HoMER conference presentation on actresses and transnational film


In this talk, I argue that the French stage actress in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a global celebrity who pioneered a reciprocal, visible and above all productive relationship between the Arts and technological development. She did this in Paris, in one of the leading centers of cultural production and technological experimentation in the world. Working in and from this city, Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane (Gabrielle Charlotte Réju), and Mistinguett (Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois) achieved international fame and visibility. They forged a collective renown that women-and certainly a generation of actresses on the live stage-had never previously claimed. 

Celebrated as performers they were also respected as theatrical managers, social commentators, risk-takers and fashion icons. Together, these pioneers developed and then maintained the status of France as a centrifugal culture of global importance between the years that define the Belle Époque (roughly 1880 through to the start of the First World War). Drawing large international audiences, they circulated in photographs, prints, newspaper sketches, journals, caricatures and (eventually) on postcards, phonographs and film. 

This presentation argues that these actresses were not just stage performers bringing plays to life, publicly recognisable and associated with a given theatre and in a specific theatrical role. They were flashpoints to the formation of modern cinematic culture. Their capacity to be adapted across a range of interrelated media by new generations and publics helped ensure French visibility in world markets. I will demonstrate that it was their pioneering work in media industries that helped them secure visibility in the period leading into the First World War, not only in France but in the United Kingdom and the United States. It is within the context of this triangulation, where the Old and the New World are joined in reciprocal exchange and growth, that we can begin to fathom the importance of the French actress to the cultural formation of film.