This movie is preceded by two written warnings, directly embossed on the screen.
The first is the credit "Reader's Digest Presents." (Quick. Think. What's the last great Reader's Digest film that you've seen?)
The second is the prologue "Sarah Bernhardt was one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. ... This motion picture is a free portrayal of events in her tempestuous early career."
"Free portrayal"? What does this mean?
Well, in this film, Sarah speaks perfect English, complete with British accent (as does her Greek husband.) She performs French classics of the stage - in English. Thirty years go by - and yet no one ages more than a month. Also, rooms are brightly lit, regardless of the fact that there is no electric lighting. And everyone behaves in an overly civil fashion, except Sarah. The more unruly she becomes, the more people idolize her.
Sarah mentions again and again, ad nauseum, that her ambition is to become "the greatest actress ever." How does she accomplish this grand goal? She publicly humiliates the leading actress of the Comedy Francais. And then, after S.B. gives a particularly bad performance, she makes a feeble attempt to commit suicide, by jumping out of a basement window.
The real Bernhardt was an endlessly fascinating character, who was more or less forced into theatre by her mother. To truly understand Bernhardt, you must realize her infinite self-respect, and her never-ending energy, no matter what the endeavor.
The screenwriter has no understanding of these motivations. At one point Sarah attempts to explain her love of acting: "It's the coming alive. Oh, I don't know, really. I... I mean I wish I could explain it. I wish I could. It's...it's something I have to do. I... Oh, I'm not making any sense, am I?" This insight into her character is about as penetrating as a rubber knife.
Did you know the real Bernhardt was the first performer to ever put on a show at the San Quentin prison? She loved people. She cared.
The tireless effort she gave on behalf of wounded soldiers - by turning the Odeon Theatre into a hospital during the Franco-Prussian war - continually rounding up the best supplies, food, and medical care that she could find - is far too understated in this film. S.B. was a true humanitarian and later became a national symbol in France, and deservedly so.
Sadly, never once in this film do we see the French flag. Never once do we hear La Marseillaise.
This movie is not political; it sticks to the Aesthetic school. Art Nouveau dominates every frame of this film. We are hit with a barrage of ornate wallpaper prints, and Victorian costumes. The sets are cluttered with Greek columns, statues, paintings, etchings, and other bric-a-brac. Did I mention the veritable zoo of monkeys, parrots, dogs and even a caged cougar that Sarah keeps in her home? Feels like an extended trip to Hearst's Castle in San Simeon.
"The Incredible Sarah" covers her first acting audition, her early success, the Franco-Prussian War, her marriage, the first tour of England, and ends with the 1890 production of Joan of Arc.
It omits the 1880 tour of America, and her 1872 breakthrough role in Victor Hugo's "Ruy Blas."
I'm sure they meant well by making this movie, but, aside from Glenda Jackson's emotional performance in the "Phedre" and "Joan of Arc" sequences, this film comes off as a bore. Only during the final sequence do we get a slight hint of what it might have been like to see the Divine Sarah perform.
Bernhardt was French. She performed in French. When she was on tour in Britain, in America, in Russia - no matter where she was, Sarah Bernhardt performed in French. Her tumultuous emotion was so intense, it bypassed any language barrier. One could assume a Bernhardt performance was very similar to attending a spoken-word opera.
Her Edison sound recordings reveal a voice as inimitable as Maria Callas. She rolls her 'R's; she has an incredible tremolo. You can plainly hear a feminine quivering in her voice even as she shouts at the top of her lungs.
S.B.'s personal motto was "Quand Meme" - which could be loosely translated as "no matter what." After the amputation of her leg (which occurred years after this film takes place), S.B. mentioned "You remember my motto 'Quand Meme'? In case of necessity, I shall have myself strapped to the scenery." The stage was her battlefield. I recommend you keep Bernhardt's courage in mind. It's the only way to endure this passionless film.