by Ryan Smillie
While 1923 saw the then-record-breaking release of Cecil B. DeMille’s original Ten Commandments, another Biblical drama found a much smaller audience, but today seems no less momentous a release. Alla Nazimova’s Salomé is by no means an epic - it runs a brisk 74 minutes and was filmed entirely on one set - but what Nazimova (as producer, star and rumored director) was able to capture under such limited conditions was unprecedented.
Alla Nazimova started her career as a theater actress - first in her native Russia and then on Broadway. After nearly a decade of success in New York, she found her way into the nascent film industry with the 1916 screen adaptation of her notorious play War Brides. Within a year, she had moved to Hollywood and negotiated one of the most lucrative studio contracts of the time. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Nazimova took a strong authorial role on most of her projects, either writing, directing or producing the majority of the films in which she starred. Salomé, Nazimova’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play, is one of the last films she was able to make, one of her few films that has not been lost and a strikingly personal artistic statement.
Controversial upon its first publication (a mere thirty years before Nazimova’s adaptation), Wilde’s play dramatized the Biblical story of Salomé, who dances for her lustful stepfather and then demands John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Wilde’s depiction of Biblical characters, emphasis on Salomé’s sexuality and inclusion of a clearly queer subtext saw the play banned from the English stage until 1931. In pre-Hayes Code Hollywood, however, Nazimova was able to explore these aspects without limit. Nazimova, who was openly bisexual, assembled a cast (rumored to be entirely gay and bisexual) and crew, including her purported lover Natacha Rambova as writer and art director, and created America’s first art film.
Unlike the popular historical epics of the time, Nazimova’s Salomé took no pains to present any sense of historical accuracy. Instead, the film seems almost divorced from time, with Rambova’s ornate set taking its inspiration from Aubrey Beardsley’s original (and also controversial) illustrations, both decadent and grotesque. The men, women, and men dressed as women of the cast are all costumed in skimpy, Art Deco styles, most notably the 44-year-old Nazimova’s sleek black minidress and elaborate wig covered in pearl-like baubles, meant to evoke the teenage coquette she ostensibly plays.
While Lillian Gish and Maria Falconetti earned acclaim at the time for their remarkable (and then-novel) subtle performances, Nazimova continued to affect a more theatrical style, especially in Salomé, where the movement of her body is just as expressive as her face is exaggerated. Though this style of acting was already beginning to be considered outré, here, this deliberate, bold style of acting emphasizes the film’s rejection of seeming reality in favor of a more emotional and excessive approach.
With Nazimova so prominently involved in the creation of this film, it is difficult to completely separate Nazimova and the character of Salomé. In fact, their two stories are remarkably similar. Both begin in a position of power, Nazimova as a highly-paid and well-respected actress, Salomé as the princess of Judea, with a burgeoning sexuality that captivates the men of the court. That power, then, is harnessed to push the boundaries of what is expected or acceptable. Nazimova self-funds a queer-coded art film in an era of historical epics and light comedies, while Salomé exploits her stepfather’s desire to avenge her rejection by John the Baptist.
Following her famous dance of the seven veils, and as her servants hesitate before descending into John the Baptist’s cell, Salomé, now bedecked in an extra-long kimono and a blunt bob wig, fills the screen as she raises a sword, ready to behead John the Baptist herself if need be. This image is inseparable from Nazimova, who seems to be doing the very same thing. If no one was going to make the movies that she wanted to star in, then she’d have to do it herself. And while Salomé never has to follow through on her threat to decapitate the man who scorned her, Nazimova did use her money, connections and creative energy to carve out a niche in the film industry for herself.
Unfortunately, both Nazimova and Salomé’s glory is short-lived. After John the Baptist’s head is brought to Salomé and she finally sates her desire and kisses his severed head, her stepfather orders that she is to be executed. Nazimova’s fate, while not quite as drastic, was still a precipitous fall. Upon completing the film, Nazimova was unable to secure any significant distribution for Salomé, and the losses from its production forced her company out of business. Nazimova left Hollywood and returned to the stage, and most of her films faded into obscurity, with only a handful not considered lost today.
Though Nazimova’s films never made as much of an impact as those of her fellow (mostly male) early film pioneers, there exists a clear through-line from her films to the work of later directors. Maya Deren’s experimental short films, though staged in a more realistic setting, echo Nazimova’s focus on imagery over plot and her emphasis on a female perspective. Nazimova’s early work with queer themes and actors serves as a sort of prologue to Barbara Hammer’s short films that emphasize queer history and female, usually lesbian, bodies.
That these later female-directed films are much smaller in scale than Nazimova’s Salomé does not seem to be a coincidence. The risk of a film’s underperformance leading to financial ruin is as present today as it was in the 1920s, and an increasing reluctance to back stranger and less “proven” material, creates a barrier for both new forms of cinematic expression and new voices in the film industry. Though the styles and ideas that Nazimova explored in Salomé still reverberate today, it seems hard to imagine a film like it being made. However, as a wave of female-directed films continue to find success - and not only standard-issue blockbusters, but coming-of-age indies, tense historical dramas, French body horror — it seems that Nazimova may have indirectly inspired a new generation of kimono-wearing, sword-wielding women, determined to make the films that they want to see.