BOOTLEG FILES 205: “Queen Elizabeth” (1912 feature starring Sarah Bernhardt).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in crappy public domain dupes.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: The ultimate oddity: a groundbreaking achievement in film history that is completely forgotten today.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Unless the film’s original materials are located, it is unlikely anyone will try to restore this for future commercial release.
When the movie industry was born during the beginning of the 20th century, something significant was missing: movie stars. The absence of star power was no accident. The actors of that distant era looked down on the movies as being an undignified way to make a living (or at least when compared to acting on stage). And the producers of that period wanted to keep their costs down – so the last thing they wanted were big-name stars who required large salaries.
That situation came to an end on July 12, 1912, at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, where people paid $1.00 (a high sum for the time) to witness the American debut of the French film “Queen Elizabeth” starring the legendary theatrical star Sarah Bernhardt. On that fateful day, the motion picture industry abruptly shifted course on a variety of levels. Few films can take credit for having such a dramatic impact as “Queen Elizabeth.”
However, “Queen Elizabeth” is nearly forgotten today. Outside of Bernhardt scholars and silent movie aficionados, few people have seen the movie. And those who are able to locate an extant copy will find a crummy public domain dupe that’s probably been bootlegged for decades.
This story actually begins in 1900 when Bernhardt, at the age of 56, agreed to participate in a filmed record of the duel scene from “Hamlet.” Despite being much too old and the wrong gender, Bernhardt enjoyed stage success playing Hamlet. Although the new film process lacked color and sound, the experience intrigued Bernhardt. But at the time, there was no opportunity for her to star in movies – in 1900, filmmaking consisted of very short films, often running a minute or less.
Bernhardt came back to films in 1906 with a two-reel truncated version of “Tosca.” The film was hand-colored, which at least took Bernhardt out of monochrome for the viewing audience. However, she hated the finished result and vainly attempted to buy up all of the prints.
In late 1911, Bernhardt opted to give films another chance. This time around, she appeared in a hand-colored two-reel version of “La Dame aux Camellias,” for which she was paid an extraordinary sum of $30,000. The film was a great success in France, and Bernhardt decided to move ahead with a more ambitious project: a filmed record of Emile Moreau’s “Queen Elizabeth.”
While the role of England’s Queen Elizabeth I was not Bernhardt’s most popular stage performance, the commercial value of playing the legendary monarch was not lost on the star. After all, French films were widely exported around the world, and the story of Elizabeth I would have wide appeal with audiences across Europe and even across the Atlantic. Bernhardt was famously quoted as stating the film would offer her a last chance at immorality.
“Queen Elizabeth” preserves a film record of Bernhardt at the tail end of her glorious career. Whether she was actually immortalized is another matter. The lack of sound requires Bernhardt to exaggerate her emoting to a degree that it is near-pantomime – she dominates the film with her eyes rolling, teeth gnashing, and arms waving so frantically that it seems she is trying to achieve flight. It is difficult to imagine the legendary star was as unsubtle on stage as she was on screen.
It also doesn’t help that “Queen Elizabeth” is typical of the filmmaking of the early silent years. Director Louis Mercanton shot the film in a stagy, stodgy manner: the camera is kept in long-shot and the scenes are captured in stationary single takes, while the actors flail around in blatantly theatrical sets that could probably be blown over with a hearty sneeze.
But for 1912, “Queen Elizabeth” was a revelation. A film running four reels was rare for that time (the average film was rarely longer than two reels), so audiences did not approach it as a quickie entertainment. And there was also the Bernhardt name. At a time when no actor had his name attached to a film, Bernhardt’s appearance was the central attraction to attract audiences.
And “Queen Elizabeth” attracted huge audiences. The film’s release was an unprecedented success in France and in other European countries. News of the film’s success cross over to New York, where an ambitious independent exhibitor named Adolph Zukor took the bold step of acquiring the U.S. rights. Zukor formed the company Famous Players in Famous Plays to distribute “Queen Elizabeth” and booked the Lyceum Theatre, a notable New York venue for live stage events, for the film’s U.S. premiere. Up until then, films were only shown in novelty arcades or small cinemas – the notion of putting films on par with live theater (let alone in a theatrical setting) was revolutionary.
“Queen Elizabeth” was a major critical and commercial success. Bernhardt received 10% of the film’s American gross and was emboldened by the film’s success to appear in additional movies. Her peers in the theatrical world followed her lead and began to appear in films. Producers, realizing that star power could sell movies, began elevating their hitherto-unknown actors into above-the-marquee stars.
Behind the camera, the film had more impact. Zukor brought “Queen Elizabeth” across the country on a city-by-city reserved seat road show release. That distribution pattern was copied for decades. He then parlayed his box office earnings into producing and distributing new films. Famous Players in Famous Plays later evolved into Paramount Pictures, which became one of Hollywood’s most powerful and influential studios.
As for “Queen Elizabeth” itself – well, its importance evaporated rather quickly. As the film industry evolved, filmmaking became far more sophisticated and subtle. Within four years of its release, “Queen Elizabeth” looked terribly old-fashioned and dull. What had been a sensation was soon ignored and forgotten.
Over the years, “Queen Elizabeth” lapsed into the public domain and the original negative was lost. What survives of the film today are prints that were clearly duped over the course of several generations.
Admittedly, this is an ignoble end for what had been a major influential film. It is possible that a digital restoration could be done, but no one has stepped forward to save this orphaned film from its state of bootlegging. That’s something of a shame, considering the dramatic effect “Queen Elizabeth” had on the movie world.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on November 2, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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