The image of Salomé as a Biblical temptress with John the Baptist’s head on a platter has stirred artists’ imaginations for centuries, from Titian and Caravaggio to Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss, and from Gloria Swanson descending the stairs in Sunset Blvd. to Rita Hayworth’s fiery dance of seduction in 1953’s Salomé. One hundred years ago it also inspired actress Alla Nazimova to create what has come down to us as a legendary piece of silent-film art. Made in 1922, it still seems avant-garde today.
Born Adelaida Leventon in 1879 in the Crimean resort of Yalta, Nazimova studied to be a violinist but fell in love with the theater. Contrary to legend, she played only minor roles at the Moscow Art Theater but took from it a lifelong devotion to Stanislavski’s method, exploring each character through her personal experience and then making it her own. When she came to New York with a touring company in 1905 and performed in Russian, audiences were transfixed. After learning English—in just six months—she went on to hold audiences spellbound in plays by Ibsen and Chekhov, inspiring generations of American playwrights and actors, from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams and the Lunts to Laurette Taylor. She came to be considered on a par with stage legends Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse.
Inevitably, Hollywood rolled out the red carpet. After her debut in Herbert Brenon’s War Brides (1916), Metro signed Nazimova at a record-breaking $13,000 per week. She embraced the California sunshine, became a vegetarian, and built a Spanish-style estate in the Hollywood Hills, complete with a swimming pool and lush gardens, dubbing it “The Garden of Alla” (later famous as a hotel with bungalows populated by celebrities). Around 1919 her box-office power started to wane; she retaliated by decrying the Hollywood scenarios on offer as “kindergartenish.” By 1920 she was determined to gain full artistic control over her films and left Metro to go independent, producing her own films with her own money. Rarely a good idea. She reportedly lost $400,000 on Salomé alone, equivalent to more than $6.6 million today.
Oscar Wilde’s one-act play Salomé of 1891 seems an obvious choice for Nazimova. Originally written (in French) and intended for Sarah Bernhardt, it first found fame in English as a printed text, illustrated by the subversive enfant terrible of the fin-de-siècle art world, Aubrey Beardsley, whose meticulous black-and-white drawings can still produce shock and awe. Nazimova and designer Natacha Rambova had already drawn on Beardsley’s style for their 1921 collaboration Camille, which mixed Art Nouveau and Japonisme. Made the following year, Salomé elegantly combines Beardsley-style visuals with elements from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (also echoing its performance style).
Nazimova and Rambova set out to elevate the movies by creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total work of art,” uniting design, staging, and gesture to achieve a kind of silent ballet. They worked together on the sets and costumes and whittled down Wilde’s flowery original text to a series of shortened intertitles, dispensing altogether with Herod’s long speeches. It was left to the visuals and acting to convey the story, dominated by Nazimova playing Salomé as an impetuous, headstrong fourteen-year-old girl. At the time the actress was nearing forty-three, but she almost pulls it off with her puerile demeanor and Charles Van Enger’s artful camerawork. With such dominant personalities involved in the production, there was little left for credited director Charles Bryant to do. A British actor whose claim to fame was posing as Nazimova’s husband, he is believed to have made minimal contribution to the film—its true director was Nazimova.
In addition to Nazimova’s charismatic performance (her eyes are mesmerizing), Salomé’s most memorable attractions are the costumes and sets. Money was no object, with Rambova ordering rich lamé, silk, and satin direct from Paris. Some of the headgear is astonishing. Nazimova’s first costume is particularly notable: a short dark lamé tunic topped by an extraordinary headdress with small globes that shimmer and bobble with her every move. (It may still exist. An online image from 2015 reveals it to be a sort of knitted wig-like cap, seemingly embellished with large freshwater pearls mounted on coiled yarn.) Her second main ensemble is for the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” sequence: a striking straight white wig, a short white tunic, and a voluminous sheer white veil. For both tunics Rambova commissioned a tire company to create the foundation garment, an ingenious rubber body sheath that gave Nazimova not only a youthful figure but a posture that still allowed her to move with grace. Nazimova’s third principal costume is a sweeping cloak with a swirling Art Nouveau pattern, worn with a chic satin turban. This ensemble breaks the youthful illusion, making her appear womanly, quite in line with the drama’s climax, as the princess who embraces the prophet’s head. Two other incredible headdresses appear in fantasy sequences: a peacock headdress and a creation of pearls and egret feathers worthy of a Ziegfeld revue. Salomé’s costume changes are integrated into the action, shielded by a formation of female attendants wearing wide-shouldered stiff black capes punctuated by stylized floral designs, a free adaptation of one of Beardsley’s original illustrations.
Salomé was filmed in January and February of 1922 at Hollywood’s Brunton Studios on Melrose Avenue, near present-day Paramount. Its world was created on one big indoor stage, closed to visitors, and divided by a sheer curtain into two big sets. The look of the opening banquet scene was straightforward, with long tables and crowds of characters. The visual heart of the film, however, is found in the more detailed spaces of the terrace beyond, where most of the plot’s important action takes place. The stylized Beardsley-esque Art Nouveau background of the cistern where John the Baptist is held is an undulating metal screen with flowers and tendrils. It is especially striking, fronted as it is by the cage’s curved bars. In a bit of inspired acting, Nazimova’s Salomé swings on the bars like a child and inquisitively peers down into the light.
The film wouldn’t be the great accomplishment it is without the sensitive, atmospheric camerawork and effects of Charles Van Enger and his assistant Paul Ivano. They faced a particularly difficult challenge in creating the shadow of the Angel of Death that flutters on occasion over Salomé and Jokanaan (as John the Baptist is called in Wilde’s play). The Moon is another visual portent, first seen entrancing Salomé with its full clear light, then later transformed into a blood moon obscured by clouds, foreshadowing the prophet’s execution. The film also makes striking use of the pool of light in the cistern, which abruptly disappears when Jokanaan is executed, only to shine eerily from the shield that transports his (unseen) head to Salomé.
The distributor kept the film under wraps for months, during which it reportedly was toned down. (Contemporary reviewers unanimously declared Salomé’s fateful dance decidedly unseductive.) It finally opened at the Criterion in New York in January 1923. Nazimova optimistically but unwisely booked the theater for a four-week run and spent more on advertising and publicity for the first week than the film’s total earnings. When Salomé went into general release that February, Nazimova appealed to exhibitors not to cut or tamper with her film and to present it with a specially prepared score using themes from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. But despite big ads featuring prestige quotes from the critics and some beautiful artwork posters and lobby cards, the film died at the box office, and Nazimova Productions folded. She must have taken comfort, at least, from some of the New York reviews, among them Robert E. Sherwood’s assessment that it was “the most extraordinarily beautiful picture that has ever been produced.” He went on to say, “Salomé possessed many dramatic defects, but as a spectacle for the eye, it was absolutely superlative.” The defects remain; but it still stands as the 1920s American art film par excellence, a daring experiment that can still enthrall with its imaginative design and Nazimova’s hypnotic presence.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble