Unmade Sarah Bernhardt biopic (1937)
With such a short but illustrious career in films, the bulk of which covered only four years of Luise’s life, there are more intriguing discoveries in the list of films that she didn’t make. From her arrival in Hollywood in 1935, throughout her MGM tenure and beyond into the 1940s and 1950s Luise’s name was attached to numerous productions which were either made with other actresses or never made at all. One such case, and surely one of the greatest missed opportunities, is hinted at in a single paragraph I’ve found in the German film magazine Main Film, dated 1937. The gist is easy to understand: the next role for Luise Rainer will be as the great French tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt in a film about her life:
Bernhardt was an actress of almost mythological stature who many still regard as the greatest actress of all time. Those who recall seeing her in the early part of the last century (John Gielgud, DH Lawrence, Jean Cocteau) spoke of her immense power and enigmatic stage presence. She was fêted by playwrights and actors, who were in turn inspired (and supported) by her: Edmund Rostand (for whom she originated the role of Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac), Victor Hugo, the Dumas brothers and Oscar Wilde all became friends (the latter created parts in his plays Vera and Salomé for her).
From her beginnings on the stage in France during the 1870s she soon conquered Europe with performances in most major theatres, including Paris where she opened the theatre that bore her name. Her global superstardom was sealed when she wowed audiences in London and New York. Her ascent was rapid, her reputation only emboldened by risqué, groundbreaking performances and their ensuing scandals. She is perhaps best known by modern audiences for her appearance on film in Le Duel d’Hamlet (1900), an excerpt from her self-penned adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Her pioneering ‘silent’ film lives on via YouTube:
Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, when Luise was 13 years old. Their lives overlapped for a short time, however, their experiences offer up some remarkable similarities, not least their Jewish background. Luise’s early stage appearances in Europe led her into the company of Max Reinhardt, one of theatre’s greatest directors. She would later find herself similarly fêted by writers and artists, including Bertolt Brecht, who wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle for her. Bernhardt and Luise also found refuge in fine art; Bernhardt’s sculptures were exhibited in France and the USA and she dabbled in painting and other media. Luise, who had painted since childhood, took up the brushes again after her Hollywood career, studying at the Camden Institute in London and exhibiting her collage and paintings. She also had an esoteric collection of other artists’ work which she built up over the course of the last century.
What happened to the film is a mystery. At the time Luise would have been contracted to MGM and, based on the choices the studio were making for her at this time, it is unlikely that it was ever a viable option. Luise herself approached Mayer to suggest roles she wanted to play and this may have been one of them. It fits with her aspirations to do worthwhile projects – other roles she pitched for at the time include Karen von Blixen’s Out of Africa, The Life of Marie Curie and a cinematic adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. None of these were acceptable to the studio who cast her in The Toy Wife instead. The Bernhardt is rarely mentioned and I’ve found very little evidence that it was more than a wish or a rumour. This article in Classic Images magazine cites ‘script difficulties’ for closing down the opportunity, but I’d be surprised to find it even got that far. No film was made and, amazingly, Sarah Bernhardt’s story has yet to be immortalised on the big screen.