Sarah Bernhardt’s Queen Elizabeth

Les amours de la reine Élisabeth
American version: Queen Elizabeth
R: Louis Mercanton, Henri Desfontaines. B: Émile Moreau, from his play “Les amours de la reine Élisabeth”. K: Clément Maurice Wladimir. D: Sarah Bernhardt, Lou Tellegen, Max Maxudian, Nita Romani, Jean Angelo, Albert Decoeur, Marie-Louise Derval, Henri Desfontaines, Guy Favières. P: Pathé Frères / L’Histrionic Film production (Louis Mercanton) / Adolph Zukor. Fr / USA 1912

“The production was shot in Paris, France. During production, the French production company was forced into liquidation by Compagnie Genérale des Établissements Pathé Frères Phonographes & Cinématographes; Adolph Zukor provided the necessary financing to complete the production. Distributed in the United States on State Rights basis by Famous Players Film Company in July 1912 [their first film release]. USA premiere on 12 July 1912 at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, New York.”
Silent Era

“From beginning to end, the method used in portraying this story of a period in the lives of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex was a series of tableaus. First, a title appears, and then the next few scenes illustrate that title, and so on until the picture is completed. The film indicates that the ‘Dresses, Armor, and Furniture were from the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre, Paris, France’.”
Early motion pictures / Kemp R. Niver

Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest theatrical star of the late nineteenth century, enabled and even promoted the association of early film with the British monarchy. She did this literally, by playing the role of Queen Elizabeth in Queen Elizabeth (Les Amours de la reine Elisabeth, Henri Desfontaines and Louis Mercanton, 1912). Bernhardt also promoted the association of the cinema with monarchy symbolically, making the medium a new empathetic vehicle for the development of celebrity mystique and global power. (…) It circulated widely, changing the ways audiences engaged with and experienced celebrity mystique and power. In this changed order, it is Bernhardt’s capacity to move audiences through the nascent medium of film that confirms her already established status as a theatrical diva. Film accords her the symbolic status of queen. (…)

Queen Elizabeth was one of the first multiple-reel feature films released in America. A transnational production, it was produced in London by J. Frank Brocliss, the European representative of the Lubin Company, for the Histrionic Film Company (established by Bernhardt for the film), and features Bernhardt with her French cast and the costumes and sets of its stage version. Accompanied by a score composed by Jacques Breil, the film drew middle-class audiences after its lavish opening at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, with its remarkable profits eventually enabling Adolph Zukor to develop Famous Players into the company that became Paramount Pictures. In this way, Queen Elizabeth became precursor to a major Hollywood studio and helped inaugurate a new category of spectacle in the cinema. Indeed, the success of the film drew other theatrical stars to film, helping to develop the longer playing narrative film. As the Italian Enciclopedia dello spettacolo notes, however, Bernhardt’s indirect participation in the development of Paramount is one of the ‘most paradoxical cases in the history of the film industry’. Her cinema performances are criticised for being gestural, melodramatic and physically excessive. (…) Queen Elizabeth is a spectacular film, whose players are indeed theatrical in a manner that appears unusual today: they are separately introduced at the opening of the film, they mouth words we can not hear, they are elaborately costumed and it is they (rather than a mobile or fluid camera) who articulate narrative meaning. Moreover, Bernhardt’s final descent onto a pile of cushions is excessive, and can even seem comical. (…)

It is not just the formal language of Bernhardt’s film but the very performance of British monarchy on screen that prompts Queen Elizabeth’s ongoing association with an haute bourgeois theatrical culture that had no place in early film. The irony, of course, is that it is only on screen that it might be argued that Bernhardt was legitimate. We know – as her own public knew through the many references and anti-Semitic caricatures of her in the popular press – that Bernhardt was Jewish and that in the late nineteenth century this meant that she was cast as an outsider to legitimate French culture. Moreover, Bernhardt was the daughter of an established Parisian courtesan whose profession she also followed in her youth. In these and other ways, her behavior and choices ran counter to established social and theatrical mores: she had a son out of wedlock, was rumoured to be bisexual and disregarded theatrical convention. Even the public who first made her a star were on the margins of Parisian society: they were the Saradoteurs, the modest workers and students of the Left Bank who were vocal and demonstrative in their support of her and who clashed with the older and more established patrons of the Odéon theatre. (…)

It is clear that Bernhardt’s performance of the English queen was a powerful and emotive one. Yet Moreau’s play was performed only twelve times at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in 1911 and became one of the biggest failures in the actress’s career. Nevertheless, Bernhardt’s decision to film the drama was a canny one: the role allowed her to play an older woman and to develop her existing repertoire of death scenes. It also exhibited a range of emotions (joy, love, jealousy, fury, pain, terror, remorse) made intelligible through physical acting. Bernhardt’s expressive gestures were a celebrated aspect of her performance style, one which enabled its subsequent cinematic success. They allowed audiences to empathetically engage with a figure (the Tudor queen but also the star who played her) often regarded as literally and symbolically removed from the public and the trials of quotidian life.”
Victoria Duckett
Her Majesty moves.  Sarah Bernhardt, Queen Elizabeth and the development of motion pictures

Robert Fells wrote on Facebook (March 26th, 2022):
“This film is of historic importance but does not show the Divine Sarah to her best advantage. She is served much better by a World War I film she made in 1917 called ‘Mothers of France’.”
‘Mothers of France’ is the English title of the French Sarah Bernhardt film Mères françaises (1917). Robert Fells translated the intertitles into English and added “La Marseillaise” at the ending:

Mères françaises
R: René Hervil, Louis Mercanton. B: Jean Richepin. D: Sarah Bernhardt, Gabriel Signoret, Georges Deneubourg, Jean Angelo, Louise Lagrange, Berthe Jalabert, Georges Melchior. P: Société Française des Films Éclair. Fr 1917