Joseph Carl Breil's score is often considered the first original musical score written specifically for a motion picture. Breil was a prominent American composer of opera and operetta in addition to his film score work. See more »
Much as I enjoy watching silent films I was disappointed with this famous early feature, although it provides a rare glimpse of a legendary actress. Sure, it's interesting to see Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Elizabeth I, but it's also frustrating to realize that the people who made QUEEN ELIZABETH had no affinity for the cinema. Compare this to the exciting, fast-paced films D.W. Griffith had been making for Biograph since 1908, or to the innovative work others were doing at Vitagraph and elsewhere, and you'll recognize that the filmmakers who made this costume drama were old-fashioned even at the time. Unfortunately, this is one of those slow-moving, stodgy silent movies that give silent movies a bad name, especially with viewers who haven't seen better examples of the medium.
Still, that said, one can be grateful that the film was made at all, and that it survives, because it does afford us a look at a major personality of the era, and also gives us a sense of what the theater-going experience was like at the time. QUEEN ELIZABETH is very much a filmed play: each scene is arranged for the camera as it would have been performed in a traditional theater on a proscenium stage. The camera sits back along about the fourth row of the orchestra section, and although it pans slightly once or twice it never takes the viewer into the action among the performers. We are forced to sit back and watch the pageant from a respectful distance. The third scene, which involves a fortune teller, appears to have been shot outside under natural lighting, but otherwise the actors declaim before obviously painted sets. (Griffith, meanwhile, was racing his camera alongside speeding trains.) We never really get a close look at Madame Sarah, but she attempts to compensate with occasional sweeping arm movements, trembly hands, etc., for the folks in the balcony seats. There are no dialog titles, though documents are shown. Otherwise, as in the "Prince Valiant" comic strip, historical title cards tell us exactly what is going to happen prior to each scene --an annoying device one finds in other early silents, but which happily disappeared not long after this film was made. The actors, decked out in Elizabethan finery, strike appropriate poses. For the viewer, the experience feels like a school-sponsored trip to a wax museum.
Theater buffs might be interested in the second scene, in which the Queen and her courtiers enjoy a performance of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," after which the young playwright William Shakespeare is brought forth for a royal audience. There's also a nicely staged sequence towards the end in which the Queen watches through a picture window as her former lover, the Earl of Essex, is brought back to the palace under arrest. Unable to bear the sight, she has a servant close the curtain, then collapses. It's the dramatic peak of the story, but there's nothing cinematic about the way it's presented: the scene could have been done precisely this way on stage, and no doubt was. And therein lies both the strength and the weakness of this particular piece of celluloid: it's an important document of a legendary actress, but we're left with only a pale shadow of what made her great. It's more than we have of, say, Edwin Booth or Sir Henry Irving, and it's certainly better than nothing, but imagine what a more skilled director could have accomplished with this material and this star.
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