Monday, June 22, 2015

That Other Salome: 1923 Silent Classic

After what seemed like forever I finally got my hands on a copy of this now classic silent starring the then 44 year old Alla Nazimova. With amazing designs by Natacha Rambova (aka Mrs. Rudy Valentino) it is inspired by Beardsley's famous drawings. Yes, at times Nazimova at times looks her age, but then melts into a bizarre girlishness appropriate to the insanity of her charactedr.

In amazing physical shape, Nazimova often isn't wearing, sometimes bringing focus to her wig with that crown of bobbing lights. It is one of the coolest headdresses created for film. She is never subtle, but what would be the purpose of that in a silent film? What she is is electrifying, captivating even when standing still and striking one of her trademark poses, evoking, at times, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (perhaps even inspiring Ms. Swanson?).

Earl Schenck is both beautiful and bizarre as Narraboth, in his harlequin painted tights, silver nipple discs and a necklace of beads as big as golf balls. He moves like a dancer.

Arthur Jasmine as The Page is about the feyest creature I've ever seen on screen and like everything else about this Salome, completely over the top.

No one, however, is more over-the-top than Rose Dione's termagant Herodias. Clawing, kicking Narraboth and her slaves, drunkenly flirting with a table guest hers is a frightening comical presence. She is not helped by her cave-woman hair and the most garishly painted tights in the film. Dione would later gain her "real" fame as the wonderful Madame Tetrallini in the film classic Freaks. There were moments where I thought "Cher as Morticia Addams."

Nigel De Brulier's Jokanaan seems to be modeled after Wilde himself. Nearly naked (as is much of the cast) he is positively sepulchral, his white, white skin almost glowing blue.

Interestingly there is a choice of soundtracks and I couldn't settle on one. Ultimately I ended up preferring the electronic score with "Invisible Orchestra" - a two man operation of keyboards and percussion, over the somewhat Strauss-lite, and flute heavy chamber orchestra accompaniment.

The famous dance is mesmerizing, Nazimova barely moving but riveting the attention. After the dance and execution, Nazimova's Salome is transformed by the most elaborate costume of the show, an eye-poopping gown worn beneath an enormous Turandot-like robe, completely with a stage filling train, her eyelids painted and topping everything off with a turban. Straight out of Beardsley, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Even more fun - and more visually impressive - was the bonus feature accompanying the film: Lot in Sodom. Lots of bared flesh, time-lapsed photography creating breathtakingly modern images for a film of its time.

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