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When Sarah Bernhardt conquered America

If you wnat to discover exactly what made "the divine Sarah" Bernhardt so popular, you may look for some clues in the final offering of the delightfully varied "Kennedy Center Tonight" series: "Sarah In America" (PBS, Wednesday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

However, you will find more clues in the interesting narration of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (written by John O'Toole) than in the uninspired but competent performance of its star, Lilli Palmer. Even with her red fright wig, Miss Palmer doesn't quite manage to re-create the exotically flamboyant character of Sarah. And the German rather than French accent is not of much help in this too carefully calculated performance.

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Since Mme. Bernhardt performed in French, it might have been interesting to see if Miss Palmer, too, is capable of holding her audience in that language. But alas, she must work with an uninspired script in English by Ruth Wolff.

Directed for the theater by Sir Robert Helpmann, "Sarah" is skillfully produced and directed for TV by Mel Ferber -- every now and then the TV camera pulls back to remind us a bit disconcertingly that the television viewer is only part of the audience. Executive producer for the series is Dale Bell.

"Sarah In America" is most interesting for its rare recording, early silent film, and archival photos of this consummate show-woman. The mystique and unique charisma of Sarah Bernhardt, however, remain a mystery.

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