blood.’ Allowing empathetic engagement with a Queen who was traditionally
conceived as cold and calculating, we are further promised that ‘the pathetic story of
Elizabeth’s passionate attachment to her foolish young lover’ will ‘touch the heart.’
Bernhardt, it would seem, was not a foreign actress mimicking an English Queen, but
a passionate performer enabling local audiences to revisit and reconceive their
relationship to the longest serving and most powerful woman in the history of
As the two Queen Bess programmes indicate, this film about the romantic life of
Queen Elizabeth was produced by the Histrionic Film Company.
This Franco-Anglo-American company produced the film in England. Financially
supported by J. Frank Brocliss and Adolphe Zuckor in the US, the work again
indicates Bernhardt’s transnational reach. Moreover, the interest that local theatre
houses had in her film is evident in the Penzance Pavilion Pictures programme.
Making its own discreet publication for Queen Bess and marketing it as a unique and
stand-alone event, this programme demonstrates the need to examine celebrity
actresses and early film in localized contexts. Indeed, while we can learn much from
the featured and known strengths of the BDCM, its true value might lie in these small,
single items. Each one of these programmes force us to ask big questions about the
relationship between England and France, theatre and film, and the reception of the
nineteenth century celebrity actress by local audiences. Again returning to #MeToo,
the BDCM holds treasures that remind us of the fact that women were powerful,
heraldic and unifying figures within emerging twentieth century cinematic culture.
[1] See my forthcoming article, ‘The actress manager and the movies: Resolving the
double life of Sarah Bernhardt ’, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, for more
information about her role as an actress-manager (September, 2018).
[2] See box 3 fol. 3.10 Sarah Bernhardt Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University
of Texas, Austin.
[3] “La production Anglaise,” Ciné-journal, October 26, 1912, p. 58.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
La production Anglaise
"La production Anglaise," Ciné-journal, October 26, 1912, p. 58.