I was recently approached by Library of Congress’ National Film Preservation Board to write an essay on Alla Nazimova’s movie of “Salome” (1923). The Board was established in 1988 to ensure the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America’s film heritage. I was very happy (and flattered) to contribute the following essay.
Essay for the National Film Preservation Board.
Although little remembered today, Russian-born actress Alla Nazimova was a major star of Broadway in the early 1910s. Inevitably, her enormous success on the dramatic stage led to attracting the attention of the nascent film industry. It was Metro Pictures (later of MGM fame) who signed Nazimova in 1918 at an unprecedented salary of $13,000 a week (at a time when the queen of silent cinema, Mary Pickford, was earning $10,000) and brought her west to Hollywood. Setting herself up in a mansion that sat on a 2.5-acre block at Sunset Boulevard (which, ten years later, would be transformed into the Garden of Allah Hotel), Alla set about conquering Hollywood in the same way she’d set the Great White Way aflame.
At first, she did extraordinarily well, playing a gypsy in Toys of Fate (1918), a sheik’s daughter in Eye for an Eye (1918), and unwed mother in Out of the Fog (1919), and Chinese half-sisters in The Red Lantern (1919). Other hits like The Brat (1919) and Madame Peacock followed (1920.)
By the start of the 1920s, however, Nazimova grew restless with playing the puppet and wanted more control over the films she appeared in. On the set of Billions (1920) Nazimova met an equally ambitious and talented costumer / set designer / art director, Natacha Rambova who created the art direction and costume designs for Nazimova’s next vehicle, Camille (1921). With its ultra-modern design, the film was deemed ahead of its time and received varied critical reaction, and enjoyed only moderate success.
After its release, Nazimova and Metro went their separate ways, and Alla turned to producing her own films through her production company, Nazimova Productions. Although the history of early cinema is punctuated with the contributions of many women (screenwriters Frances Marion, June Mathis, Lenore Coffee and Anita Loos; directors Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner), Nazimova took charge of every aspect of her career, much in the same way as Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith did in 1919 when they formed United Artists.
Her first independent feature was a film of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1922), released through United Artists. Although it was a critical hit, it was far from a commercial success. However, Nazimova had tasted independence and wanted more of it, and set her sights on making what she wanted to be her greatest achievement: a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (1923.)
Inspired by the artwork of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, Nazimova and Rambova set about making a version of Salomé such as 1920s filmgoers had never seen. Even by today’s standards, the film’s art direction reached for the outer limits of avant-garde.
Nothing on screen is designed to suggest first century Roman Empire. Instead, Nazimova sought to recast Wilde’s one-act play in a world where the ruling aesthetic is Art Nouveau meets searing minimalism meets Hollywood decadence. This is a world where wigs come fitted with glowing baubles, actors wear stockings patterned in palm-sized fish scales, and king’s yes-men don headdresses that resemble giant, glittering conches.
Although it had its supporters—in its review, Photoplay Magazine said, “A hothouse orchid of decadent passion . . . You have your warning: this is bizarre stuff”—it’s not hard to see why moviegoers barely knew what to make of this astonishing spectacle. After all, this was 1923, and people wanted The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Lon Chaney; Zaza, with Gloria Swanson; and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
In Salomé what they got was a 42-year-old lead actress playing a teenager sporting cinema’s first micro-mini skirt as she performed a dance of the seven veils accompanied by chorus girls decked out in two-foot shoulder pads.
The world wasn’t ready for Nazimova’s inspired vision for Salomé and the film flopped badly. Consequently, Nazimova lost the ton of money she sunk into the film. She made a couple more movies, but was unable to recover financially, and left the movie industry in 1925, returning to the theater until the 1940s when she experienced a minor career second wind before her premature death in 1945.
However, when seen through 21st century eyes, Salomé is a phantasmagoria of striking images, unbridled sensuality, and fearless storytelling. It also leaves the viewer with the lingering sense that if Alla Nazimova had the good fortune to come along a hundred years later than she did, she’d have found a world with its arms thrust wide open to embrace the groundbreaking artist that she was.
Martin Turnbull is the author of the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels, set in and around the Garden of Allah Hotel during Hollywood’s golden era.
National Film Preservation Board’s website
The NFPB’s Index of Film Essays
Salomé essay on NFPB’s website