#418) Salome (1923)
OR “Baptism by Ire”
Directed by Charles Bryant (and an uncredited Alla Nazimova)
Written by Alla Nazimova and Natacha Rambova. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde.
Class of 2000
The Plot: Loosely based on the Oscar Wilde play (which in turn is loosely based on the New Testament story), Salome (Alla Nazimova) is the daughter of Herodias (Rose Dion) and stepdaughter of Herod the Tetrarch (Mitchell Lewis). During a royal banquet, Salome encounters Jokanaan the Prophet, aka John the Baptist (Nigel De Brulier), imprisoned for his criticism of Herod’s marriage to Herodias (the ex-wife of Herod’s half-brother). Salome declares her love for Jokanaan, who quickly rebuffs her. When Herod requests that Salome dance the provocative Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome agrees on the condition that Jokanaan’s head be brought to her on a silver platter! Hell hath no fury like a biblical figure scorned.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “one of the earliest examples of surrealism in film” and praises the sets and “flamboyant” costume design. An essay by film expert Martin Turnbull argues that Alla Nazimova was an artist ahead of her time.
But Does It Really?: After feeling decidedly “meh” after watching this film, it was the aforementioned Turnbull essay that convinced me to give “Salome” a pass. As a whole, the film’s emphasis on surrealism mixed with its glacially slow pacing makes for a challenging watch, but it does represent Alla Nazimova, an artist whose brief Hollywood tenure deserves a mention. Neither Nazimova nor “Salome” are integral to film history, but, like many others on this list, they are “figures in the carpet” that provide more details to a specific era of filmmaking.
Everybody Gets One: A student of Constantin Stanislavski, Alla Nazimova was the toast of the European theater scene of the early 1900s. Her move to New York and Broadway were equally successful, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood became interested in film adaptations of Alla’s stage work. By the late 1910s, Nazimova had moved to Hollywood and was one of the highest paid actors of the day. Eventually, she sought more creative control over projects, “Salome” being a prime example: she is credited for acting and writing, did uncredited directing, distributed the film through her own Nazimova Productions, and even financed the entire project ($350,000, roughly 5 million today).
- The film’s director Charles Bryant was not only an actor-turned-director, but he was also Alla Nazimova’s husband. The two appeared together in a series of films for Metro before both jumped ship for Nazimova Productions. It was revealed years later that theirs was a lavender marriage, most likely to help mask Alla’s bisexuality. The couple separated shortly after the financial failure of “Salome”.
- For the record, the story of John the Baptist’s beheading is covered in only a few passages in the Book of Mark. They don’t even mention Salome by name! The Oscar Wilde play is one act, his major contribution to the story being the Dance of the Seven Veils. And that’s about as much padding as this story can handle.
- The first chunk of this movie is intertitles explaining the story of Salome and introducing all the characters. It eats up a lot of screentime. This is why no one watches silent films anymore; who wants to read their movie?
- Shoutout to Natacha Rambova, the film’s costume and production designer. Rambova was inspired by the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley in the original publication of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”. The result is quite outlandish, but not soon to be forgotten: from the film’s minimalist set (shot entirely indoors for maximum lighting effects) to its elaborate, Roman-Empire-by-way-of-Art-Deco costumes. Fun Fact: Rambova was briefly married to Rudolph Valentino.
- “Salome” has joined the elite group of NFR films for which one of my notes simply reads “What is happening?” Part of that is this film’s assumption that you’re familiar with the story of “Salome”, and the other part is the film’s pacing being epically slow. Everything is such an ordeal: John takes forever to reject Salome, Salome takes forever telling Herod what her wish is, everyone takes forever doing everything! I know the emphasis is on the visuals rather than the story, but please have mercy on the little bit of plot there is.
- In case you missed it, the film’s main thesis plays at both the beginning and the end: “The Mystery of Love is Greater Than the Mystery of Death”.
- “Salome” was a critical and commercial flop when it opened and, combined with her other big-budget failures, led to Nazimova’s bankruptcy and departure from Hollywood. She briefly returned in the early 1940s as a supporting actor in sound films, ironically living in a hotel that had once been her mansion (the infamous “Garden of Allah”). Alla Nazimova died in 1945, several decades before her movies would be rediscovered and reappraised.
- Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” has been revived and referenced from time to time, most recently in 2011’s docudrama “Wilde Salome” directed by Al Pacino and starring Jessica Chastain.
- There have been a few film remakes of “Salome” over the years, but the most notable is an ultimately abandoned epic circa 1950 that was meant as a comeback vehicle for silent film star Norma Desmond.