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Aunt Ada Does Sarah Bernhardt

CASTING her shadowy eyes skyward, tilting her head back, and looking like a martyr in an El Greco painting, she would assume a theatrical pose. Next, slowly crossing her arms, right hand covered the left jowl, left hand covered the right jowl. Then, the voice; a deep sigh, developing into the low gurgle that managed somehow to become a high C. Quickly dropping down to base tones, Aunt Ada would announce, ``Ahh, la plume de ma tante.'' ``La plume de ma tante'' was for my benefit. It was all the French I knew 50 years ago. It is still all the French I know. The ``Ahh'' sighed itself into the gurgled ``La plume,'' which rose to that dulcet ``de ma tante.'' And with this she was off once again with a repeat command performance of her classic, brilliant, not too kind, impersonation of Sarah Bernhardt.

Now, if Sarah Bernhardt is not exactly a household word around your house these days, any neighbor of a hundred-and-ten will tell you that she was once upon a time the greatest actress in the world. The world of the 19th century, with her farewell tours wandering well into the 20th. Greatness is controversial, but I go by Sarah's opinion. Anyone would tremble to contradict that enduring lady.

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This picturesque little French megastar with the fuzzy red (most of the time) hair, her face a mask of rice powder, her voice a challenge to poets good and bad, was active on the stage for over 60 years, playing more than 90 parts before footlights that went from gas to electricity, flowers drowning the stages for her curtain calls.

She was Camille long before Garbo, she was Lady Macbeth, she was Hamlet, she was various faraway princesses, she was Phaedra, Cleopatra, and the original Tosca.

The applause and the flowers and the adoration came from everyone from Queen Victoria to Victor Hugo, to crowned heads of Europe to American cowboys and Indians. Her devoted followers included the painters, writers (Proust was one), and composers of the time. She was a fabulous beauty in a fabulous age, as important to Paris as the Eiffel Tower. For the Belle 'Epoque, for the fin de si`ecle in France, she was a force of nature tempered by civilized achievement built on discipline. She could outrehearse and outshout anyone on stage. She could memorize at a glance, she earned and lost fortunes, she was the artiste supreme - she was maddening.

By now Aunt Ada's hands would accompany the husky words flutteringly, like frightened butterflies. She moved about a bit in a sort of waltz step, aided by years of dancing the Charleston.

It was around about the 45th year of Mme. Sarah's reign that she condescended to make a movie. The great silent star Lillian Gish tells how stage people looked down on the new movies. Indeed, La Bernhardt called them ``absurd photographic pantomimes.'' Naturally enough, she knew she could do better, and she was the first big star to make a ``cinematograph.'' We are talking history here, old-fashioned movie history, circa 1912.

Ada Isabella had been in France getting polished at a finishing school. Truth to tell, Ada Isabella didn't finish much. She got homesick for Wyoming. Well, homesick for a handsome young ranch hand in Wyoming who became my Uncle Wayne. Aunt Ada did not dawdle long over French verbs. The head of her school knew somebody and that somebody knew somebody, and that's how faithful fan Ada Isabella got to visit the set where Sarah Bernhardt was making a film about Queen Elizabeth I.

Silent films may be silent to look at, but the sets were noisy places. Hammering and sawing were going on behind the backdrop painted to resemble the Tower of London. Loud directions were given the cast during the action, with Madame's still commanding voice leading the scene having to do with a courtier arriving with what looked like very bad news, indeed. Madame stopped in mid-speech to complain, so an underling (they had them in those days) was sent to murder whoever was doing the sawing. This rallied the star, who knew who she was, and as she imposed her art, even the cameraman, cranking furiously, became respectful.

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Someone gave Ada Isabella a bit of film as a souvenir. Just a bit of blank negative, but she had saved it, and showed it to Uncle Wayne.

As Aunt Ada's performance warmed closer to her memory of Bernhardt, she sopranoed into a tragic recitation of ``Aux Armes, citoyens'' from ``The Marseillaise.'' The gurgles, sighs, and the rasping resonance roared toward that essential of French tragic acting, the tirade - that grand culmination, designed to leave audiences helpless. Sarah had had it down pat.

Last, the Bernhardt bow. Not a bow, really. Sarah had stood quietly before the applause, her arms thrusting forward in magnificent supplication. It brought the house down, my house down. It was Mme. Sarah and Aunt Ada and footlights and flowers - and I always stood and clapped and clapped.

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