THE ODDEST MOTION PICTURE EVER?

You have seen Le Sang d’un poète; you have perhaps devoured the works of James Whale, Federico Fellini, and Edward D. Wood, Jr.—but what do you know of Nazimova?

Actress, dancer, director, producer, artist, and genuine mystery woman in an age of would-be mystery women, Nazimova (or Alla Nazimova, but she usually went by the one name only) was a big star in 1922. By 1923, she was back to Broadway, having used up all her own money and the patience of her backers producing bizarre art films that no one would go to see—or in the case of this one, even distribute.

Salomé is a silent adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play by the same name. The look of the whole film was inspired by the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, although modern viewers are also likely to think of Dr. Seuss, especially in the costumes, designed by Natacha Rambova (Rudolph Valentino’s wife, but Nazimova’s “constant companion,” as they used to say in the gossip rags). Charles Bryant (Nazimova’s nominal husband) is the listed director, but Nazimova conceived the project, paid for the film, and was well known as the authority on set, director or no director.

What shall we say about this picture? It walks the knife edge between sublime art and risible pretension. If you have never seen it, then you have never seen anything remotely like it. Nothing is naturalistic: the actors move like dancers; the sets are abstract and very much show their derivation from Beardsley’s illustrations; the costumes are cartoonish. A Beardsleyesque moon makes such frequent appearances that it becomes a character itself. Nazimova as Salomé is an unforgettable experience; with stars in her hair, she moves like some unknown species of creature, not quite feline but not quite human. In short, the ideas of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley are filtered through the utter weirdness that was Nazimova. She was as bizarre in real life as she was on film, with a house that was like a set from a German Expressionist horror movie and an embarrassing habit of seducing Hollywood leading men’s wives—embarrassing, that is, to the men, though apparently not at all to Nazimova. You may suspect, on seeing Salomé, that Nazomova was not the only one in the film whose sexual orientation would have been considered unorthodox in 1923.

So if you are ready for five reels of utter strangeness, you can see the film below. Two versions can be found on Archive.org. This one is a reasonably clear print, with original (or restored) tinting, an effective modernist score played by a small orchestra, and German translations of the titles:

Here is another print, lower resolution, but with an interesting original score by Edward Boensnes, who makes a hobby of composing original scores for silent films:

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Comments

  1. Captain DaFt says:

    Nicely odd, but have you ever seen the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo’s Forbidden Zone?

    A low budget cult classic that featured Hervé Villechaize’s only performance as a lead actor.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080752/

    Worryingly, there’s rumors of a sequel in the works.

  2. Ben Ieghn says:

    This film leaves little doubt to what I have suspected from the very beginning, that Dr. Boli patterned his lovely Femme Fatale Gertrude Snyder after Salomé when he wrote, “The Crimes of Galahad”; and certainly he must’ve envisioned the talented and enchanting star of stage and screen, Miss Nazimova, for the role of Gertrude, and the difficult but equally talented, Nigel DeBrulier for the starring role of Galahad, in the film version of his now classic novel. And, I am certain it would have come to pass if Nigel hadn’t gone and lost his head on the set of “Salomé”, while playing the role of Jokanaan.

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