Synopsis: Young Salomé (Alla Nazimova) lives the pampered life of a princess under the rule of her uncle and stepfather Herod (Mitchell Lewis), who has killed his own brother to usurp his thrown and marry his wife Herodias (Rose Dione). However, Herod makes no effort to hide his lust for the lithe and youthful Salomé, who repeatedly rejects the king’s invitations to dance. Instead she longs for the love and affection of the mysterious prisoner Jokaanan (Nigel De Brulier), an ascetic prophet of God who spurns the princess’ advances and denounces her wicked family, screaming epithets from his underground cell. Salomé, not used to not getting what she wants, finally agrees to dance for Herod – but only if, in exchange, he agrees to carry out her revenge against Jokaanan.
No discussion of the history of LGBTQs in Hollywood would be complete without some acknowledgment of Alla Nazimova. Born in Russia in 1879, Nazimova was already a hugely successful Broadway star by the time she made her film debut in 1916’s War Brides. By 1917 she was earning an incredible $13,000 a week through her contract with Metro Pictures. In 1918 she made the big move to Hollywood, where the star was truly allowed to blossom. Her sprawling 3.5-acre estate, the Garden of Alla, included a swimming pool shaped like the Black Sea surrounded by twenty-five chic bungalows, where Hollywood’s finest, of all sexual persuasions and proclivities, came to enjoy and indulge themselves away from the prying eyes of the public and studio executives. Nazimova herself was a huge proponent of free (and frequent) love; her paramours included actress Eva Le Gallienne, director Dorothy Arzner, anarchist Emma Goldman, and writer and Garbo girlfriend Mercedes de Acosta. Not only did Nazimova coin the phrase “sewing circles” to describe the underground social and romantic network of lesbian and bisexual actresses in early Hollywood – she practically invented the practice.
The rumor about Salomé is that, to honor the playwright Oscar Wilde, from whose treatment of the biblical legend the film was adapted, Nazimova (who acted as sole producer on the film) peopled the entire cast and crew with homosexual and bisexual performers. This is obviously impossible to prove, as the life stories of so many of the actors who appear in this film have been lost to the ages. Of course Nazimova herself, at age 44, plays the titular 14-year-old; the film is directed by her husband Charles Bryant, but their marriage was known to be one of convenience rather than mutual attraction. The script, sets and costumes were crafted by Nazimova protégée Natacha Rambova, who that same year entered into an (allegedly) lavender marriage with the great Rudolph Valentino. Whether Nazimova and Rambova’s relationship was ever a romantic one remains a matter of speculation. Whether the gay cast rumor is true or not, with Nazimova and Bryant at the helm, the film still maintains its queer cred.
Rambova modeled her sets and costumes after the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley; in her hands this translates into something like Art Deco meets Dr. Seuss, but the visual impact cannot be denied. The use of stark contrasts and oversized embellishments – the set and costumes are said to have been done entirely in black, white, and metallics, to best mimic Beardsley’s original drawings – are reminiscent of some of the best in silent German Expressionism. Furthermore, Nazimova camps it up to the extreme, throwing her little head around petulantly like a real 14-year-old would do. Pretty much everybody in the cast is guilty of committing the dreaded “silent film acting,” but here it feels completely appropriate. Rose Dione should roll her eyes and gnash her teeth if she’s going to be running around with the hair of a Circassian beauty and the leggings out of a bad 1980s workout tape. The entire scenario is dream-like and surreal, not at all meant to be taking place in the real world; I’m tempted to label it a “silent musical,” as it comes across very much like a ballet, only slightly less prissy (in that nobody’s walking around on their toes the whole time, but the actors’ movements do approach that point).
The whole production is overwrought and exaggerated, but I like my silent films to be overwrought and exaggerated. It’s true that Rambova’s stylistic choices oftentimes come across as patently ridiculous, and it’s hard to tell if this is intentional, the work of an amateur, or if palace guards with painted nipples and giant pearl necklaces are just too chic for us and we’re just not sophisticated enough to understand her vision. Perhaps it’s a mixture of all these things. After all, what could be a better tribute to a subversive author than to take a biblical parable and turn it into one big, silly, hedonistic joke?
While Nazimova’s intentions behind Salomé remain a mystery, contemporary audiences just couldn’t appreciate whatever it was she was trying to do. The film bombed, her production company folded, and the once-luminous star was now flat broke. Like many works by pioneering queer filmmakers, Nazimova’s Salomé has been labeled “ahead of its time.” It’s now nearly ninety years later and I still can’t say I completely understand it. Nevertheless, I think it’s a definite treat for the eyes and a bold, if not entirely successful, experiment in nontraditional film making. Watch it for the camp value, watch it for Rambova’s jaw-dropping aesthetics, or just watch it to see the legendary Nazimova in all her flamboyant glory. No matter what you get out of it, Salomé is a culturally and artistically significant film that’s definitely worth a look.
Salomé (1923) – 4/5 stars