Sarah Bernhardt is the most famous actress of the late nineteenth century stage. Celebrated by an emerging and very vocal group of young female workers and artisans in her native Paris in the late 1860s and the 1870s called “les saradoteurs” (Rueff 1951, 48-49; Bernhardt 1923, 290), she went on to become the most popular actress of her generation in Europe, North America, and Australia. Attention has been paid to her “golden voice,” the clever ways she marketed and promoted herself, her pioneering patronage of artists such as Alphonse Mucha and René Lalique, and her capacity to be at once a successful actress, manager, and theatre director (Pronier 1942, 93; Musser 2013, 154-174; Stokes 1988, 16-30). Scant attention has been paid, however, to Bernhardt’s involvement and success in the early motion picture film industry, both in France and abroad. This is surprising. Indeed, she was among the first celebrities to engage with the motion picture, playing Hamlet in a one-minute film that formed part of Paul Decauville’s program for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exposition of 1900. The first feature film that she released–Camille (1911)–was promoted the following year by the French American Film Company in Moving Picture World as “Making New Records for Selling States Rights” (982-983). A subsequent advertisement in the same trade press claimed that the film was “The Fastest Seller Ever Offered State Right Buyers” (1088-1089). As many film historians know, Bernhardt’s Queen Elizabeth (1912) was the Famous Players Company’s first release in the U.S. It similarly enjoyed success, helping to open the market for legitimate motion picture exhibition in the U.S. Queen Elizabeth thereby provided audiences with their first experience of the longer-playing narrative feature film (Quinn 2001, 48).
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