- Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film by Victoria Duckett
Among the most celebrated stage actresses of all time, Sarah Bernhardt became the point of comparison for other thespians of early-twentieth-century popular culture. Yet, Bernhardt’s lasting celebrity has spawned surprisingly few critical analyses of her theatrical work, let alone of her presence on film, [End Page 692] in spite of its inclusion in most historical surveys on both media. Recent books have been broadly biographical, presenting a life story peppered with princes, painters, and a wooden prosthetic.
Victoria Duckett painstakingly fills part of the critical void on the “Divine Sarah” with a book that brings an intermedial perspective to Bernhardt’s legacy on film between 1900 and 1918, taking into account both her work in the theatre as an actress and stage manager, and her deep connection to art nouveau in design, painting, and even acting. Treating a selection of Bernhardt’s films as historical texts, Duckett situates them within a larger framework of primary sources—contemporary articles, reviews, playbills, and posters—as she reads these films as exemplars of the cinema of the period rather than only of Bernhardt’s theatrical work. Quite successful financially, Bernhardt’s silver-screen ventures exposed the star to an expanded audience that probably had not seen her perform onstage. Studios exploited her celebrity before the introduction of actor credits, which made Bernhardt one of the first proper film stars. Her onscreen career overlapped with one of the cinema’s most richly formative periods, as she lent her melodic voice to the earliest sound film experiments in 1900, starred in vehicles that were key to the medium’s legitimation as an art form around 1910, and was even part of documentary “home movies” in the late 1910s.
While Duckett’s approach may seem self-evident, it undercuts a long-standing film-historical stance that sees these works as mere “canned theatre”—a stance that promotes the far-too-often theoretically overstated dialectic that supposedly existed between film and theatre during the silent film era. As Duckett rightly points out, the two were never at war in practice, and the dialectic fostered in fact a complex, highly reciprocal relationship. The book pursues these issues with fervor.
In her first chapter on acting in silent film, Duckett points to the retroactive criticism that Bernhardt’s acting exemplified an anachronistically gestural mode that belonged to an older generation of stage-trained actors, and failed to utilize the newfangled optical possibilities for subtler gestures and facial expressions that defined contemporary evolutions in theatricalized cinema—an argument compounded by the fact that cinema was silent and the theatre of the period considered an actor’s voice to be a crucial instrument to convey both emotion and information. Bernhardt was lauded particularly for her golden voice, but Duckett convincingly argues that the actress was equally well-versed in gesture: her sinuous body made her a muse for the art nouveau movement, particularly for artists like Alphonse Mucha and Georges Clairin. As Duckett demonstrates, Bernhardt worked the curved spirals of art nouveau into her performances, much like Loïe Fuller did in dance.
Here, Duckett’s book distinguishes itself the most, in its innovative analysis of performance. She blends archival sources from both media effortlessly, and in switching from academic sources, biographies, and nineteenth-century actors’ manuals to theatre and film journals like the New York Dramatic Mirror and Ciné-Journal, she manages to compound her arguments on the intermedial fabric of Bernhardt’s performance. The “curved spiral” is a case in point, and Duckett further demonstrates that the actress’s individual flourishes of style were part of an “embodied continuity” between stage and screen that can be seen within the context of the idealized actor’s body at the time: a body that was to be universally legible, regardless of its mediation.
The book’s second chapter focuses on Bernhardt’s inclusion in the 1900 Paris World Exhibition with a film that showcases the dueling scene from her famed...