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Sarah Bernhardt
in the Theatre of Films
and Sound Recordings

By David W. Menefee

 

BOOK REVIEW

Sarah Bernhardt in the Theatre of Films and Sound Recordings
By David W. Menefee

McFarland & Company, Incorporated, Publishers : Jefferson, North Carolina : 2003
ISBN 0-7864-1636-X : 160 pages : hardcover : $35.00

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
Without the benefit of surviving works by the great artists of the centuries we would be no more than the last person in a game of Telephone — privy only to the passed on reports of those who had gone before us who would slightly alter the message, intentionally or not, until it resembled little of the original content. Our understanding and appreciation of great artists would be garbled and skewed by the cultural input of generations gradually more misinformed ‘experts’ without the source works to examine and assess for ourselves.

In the case of actress Sarah Bernhardt one becomes aware of our mixed blessings, for we have a handful of mute films and crude sound recordings by which to explore her legend, none of which represent accurately the medium for which she is most acclaimed — stage performances. We are fortunate that we have more than still photographs that document her existence, and unfortunate in that the films and recordings are nothing more than incompatible pieces of the whole fragmented picture. Her legendary stage performances are quietly tucked away into the akashic record, only to be experienced again in eternity. Her legend is either to be believed from the second-hand reports of those who witnessed her talent in its prime, or to be approached somewhat skeptically as perhaps one of the greatest expressions of an archaic phase that has been permanently left behind by a continually-developing artform.

In David Menefee’s book at hand, we have something of a guidebook to the films and recordings of Sarah Bernhardt — most of them have survived, although some survive for most of us as nothing more than rumors. Still, the sound recordings are accessible for us to experience, and Menefee has included a section that briefly charts the development of sound recording and Bernhardt’s forays into the medium, an audiography of tin-foil, cylinder and disc recordings, and transcriptions in French (with English translations) of the recorded performances. This last feature of the book calls to mind the subtitles of televised opera, for the reader can use the book to listen to Bernhardt recordings and gather some sense of the artistic intent and than simply the tenor of the performances.

Beginning this lean book is a surprisingly brief (at 28 pages, with illustrations) overview of Bernhardt’s life and career, but we assume that the readers are expected to avail themselves of one of the many biographies already produced to obtain more detailed information. Not to worry, since the intent of the book is obviously to augment the existing biographic corpus with its focus on recorded Bernhardt product.

The section on the motion pictures of Sarah Bernhardt is well researched and represents a valuable collection of information on the history, production, reception and survival of the films. Of note is the buried fact that this book resulted in the eventual identification of five minutes of surviving footage from the presumed lost production known as Daniel (1921). The surviving footage may (but it is not known) represent the entirety of a filmed record of Bernhardt’s 1920 stage production, since it may have only been a exerpt produced for a Pathé compilation short and not the feature film adaptation that some thought it was.

Of course, the most discussed film is Les amours de la Reine Elisabeth [Queen Elizabeth] (1912), the best-known of Bernhardt’s films and the beginning of what became Paramount Pictures Corporation. Also noted is Bernhardt’s freshman film Le duel d’Hamlet (1900), an experimental sound film that survives complete with recorded soundtrack, but is reported (disappointly) as being audibly nothing more than the clinking of sparring swords.

The book is liberally illustrated with photo portraits of Bernhardt, advertising materials, still photos of films and plays, and frame enlargements from the surviving films. But we are slightly disappointed by the brievity of the book and hope that this doesn’t truly represent the sum of what survives about the films. While it would have been harder to research, it struck us while reading the book that more perspective on the films from contemporary World critics would have fleshed out our understanding of the reception of the Bernhardt films. Produced later in her career, and many times only for the sake of earning extra money, did the films expand her fame or present the cold fact that her star was waining in the rapidly changing 20th century? An interesting question that can only really be answered for us when the Bernhardt films become easily available to modern audiences, and Menefee does call for the open distribution of restored editions of the surviving films. For of what use is a legend’s legacy, as fragmented and incomplete as it may be, if it is allowed the languish in an archive away from new audiences.

Overall, we feel that David Menefee has done a very good job of documenting the recorded works of Sarah Bernhardt, and that this book is of demonstrable value for both the academic and casual reader. Sarah Bernhardt in the Theatre of Films and Sound Recordings may be ordered directly from the publisher at 800-253-2187, or by visiting their website at www.mcfarlandpub.com.

 
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