As always, please watch the short before proceeding to the article– an easy feat considering this one is under two minutes!
Easily the best-known nineteenth-century stage personality, Sarah Bernhardt’s contributions to film history are often overlooked. Famous Players Lasky—later to become Paramount Pictures—began its history with its distribution of The Loves of Queen Elizabeth, a 1912 feature adaptation of Bernhardt’s stage success of the same name. The Divine Sarah would appear in other features throughout the 1910s, but her most intriguing screen appearance was a short film depicting the climax of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
As far as film historians can tell, Bernhardt was the screen’s first Hamlet. She had played the ill-fated Dane on-stage to great sensation in the 1890s. Rather than playing Hamlet as a mopey, lethargic sad-sack unable to make up his mind, Bernhardt chose to emphasize Hamlet’s intellectual strength and determination to see justice done on his own terms.
These two minutes are all we shall ever see of Bernhardt’s Hamlet and the glimpse is tantalizing. Though fifty-six years old, Bernhardt’s Hamlet is energetic and graceful, fencing with youthful relish. The scene is extremely abbreviated, showing Hamlet and Laertes’ fatal duel sans Gertrude and Claudius. The two fight, Hamlet is cut by the poison sword, Hamlet disarms Laertes, Hamlet takes up the poison sword, gets a hit in, and then swoons and dies, falling into the arms of a convenient group of soldiers who bear the body out of camera range. The focus is all on Bernhardt—Laertes doesn’t even get to die on camera.
Unfortunately, this short does not exist in its entirety. It was originally produced as an early talkie for exhibition at the famous Exposition Universelle in Paris, one of several sound experiments on public display. The footage was synchronized with a wax cylinder recording of the actors speaking, but the cylinder has been long lost. It’s such a shame since Bernhardt was known for her rich voice. (If you’re curious about said voice, recordings of her from the turn of the century are available in online archives, such as this emotional speech from Phedre.) It just goes to show that the history of sound movies long predates The Jazz Singer.
American Cinema of the 1910s, edited by Charlie Keil and Ben Singer