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Starring the tempestuous, Russian-born Alla Nazimova, Salome adapts the controversial Oscar Wilde play with an abundance of sumptuously fantastic visuals. Loosely based on the Biblical story, this saga of King Herod and his unbridled lust for his young stepdaughter leads to the haughty Salome's demand of the head of John the Baptist in exchange for an alluring dance. Hailed as America's first art film, this striking evocation of a fantastic, surreal era of perpetual night and rampant debauchery still retains its power to shock and captivate. No less remarkable is Lot in Sodom, a sensual depiction of the Sodom and Gomorrah story filled with sinewy and semi-clad bodies, delirious bacchanales devoted to physical pleasure, and a searing, cataclysmic finale depicting the fall of a city devoted to sins of the flesh. Both films are digitally mastered from excellent 35mm elements. Salome includes a choice of an orchestral score composed and conducted by Marc-Olivier Dupin and a score composed and performed by Silent Orchestra (Carlos Garza and Rich O'Meara). Lot In Sodom has its original experimental soundtrack by Alec Wilder.
It might be sort of heretical to admit, but I never really cared that much for Oscar Wilde’s “comedy of manners” stage plays. Part of it might be that during high school I was a “techie” for a production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. It was a dreadful production that toured to about seven other schools. I can recite every line from the script even today. Another factor is that Wilde’s plays primarily deal with the artificial British upper class of the late 1800’s. Not my favorite milieu. His play SALOMÉ is not my favorite either. That being said, I certainly acknowledge Wilde’s literary genius & the cruelty he was subjected to by the very society he was trying to entertain.
There is one quote from Lady Windermere’s Fan” that’s great. The actor describes his thoughts on the English pastime of fox hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.”
I do enjoy Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of the play. They combine Art Nouveau, Symbolism & Decadence. His work in general is often sexually charged, with dark, even homicidal tones. It was the perfect illustration for a dark, decadent script that also had distinct homosexual overtones. Alla Nazimova (this was way before the Nazi Movement and the actress had no association with them) was the protogé of Natacha Rambova, second wife of silent film heart throb Rudolph Valentino.
They formed an interesting trio, to say the least. A lot of (Caucasian) American men felt threatened by Valentino’s sauve handsomeness & sensitive male charisma. There were allegations that the three were in some sort of open “lavendar (gay) marriage.” Valentino really suffered as a result of this Flapper Age homophobia.
Valentino did not participate in SALOMÉ.
The production was “the Baby” of Rambova & Nazimova.
Rambova focused on the overall set design & Nazimova, of course, was to play the lead. There is no doubt that both women were probably artistically ahead of their time, particularly in post-World War I America. They did have the cache of Russian ancestry that seemed to appeal to a romantic segment of the population. But the allure of doomed Tsarist beauties & poetic male lovers could not save SALOMÉ
So what was so “naughty” in the film that bristled censors from Hollywood to Maine?
It’s a difficult movie to write about because it really is bizarre & extraordinarily different—certainly different from any other commercial release at the time. The homosexual overtones are obvious and this in itself would set up a barrier to wide distribution of the film. The plot can easily be seen as a slap in the face to traditional Christianity—and Fundamentalist elements would go absolutely ballistic if they viewed.
The overall “feel” to SALOMÉ is very faithful to Beardsley’s decadent, “far-out” in interpretation. That I liked. There are European expressionist, Fritz Lang elements I liked as well. This isn’t a straight-forward (pun intended) interpretation of the Biblical story. Herod is a white-faced evil clown who appears to have a melting face. His wife, the wicked Herodias, is an overweight, alcoholic cave woman with impossibly enormous hair, wearing painted leotards. She pounces around the set rapidly alternating between rage, lechery & glee. She was pretty funny—and I liked that as well.
Another comic element was the depiction of the Sanhedrin, the Council of Jewish Elders. They were presented as 3 very short men (who could pass as triplets) dressed in oversized turbans & vestments straight off the vaudeville circuit. I’m not sure if the humor was intentional or not. So, go figure…
Now we arrive at Nazimova’s Salomé.
For starters, I didn’t see anything very seductive about her. It’s true that the actress was middle aged, playing a girl not yet 18 (in fact, if there really was a Biblical Salomé, she could have been even much younger.) Nazimova was known for her beauty, and while it was not unusual for actresses of the time to play much younger women, this didn’t “work” for me. Certain long shots of Nazimova did suggest a young girl with a lithe, dancer's form. But close-up shots were less flattering. The white make-up & dark eyeliner (typical to this era of filmmaking) actually appeared to add to the actress’ years.
For me the most disappointing scene in the SALOMÉ was the all-important Dance of the Seven Veils. I can’t believe that an actress with Nazimova’s background would be so lame as to deliberately allow herself to look so ridiculous. My idea of the Seven Veils Dance is Rita Hayworth coquetishly letting each of the seven veils slowly fall in an extraordinarily erotic, saturated technocolor routine.