Immortality, after all these years

"THIS IS MY ONE chance of immortality," said the aging but still legendary Sarah Bernhardt when she agreed in 1912 to make a silent movie of her play, "Queen Elizabeth." Aged 68, hobbled by a wooden leg, Bernhardt believed that capturing her performance on film would ensure her legacy for posterity.

Bernhardt's example persuaded the then renowned but now largely forgotten Shakespearean actor, Frederick Warde, to go before the cameras that same year in "Richard III." With the recent, astonishing discovery of a nearly perfect print of this long-lost movie -- the oldest surviving American four-reel feature film -- modern audiences will glimpse the dramatic skills of a man who honed his craft with some of the finest performers of the 19th century, including the great tragedian Edwin Booth, with whom Warde first performed at Baltimore's fabled Ford's Theatre 120 years ago.


Warde was born in England in 1851 and made his stage debut in "Macbeth" at the age of 16. He became a young friend and protege of Henry Irving, whose subsequent achievement on the stage earned him the first knighthood ever bestowed on an actor and burial in Westminster Abbey.

Warde came to America in 1874 to play youthful parts for Booth's Theatre in New York, founded by the actor whose own career had been darkened but not ended when his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Nearly two years passed before Warde first met Edwin Booth himself on the stage of Ford's Theatre January 3, 1876. He was to play Laertes to Booth's Hamlet in what was Booth's first tour south of the Mason-Dixon Line since the assassination.


"What an audience it was!" Warde recalled in his autobiography, "Fifty Years of Make-Believe," published in 1923. "That grand old Baltimore theatre was packed from the orchestra rail to the last row of seats in the gallery. The boxes and the parquet filled with the culture, the beauty, the aristocracy of the city. What a glorious reception they gave Mr. Booth! The entire audience rose in their places and cheered. It was a spontaneous tribute of love and esteem for the man. Then, they sat down to appreciate the actor."

Booth did not disappoint them, Warde recalled. "He did not act; he was Prince Hamlet."

Warde subsequently played Othello to Booth's Iago -- and sometimes Iago to Booth's Othello. He also appeared with Booth in "Richard II," "King Lear," "The Merchant of Venice," "Much Ado About Nothing" and many other productions.

As Warde's career progressed, he became partners with Maurice Barrymore, the father of Lionel, John and Ethel Barrymore, forming with him a pair of traveling companies to perform Shakespeare and other plays around the country. He then formed companies with other partners and on his own, touring the nation when not performing in New York.

A promising youth

On his theatrical journeys, Warde won the admiration of two men who would become president -- Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. Both later entertained him at the White House. One day in Denver a stage-struck high school student begged to join his troupe, a "youth of rather less than average height but of athletic build" -- Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks, later one of the silent screen's superstars, remained with Warde's company for two years "and fully justified his ambition to become an actor," Warde proudly noted in his memoir.

Warde wrote that the growing popularity of the movies, evidenced by Sarah Bernhardt's foray before the camera, led to his decision to star in "Richard III." It was successful but quickly vanished, as have most of the early silent movies. Fewer than 30 percent of the features made between 1913 and 1919 survive. The rest, printed on highly flammable film stock, either have spontaneously combusted, disintegrated or been discarded over the years.

Such was presumed to have been the fate of "Richard III" until William Buffum, 77, a retired projectionist and old-time film fancier in Portland, Oregon, flabbergasted the American Film Institute in Washington by giving it a print of the movie, which he had obtained in 1960 and carefully preserved ever since without really knowing its significance. A restored print of the 55-minute movie will be given a gala premiere at the institute's Los Angeles International Film Festival October 29 and at Washington's Kennedy Center AFI Theater in November.


Warde, who became a U.S. citizen in 1922, retired the following year and died in 1935 at the age of 84. At the time of his death, the New York Times hailed him as "dean of the American stage and one of its most distinguished actors," but only about 50 people attended his funeral and soon his fame all but faded away.

Now, 145 years following his birth, more than 75 years after his retirement and 61 years since his death, Frederick Warde at last is ensured his "one chance of immortality," and modern movie goers will see in his performance one of the few, flickering links we have with the theatrical glories of the 19th century.

Neil A. Grauer is the author of "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber."

Pub Date: 10/21/96