by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was an item we got recently: the 1923 silent film of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, starring the 42-year-old Alla Nazimova in the title role. She had just extricated herself from her contract with Metro Pictures, where she’d made the marvelous 1922 silent version of Camille with set designs by her girlfriend de jour, Natacha Rambova (who later married the male lead of Camille, Rudolph Valentino, and infamously tried to run his career), and she not only starred in Salomé, she produced it and she and her (platonic) husband Charles Bryant co-directed and also co-financed it — and lost every penny of the $350,000 they put into it, leaving them broke. It was widely rumored that Nazimova had insisted that all the cast and crew members be Lesbian or Gay, which may well have led to the film’s disastrous box-office failure. (Nazimova went on to make two potboilers for First National and then retired from screen acting in 1925 and was forced to sell her mansion, the Garden of Allah, which was broken up into individual rooms and turned into a rooming house. Later on Nazimova ended up renting a room in the mansion she had once owned, which struck me as the sort of plot situation Nazimova’s nephew, the great horror producer Val Lewton, would have used. Ultimately she made a late-in-life comeback in 1940 in the film Escape and for the remaining five years of her life she worked steadily in character roles in films.)
It’s part of the bizarre luck of the draw of film preservation that many far more popular silent films are lost completely and Salomé survives, not only intact but still carrying its original titles (more important than for most silent films because Rambova designed the title cards to match her sets), and though one can see why it didn’t attract an audience in 1923, it remains an absolutely amazing film. The story is pretty familiar to anyone who’s a fan of Wilde or Richard Strauss, who based his most successful opera on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s French-language play (Wilde wrote it in French in hopes Sarah Bernhardt would act in it; Wilde’s boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas, translated it into English in what’s become the standard version; it had its premiere in Paris in 1897 and wasn’t performed in England until 1931): it’s set in the court of Herod (Mitchell Lewis), who has had the prophet Jokanaan (Nigel de Brulier), better known as John the Baptist, imprisoned in a disused well on the palace grounds. Herod killed his brother to become the Tetrarch (ruler) of Judea, then married his brother’s widow, Herodias (Rose Dione), only now the decadent Herod is bored with Herodias and has the hots for her daughter Salomé (Nazimova).
The lust-crazed Herod is obsessed with getting Salomé to dance for him, and offers her blandishments ranging from half his kingdom to piles of jewels, rare peacocks and the like, but after she does the dance she insists on having the head of Jokanaan served to her in a silver platter. Throughout the play (and the film) Herodias has insisted that her husband have the prophet executed, which he’s been reluctant to do because he fears an uprising from the Jews if he does so — only a bargain is a bargain, so Herod has his executioner (Frederick Peters) behead Jokanaan and bring his head to Salomé on the proverbial silver platter — and Salomé shocks even Herod and the rest of the court by kissing the head’s lips (earlier she’d made a pass at the prophet and been rejected), so Herod orders her killed by his soldiers, who crush her with their shields. In Wilde’s retelling the Biblical tale is filled out with various other characters, notably Narraboth (Earl Schenck), one of the queeniest screen presences in cinema history, who commits suicide when Salomé rejects him.
The edition we were watching was from the German ARTE TV network, with German subtitles run under the original English titles — which gave the odd impression that Salomé was a German film: certainly it looks much more like a German film than anything else being made in the U.S. at the time, with its frankly nonrealistic sets (which Rambova — who also wrote the script under the pseudonym “Peter M. Winters” — designed based on the drawings Aubrey Beardsley had supplied for the printed edition of Wilde’s play) and heavily stylized acting. It’s a rather slow-paced film — Nazimova, Bryant, Rambova or whoever directed it didn’t have much of a flair for suspense (and Robert Wiene had proven in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that you could make a film with stylized sets, costumes and acting and still make it fast-paced and exciting) — but it also creates an absolutely vivid mood, and within the limits of the decadent style it’s also quite well acted.
Nazimova was way too old for her part (one wonders whether this film inspired Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in which a 50-something actress plots her screen comeback in an adaptation of Salomé she’s written herself) but that’s only apparent in some of the close-ups, where Charles Van Unger’s camera “outs” Nazimova, even through her heavy rice-paper makeup, as a well-preserved but still middle-aged woman. She’s utterly convincing otherwise, using slight changes in expression and posture (and major changes in hairdo — she starts out wearing the “Jewish natural” wig, with what looks like bits of cotton in it, she’d worn in Camille; later she wears a mushroom-shaped wig surprisingly similar to the main one Lady Gaga uses, though Nazimova’s is white whereas Gaga’s is black; and finally she wears her hair black with a severe white scarf tying it down) to suggest Salomé’s evolution from innocent teenager to kinky sexual explorer to hard-core decadent at the end. I remember an article in the late, lamented Films in Review magazine that tried to come to an overview of Nazimova’s silent-film career even though this was the only movie of hers the author was able to see (mostly he was going by either production stills or surviving trailers for otherwise lost films), and he found it almost unbearably static and said Nigel de Brulier (looking considerably hunkier than he did in his later character roles) was the only actor who brought his character to life; the pace is slow (slower than it needs to be) and the full flavor of Wilde’s dialogue is missed (though the Jews, with their endless religious quarrels, are caricatured just as effectively in the visual medium as Wilde did it in words), but Salomé is a movie that draws one in to its world of decadence and, like its source play, is obviously more interested in exploring sexual obsession than offering the moral lesson of the Biblical tale that was its source.
One quibble I have with this version is the music, some rather doleful noodlings with a string quartet and an occasional brass instrument; one Ulderico Marcelli put this score together, but with Strauss’s opera having long since entered the public domain, a score based on his themes would have been far more effective (and at the same time the stylized but still “period” look of this film would offer an excellent model to anyone producing the opera!).