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Alla Nazimova

 

 

SALOME

Nazimova Productions, 1923.  Directed by Charles Bryant.  Camera:  Charles Van Enger.  With Alla Nazimova, Rose Dione, Mitchell Lewis, Nigel De Brulier, Earl Schenck, Arthur Jasmine, Frederic Peters, Louis Dumar.

Oscar Wilde's 1892 retelling of the Bible story of Salome, who danced before Herod to win the death of John the Baptist, was considered so depraved that the High Lord Chamberlain of England refused to grant it a license for public performance—and in the wake of Wilde's scandalous exposure as a homosexual and his subsequent imprisonment, all of Wilde's plays were swept from the stage.  Wilde, who died in 1900, never saw his play publicly performed.

The worth of Wilde's plays were reestablished by the 1920s, but even so Salome, with its convoluted and exotic language and hothouse sense of depravity, remained something of a theatrical untouchable—and certainly so where the screen was concerned.  No one dared consider it until Russian-born Alla Nazimova, who is generally credited with bringing Stanislaski technique to the New York stage, decided to film it in 1923.

It proved a disaster.  Theatergoers in large cities might be prepared to accept Wilde's lighter plays, but Main Street America was an entirely different matter—especially where the notorious Salome was concerned, particularly when the film was dogged hints of Nazimova's lesbianism and by the rumor that it had been done with an "all Gay cast" in honor of Wilde himself.  Critics, censors, and the public damned the film right and left.  It received only limited distribution and faded quickly from view.  Even so, the legend of both the film and its exotic star grew over time.

Given that much of the original play's power is in Wilde's language, Salome suffers from translation to silent film—the title cards are often awkwardly long, and in general fail to convey the tone of Wilde's voice; moreover, the convolutions of the original have been necessarily simplified for the silent form.  Even so, it is a remarkable thing in a purely visual sense.  Directed in a deliberately flat style by Charles Bryant and designed by Natacha Rambova (wife of Valentino—she would also design Nazimova's silent Camille), the look of the film seeks to reproduce the play script's equally infamous illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley—and succeeds to a remarkable degree.

And then there is Nazimova herself.  Well into her forties at the time she played the teenage Salome, Nazimova is an electric presence: while she often shows her years in close up, she is remarkably effective in capturing the willful, petulant, and ultimately depraved Salome in facial expression and body posture, balancing an over-the-top style with moments of quiet realism to most remarkable effect.  The supporting cast is also quite memorable, with Mitchell Lewis (Herod) and Rose Dionne (Herodias) particularly notable.

I would hesitate to recommend this film to anyone other they are already well versed in silent movies—and even then I would warn that it is unlikely to be what you thought it would.  Still, this is a classic of its kind, and fans of silent cinema are urged to see it.

Gary F. Taylor
Internet Movie Database