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  • Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film by Victoria Duckett
  • Laura M. Nelson
Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film. By Victoria Duckett. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xii + 248 pp. $30.00 paper.

Sarah Bernhardt, an internationally known actress who toured the world to great acclaim in the late nineteenth century, was perhaps best known for her golden voice. In the early twentieth century she embarked on a journey into the world of film—more importantly, silent film. How did an actress known specifically for her voice fare in a silent medium? How would her reputation for overseeing every aspect of a production, from management and performance to the miseen-scène, translate to the burgeoning film industry? How would her film endeavors impact her celebrity and status? These are the questions that Victoria Duckett examines in Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film. In Duckett's own words: "My work is driven by the practical need to contextualize and explain Bernhardt's popular success on film even (or particularly) given the fact that no film or theater theorist, historian, or critic has ever applauded this work" (2). Duckett chose five films for her analysis: Hamlet, Camille, Queen Elizabeth, Sarah Bernhardt at Home, and Mothers of France. Duckett carefully unpacks each film, analyzing the production, marketing, and audience response along with the larger repercussions to the arts and society.

Chapter 1 focuses on the mechanics of the silent film process. As I mentioned earlier, Bernhardt was known for her voice, but she also was a master of stage gesture. Duckett argues that Bernhardt's gestural presence was equally important to audiences and translated beautifully to film. Bernhardt embodied the influence of art nouveau in the late nineteenth century, as Duckett states: "Bernhardt's early films join her distinctive theatrical style of acting to a wider art movement that saw artists newly mobilize materials and audiences through novel uses of modern industry" (28). Another key aspect of silent film was the music chosen for the performance. Unfortunately, we don't have any way of knowing what music was played at each venue, as it wasn't standardized. Throughout the remainder of the book, Duckett returns to the artistic and cultural influences discussed in this chapter.

Hamlet, a short film first presented at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, is the subject of chapter 2. Just a few minutes in length, it featured a dueling scene with Bernhardt as the title character. While there is a discussion of the performance itself—Bernhardt costumed as a man with her legs visible and on display caused a bit of a stir—this chapter's primary concern is the marketing of new [End Page 339] technology and the use of Bernhardt's celebrity to ensure its success. Although Bernhardt's presence lured the masses into the exhibit, it is important to note that the film also demonstrated her willingness to embrace new technology as a means to reach new audiences.

In chapter 3, Duckett examines the concept of cinematizing theatre. Camille, adapted from the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, was not only a familiar story to most people in the early twentieth century but also one of Bernhardt's signature stage roles. She played Marguerite repeatedly throughout her career in various adaptations, most recently in 1910, just two years before the film was released. Bernhardt was a savvy businesswoman who certainly knew that filming her most famous role would introduce her to new audiences all over the world, perhaps even encouraging them to see the stage version as well.

Queen Elizabeth, the topic of chapter 4, was released in 1912 and is another example of cinematized theatre. Another well-known Bernhardt role, the film is noteworthy for its historical accuracy and pageantry. Duckett also introduces the concept of connecting famous artworks to the visual images seen on screen, particularly the works of Paul Delaroche. While Bernhardt never mentioned the connection publicly, it is evident that certain tableaus in the film are reminiscent of Delaroche's artworks. It is another example of the integration of the "high" arts into film, perhaps in an attempt to distinguish film as...


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pp. 339-341
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